Between November 15, 1885 and January 27, 1887, St. Charles Lwagna and many other martyrs gave their lives for the faith in Namugongo, Uganda. Catholicism began to spread there in 1879, when the White Fathers, a congregation of priests, were received peacefully by King Mutesa of Uganda.
The priests began baptizing and converting a number of pages in the king’s court. But after Mutesa died, his son Mwanga, a corrupt man who ritually engaged in pedophilic practices with the young pages, took the throne. After Mwanga had a visiting Anglican bishop murdered, his chief page, Joseph Mukasa, who had been converted and protected the younger boys from the king’s actions, denounced Mwanga. Joseph was beheaded on November 15, 1885.
Charles Lwanga became the chief page at the age of 25. He was also a Catholic, and took on the role of protector for the younger pages. The night that Joseph was martyred, Charles took many of the pages to the White Fathers to be baptized, fearing for their own lives. Another 100 catechumens were baptized in the week after Joseph’s death.
The next May, Mwanga learned that some of the pages were being instructed in the faith, and began to separate the Christians. 15 total pages between the age of 13 to 25 came forward to proclaim their faith, even when the king threatened their lives.
The boys were bound together and forced to walk to Namugongo, two days away, where they would be burned at the stake. On the way, one of the older boys, Matthias Kalemba, told his captors, “God will rescue me. But you will not see how he does it, because he will take my soul and leave you only my body.” The executioners cut him and left him for dead on the road.
At the site where they would be burned, the boys were kept together for 7 days. On June 3, 1886, the Feast of the Ascension, Charles Lwanga was separated from the others. The executioners began burning his feet. When they had been nearly burnt, the captors promised to let Charles go if he renounced his faith. Charles refused, saying, “You are burning me, but it is as if you are pouring water over my body.” When they set him on fire, he continued to pray, and as flames reached his heart, he cried out, “Katonda! (My God!)” and died.
His companions were all burned together on the same day, praying and singing hymns until their death.
St. Charles and his companions were beatified in 1920, and canonized in 1964. St. Charles is the patron saint of African Catholic Youth Action.
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