Pope Francis has ended his visit to Uganda and tomorrow morning he will board the plane that will take him to the conflict-ridden Central African Republic, as “a messenger of peace.”
On his last day in Uganda, he repeatedly urged Christians here to draw inspiration from their martyrs. From early morning to late evening, Saturday Nov. 28, Pope Francis highlighted in different ways the cost of Christian discipleship, yesterday and today, in this land that is known as "the pearl of Africa."
As he had explained on arrival, his main purpose in coming to Uganda was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the canonization of the Catholic martyrs of Uganda. But aware that there were also Anglican martyrs who were executed in the same place and at the same time, Francis set out to honor the memory of both, and what he likes to call “the ecumenism of blood.”
He began the day by traveling ten miles from Kampala to Namungongo, where there are both Catholic and Anglican shrines. He went first to the Anglican one and was welcomed by the Anglican bishops, one of whom gave him a guided tour of the shrine. The bishop showed him the recently created museum that offers striking representations of the torture and death that the martyrs had suffered.
Francis’ face betrayed inner anguish as he listened to what had happened and at the end of the explanation he knelt down in front of a tree at the spot where the 45 martyrs, both Anglican and Catholic, were tortured before being executed between 1885 and 1887. He prayed there in silence for several minutes, and when he got up he appeared to be in another dimension, one might say in a state of profound reflection. He then walked downstairs to the crypt, to pray at the tomb of the Anglican martyrs.
From the Anglican shrine, Francis traveled by popemobile to the Catholic shrine to celebrate Mass for some three hundred thousand faithful gathered there at a specially constructed altar, overlooking an artificial lake in a large park not far from the actual shrine.
Uganda’s Catholics were truly delighted that he had come among them, and they gave full expression to that joy during the Mass by applauding enthusiastically after every prayer and reading, and even when the pope began the Mass with the sign of the cross. It was a real festive celebration, and followed on the sense of fiesta evident on his arrival, which I mention in my report yesterday.
Francis delivered his homily in Spanish, and the Vatican monsignor accompanying him—Mark Myles—provided the English translation. In it, he recalled how from the time of the apostles “a great cloud of witnesses had been raised up to proclaim Jesus and show forth the power of the Holy Spirit.” Among them were the Ugandan martyrs—“both Catholic and Anglican”—who gave ecumenical witness to Christ. The Catholic martyrs were all laypeople, and the Francis mentioned two of them—Saints Joseph Mkasa and Charles Lwanga “who after being catechized by others, wanted to pass on the gift they had received.”
Francis likes this “missionary zeal”—something he emphasized also in the last public event of his stay here in Uganda. He did so when he spoke in the cathedral to priests, men and women religious as well as seminarians. He wants the church to be “missionary.” He recalled how the two martyrs “were fearless in bringing Christ to others, even at the cost of their lives.”
He said the faith of the Ugandan martyrs “became witness” and “their example continues to inspire people throughout the world.”
Pope Francis told the Catholics of Uganda “the witness of the martyrs shows to all who have heard their story, then and now, that worldly pleasures and earthly power do not bring lasting joy or peace.”
On the other hand, he said, “fidelity to God, honesty and integrity of life, and genuine concern for the good of others bring us that peace which the world cannot give.”
This, he said, “does not diminish our concern for this world, as if we only look to the life to come. Instead, it gives purpose to our lives in this world, and helps us to reach out to those in need,” in particular “to the widows and the orphans,” and “to cooperate with others for the common good, and to build a more just society which promotes human dignity, defends God’s gift of life and protects the wonders of nature, his creation and our common home.”
That is “the legacy” that Christians in this land “have received from the Uganda martyrs,” Francis declared. Later that day he made the same point in the cathedral when he told the priests and religious “this legacy is not served by an occasional remembrance, or by being enshrined in a museum as a precious jewel.”
Instead, he said, “we honor them, and all the saints, when we carry on their witness to Christ, in our homes and neighborhoods, in our workplaces and civil society, whether we never leave our homes or we go to the farthest corner of the world. ”
His message did not need interpreters. He reinforced it that same afternoon when he spoke to 150,000 young people, among them Protestants and Muslims, at a former airfield on the outskirts of Kampala, at a rally marked by excitement, enthusiasm and obvious love for Francis. After listening to testimonies from two of them—a young woman whose family was destroyed by HIV and a young man who had been a prisoner of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Francis reminded them that they have “the blood of the martyrs in your veins” and should take inspiration for their lives from that memory. He told them that with the help of Jesus they can—like those two young people—transform negative experiences in their lives into positive ones. He assured them that if they pray to Jesus regularly, then they would get that help.
He communicated that same message to the priests, men and women religious, and seminarians when at the end of the day he met them in the cathedral, and reminded them that they too, like all the Catholics of Uganda, “have the blood of the martyrs in your veins.”
Putting aside his prepared text, he offered “three pillars” on which to build their lives as witnesses to the Gospel. Those pillars are: Do not forget (the memory of the Ugandan martyrs); be faithful (to that memory and to their own vocations); and pray. If they build their lives on those three pillars, he said, then the memory of the martyrs will not be something that is consigned to a museum.
It is clear from what he said here in Uganda, and what he said last year in South Korea, that Francis believes firmly that the blood of the martyrs is “a seed” that can lead to change, and to the revolution of tenderness and love that he is repeatedly calling for in the lives of Christians and in the church.
Pope Francis developed his message even further in the brief talk that he gave when he visited a famous charitable center at Nalukolongo, run by the Good Samaritan Sisters, which cares for more than 100 poor people—Christians and Muslims alike, with various disabilities and ages ranging from 12 to 107, many of whom have been discarded by society.
He issued an appeal from this center to all parishes and communities in Uganda, and in the rest of Africa, “not to forget the poor.”
He reminded everyone that “the Gospel commands us to go out to the peripheries of society, and to find Christ in the suffering and those in need.” He said many of them are “victims of today’s throwaway culture, which breeds contempt above all towards the unborn, the young and the elderly! ”
Pope Francis concluded by affirming that “as Christians we cannot simply stand by. Something must change! Our families need to become ever more evident signs of God’s patient and merciful love, not only for our children and elders, but for all those in need. Our parishes must not close their doors, or their ears, to the cry of the poor.”
After giving his talk, Francis made a private visit, far from the gaze of the media, to 10 young children at the center that are suffering from serious illnesses and disabilities. He kissed each of them, and sought to communicate his closeness to them. His witness here, as on other occasions, gives real credibility to his words and makes his message even more attractive.
Francis’ visit to Uganda effectively concluded at the cathedral. There is a brief farewell ceremony at Entebbe airport tomorrow morning, Sunday, Nov. 29, after which he boards the Alitalia plane that will take him to the Central African Republic.
There has been opposition to his visit here, and it has become clear that some with vested interests do not want him to come because his presence here will bring international attention to the dramatic situation in this country, which is rich in minerals such as uranium, diamonds and oil, but at the present moment it is to all intents and purposes a failed state.
Pope Francis is deeply concerned at the dramatic situation of children, women and men in this country, and all along he has been determined to go to the Central African Republic in the hope that he can make a contribution to bringing a just and lasting peace here.
An indicator of his determination emerged on the flight from Rome to Nairobi when, talking with the pilots of the Alitalia plane that he is using on this trip, Francis in his humorous way told them, “if you don’t want to take me to Bangui then give me a parachute and I will parachute in!”
There is no need for the parachute. His plane is scheduled to touch down at 10.00 a.m. (local time) at Bangui’s international airport tomorrow, Sunday, Nov. 29.