The second of the first historical events of July 1969 happened in my small country, Uganda, now known as the Land of the African Martyrs among the Christian faithful.
Exactly eleven days after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had walked on the moon, His Holiness Pope Paul V1, the 262 successor of St. Peter, visited an African country for the first time in the history of the Catholic Church! Available information online indicate that the Pope’s decision to visit Uganda, a country with poor infrastructure, had met some resistance in the Vatican. But it was the same Pope who had canonized the 22 Ugandan martyrs on the 18th October 1964. They had been beatified by the Catholic Church in 1920. These young men were pages in the royal court and were between 15 and 30 years of age.
They were burned alive in pyres under the orders of the then king of Buganda, Mwanga 11, for not denouncing their faith between 31st January 1885 and 27th January 1887. A simple structure was constructed at this site by an individual but then later the current Namugongo Martyrs’ Shrine was started in 1967 under the supervision of the late Cardinal Emmanuel Nsubuga and was completed in 1975.
I grew up hearing people talk of an impossible situation as : “It cannot happen even if you called the Pope”. Simply translated it meant that it was as unlikely to happen as the Pope’s visit.
On the 31st July, this phrase was dropped out of the language.
I am a Protestant but my mother is a staunch Catholic, a student of Mother Kevin, the Irish Nun of the Franciscan Sisters for Africa, who founded Uganda’s most prestigious all-girl boarding school , Mount Saint Mary’s College Namagunga in 1942.
My father had invitation cards to attend the functions at Lubaga Cathederal and Mulago hospital while my mother preferred to attend the Mass at the Martyrs Shrine in Namugongo. Later she was in attendance at the Vatican when Pope John Paul 11 beatified two other Ugandan Martyrs: Daudi Okello and Jildo Irwa from Paimol in Northerthern Uganda on 20th October 2002.
Fearing the crowds, I chose to watch it all on the black and white TV at home. Ugandans of all faiths worked harmoniously together to make this historical visit of the Pope successful and memorable. The excitement was palpable in the air; welcome songs were composed and played on the radio and TV. Special stamps and coins were released to mark the occasion along with souvenirs of the Papal flags, Pope’s badges, Pope’s ties, scarves and umbrellas, mugs and trays. A special material to make shirts and traditional wear were made for the occasion.
Once again, my siblings and I were glued on the TV. Around 3:00 pm, an East African Airways Super VC10 landed at Entebbe International Airport. By then cheering crowds were assembled waving both small Ugandan and Papal flags.
When the door was opened, the Pope’s representative in Uganda entered the plane only to come out with the Holy Father dressed in a white cassock over which he wore an elbow-length red shoulder cape. He wore a beige skull cap. The Pope paused and waved to the cheering crowd then walked down the gangway . He knelt down and kissed the ground at 3:13pm then stood up to be received by President Milton Obote and his wife Miria.
President Obote introduced the Pope to four other African leaders- Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia Gregory Kayibanda of Rwanda and Michel Micombero of Burundi as the crowd cheered and waved excitedly. He received a 21 gun salute as the sovereign of the Vatican City State. He was entertained by groups of young dancers from several districts of Uganda. The crowd was delirious with joy, many of them cried tears of joy. The Pope began his crowded agenda immediately.
He drove in an open Lincoln car along the 32 kilometre journey from Entebbe to the Lubaga Cathedral, the nucleus of the three million Catholics of Uganda. The whole stretch of the road was lined with ecstatic crowds.
Crowds thronged the main road to the Cathedral which was also decorated with welcoming arches made of reeds and traditional bark cloth. They sang, drummed, danced and ululated as the Pope passed by. At the cathedral, the Pope was welcomed by Cardinal Laurean Rugambwa of Dar es Salaam Archdiocese and also the first African cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Lubaga cathedral was packed to capacity, the Pope was introduced to the African Bishops and cardinals. He officially closed the episcopical conference of Africa and later he was hosted to a state dinner at the Nakasero State lodge by President Obote.
The following day, the 1st of August, I watched the open Mass celebrated at the Kololo Airstrip in Kampala. The Pope consecrated 12 new African Bishops ,5 of whom were from Uganda. Others came from Kenya, Zambia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Burkina Faso. Fifty Bishops and more than a hundred priests assisted in giving Holy Communion to the masses. In the afternoon , he attended a special session of the Ugandan Parliament and thrilled the invited guests by expressing words of acknowledgement in Luganda, one of the local dialects.
Day 3, Sunday August 2, was the climax of the Pope’s visit. He visited and dedicated the Namugongo Martyrs Shrine, the place where the fearless, young Ugandan martyrs were burnt to death. He first visited the Anglican martyrs site in recognition of the 23 Protestant young men burnt by the Kabaka’s chief executioner, Mukajanga.
At 9:30 he was at the Catholic Martyrs Shrine to lay the foundation stone for a mini –Basilica to commemorate the 22 martyrs burnt at the site. The place was jam-packed with people who wanted to see and touch the Pope at any given opportunity. The Pope kissed the ground where St Charles Lwanga was burnt and consecrated the alter of the shrine. He celebrated Mass assisted by the African Bishops and priests. He baptized 22 young ones and confirmed 22 young men in remembrance of the 22 Catholic Martyrs.
For us the Ugandans, the visit of the Pope was a sign of great hope; something good had come out of the blood that was shed by the young martyrs. The Christian Church had continued to grow after their death and their courage continues to inspire many people worldwide.
By the end of the day, the Pope had officially donated twenty thousand US dollars towards the completion of the Namugongo Catholic Martyrs Shrine.
He left Uganda on the 2nd August close to 7:00pm after what surprised many as a well organized, historical and memorable visit.
The skeptical few at the Vatican had been surprised and won over by the African faith and hospitality!
For the faithful in Uganda, the visit deepened their spirituality and many of them found their way back into the church. It still has a deep and long-lasting effect on the senior citizens of today.
This was a first for the Vatican, Uganda, Africa and the Pope himself and remained his only visit to Africa in his 15 years of reign at the Vatican.
Since then we have welcomed two other reigning Popes. We have deleted completely that local saying: “It will never happen even if you called the Pope.”
No doubt, organizing the first Papal visit to Africa was a huge challenge to Uganda but it gave us the great opportunity to learn how to prepare for such historical visits. Each visit became a better hands-on experience.
Pope John Paul 11 visited us after the invitation of the late Cardinal Emmanuel Nsubuga from 5th – 10th February 1993.
Pope Francis, the smiling Pope, visited Uganda from 27th November to 29th 2015. I was in economic exile in Botswana but out of habit, I watched it all on the television.
The Popes make a pilgrimage to the land of the African Martyrs to touch and see the physical manifestations of our faith in the recent past and at the present time and to connect personally with the saints.
What Indra Ghandi once said, rings so true: “Martyrdom does not end something, it is only a beginning.”
Having two historical firsts in one month has not repeated itself in my life so far. I am thankful that the two events did not run against each other but instead deepened my marvel at the wonders of God’s creation.
Have you ever made a pilgrimage to a holy place? How did it impact your spiritual progress?