From the moment he steeped off the plane at Entebbe airport, the Ugandans gave Pope Francis a rapturous welcome and in a thousand ways demonstrated their immense joy and happiness that he had come to visit them.
He arrived at Entebbe after an hour and twenty-minute flight from Nairobi, and was greeted by the man who has ruled this country since 1986, President Museveni, and by the bishops of this overwhelmingly Christian country, where Catholics count for 47 percent of the population.
The sun was shining gently in the late afternoon when he arrived in this landlocked country that shares borders with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya and South Sudan. On arrival, the president led him to a dais where he stood as the traditional 21 cannon salute boomed out.
When the guns fell silent, traditional dancers and musicians took over and offered a magnificent and colorful performance that clearly delighted the pope, so much so that he came to greet them.
The cannons, the dance and music were but the first act of what proved to be a fabulous welcome. As Francis drove from the airport to the State House in Entebbe where the official welcome took place, thousand cheered him. He was greeted at State House by the country’s civic and military authorities, as well as the diplomatic corps.
Afterwards, as he drove from State House to Munyono for a meeting with catechists, hundreds of thousands of Ugandans, very many of them children and students, lined the 38 km route. It was fiesta time in Uganda, for the third pope to come here after Paul VI and John Paul II.
Munyonyo is the place where in the late 1800s the reigning monarch took the decision to put Christians to death—all of them lay people, and some for refusing his sexual advances. One of the martyrs, St. Andrea Kaggwa, is the patron saint of the Ugandan catechists.
There, they treated him to yet more extraordinary performances of traditional song and music at Munyono, and hundreds of thousands more cheered him enthusiastically as he drove from there to the nunicature in Kampala, the capital city, which has a population of 1.5 million people. He could not have wished for a warmer welcome. He has already captured their hearts. They followed on the television his visit to Kenya, and now he was among them in this nation of over 36 million people.
Welcomed at the State House by the president, Pope Francis told the distinguished guests that he was “happy” to be in this country, and explained that his main purpose in coming here was commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Ugandan martyrs who were canonized by Paul VI (who was also the first pope to visit Africa). But there are also Anglican martyrs from around that same period, and Francis said, “The martyrs, both Catholic and Anglican, are true national heroes.” He said they remind us of “the importance that faith, moral rectitude and commitment to the common good have played, and continue to play, in the cultural, economic and political life of this country.”
Francis will visit the shrines of the Catholic and Anglican martyrs tomorrow morning, Nov. 28, and he also told his distinguished audience at the State House that “they also remind us that, despite our different beliefs and convictions, all of us are called to seek the truth, to work for justice and reconciliation, and to respect, protect and help one another as members of our one human family."
He told the president and the civic authorities that these “high ideals are particularly demanded of men and women like yourselves, who are charged with ensuring good and transparent governance, integral human development, a broad participation in national life, as well as a wise and just distribution of the goods which the Creator has so richly bestowed upon these lands.”
This last comment was a gentle but clear message in this former British colony, which gained independence in 1962, that despite having significant natural resources (including oil) is one of the poorest in the world and also one of the most corrupt. After a turbulent and violent history in the decades following independence it has been ruled since 1986 by one man—President Museveni, and “good and transparent governance” have not been a hallmark of his rule. Many here in Uganda hope and expect Francis to return to these issues, and particularly to the dramatic situation of corruption at all levels of society, during his two-day visit here.
At the State House, speaking in English, Francis also told those present and the millions listening by radio or watching on television, that his presence here should also be seen as “a sign of friendship, esteem and encouragement for all the people of this great nation.”
As in Nairobi, so too in Kampala, the pope noted that “the nation has been blessed in its people: its strong families, its young and its elderly.”
It has a very young population, with a median age of 15, as we could see from the crowds that cheered the pope, and it has the fifth highest fertility rate in the world. Francis said he was looking forward to meeting the young people tomorrow, Nov. 28, and it’s likely that he will also respond from the heart, not from his prepared text.
Pope Francis then went onto praise the Uganda for showing “outstanding concern for welcoming refugees, enabling them to rebuild their lives in security” and a sense of dignity. And in a message seeking to confirm the efforts of Uganda, but also to call other countries in Africa in the Western world to a greater sense of responsibility, Francis said: “our world, caught up in wars, violence, and various forms of injustice, is witnessing an unprecedented movement of peoples. How we deal with them is a test of our humanity, our respect for human dignity, and above all our solidarity with our brothers and sisters in need."
He concluded his first speech in this beautiful and fertile land by telling the nation, “although my visit is brief, I hope to encourage the many quiet efforts being made to care for the poor, the sick and those in any kind of trouble. It is in these small signs that we see the true soul of a people.”
After invoking God’s blessing on the nation, Pope Francis retired to the nuciature for dinner and a well-deserved rest after what was an action packed, inspiring but also tiring day in two countries.
That same evening, at a press briefing, Federico Lombardi S.J., revealed that during his visit to the State House the pope had a private meeting with the president of South Sudan, a country where there is still armed conflict. Father Lombardi did not reveal the contents of that private and surprise meeting, but it is clear that it is linked to the hope for peace there.