Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Unyielding Faith: The Martyrs of Uganda

by Joanna Bogle


In this article Joanna Bogle tells the story of the Uganda martyrs — 22 young boys who were burned alive for refusing to renounce their faith and succumb to the homosexual advances of their ruler. In addition, Matthew Bunson takes a brief look at the effectiveness of the ABCs (abstinence, faithfulness, character formation) for the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Larger Work

This Rock


18 – 22

Publisher & Date

Catholic Answers, Inc., El Cajon, CA, May / June 2008

The Church marks the feast of the Uganda Martyrs in June, a day that in Uganda is a national holiday. Who were these martyrs, and what is their story?

It is one with a remarkable relevance for today. These martyrs were boys in their teens, and they died for their Christian faith — and, more specifically, because they refused to take part in homosexual activities. For their commitment to their faith and to its clear moral teachings, these 22 boys died in a particularly horrific manner: They were burned alive.

Today, Catholics have to stand with courage when speaking about homosexual activity. To affirm the Church's teaching is to invite ridicule and insults — and, increasingly, to face legal difficulties. In Britain, new legislation has forced Catholic adoption agencies to choose between closure or agreeing to offer children to homosexual couples. A Catholic broadcaster received a visit from the police after she spoke against homosexual adoption on a radio program she was warned that she might have committed a "homophobic" offense.

A few years ago the Church published a document (signed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) that affirmed its teaching on homosexuality and offered some details concerning the pastoral care of people with homosexual tendencies. The date chosen for the announcement was June 3: the feast of the Ugandan Martyrs.

Faith Embraced — and Rejected

The story of the heroic young Ugandan martyrs begins with the arrival in the late 1880s of European missionaries, both Anglican and Catholic, in the territory then known as Buganda. They found a local culture and community that was warmly open to the Christian message and to news and information from the wider world. But as Christianity began to permeate local life, tensions arose. The ruler, the Kabacka, died, and a new one inherited the throne. King Mwanga, a dissolute and spoilt youth, felt threatened by the vigor and openness of mind shown by the young pages at his court who had converted to Christianity. Chief among these was Charles Lwanga, a tall and good-looking youth who was a natural leader, excelling in sports and hunting. He was also one whose life of prayer and evident integrity influenced his fellows and drew them to ask questions about what inspired him.

Fear of the political and military intentions of the European powers — especially Britain — also played a part in what was to come. A visiting Anglican missionary, Bishop James Hannington, was murdered on the orders of the Kabacka. Dying with courage and dignity, he showed a faith that impressed the local people. After his death one of King Mwanga's subjects, Joseph Balikuddembe, rebuked the king. He was savagely beheaded. A wave of persecution was beginning.

In the martyrdom that followed, boys who had become Christians — Catholic and Anglican — found their faith tested to its keenest limits. The Catholics had been attending talks and catechism classes with the missionaries. Some had been baptized; others were still under instruction. A separate group of boys had for some while been attending the Anglican mission and had been baptized there. The atmosphere at court had been profoundly affected by all of this: The example of both Anglicans and Catholics influenced others.

A Thwarted King's Fury

Initially, the young Kabacka also had been impressed by Christianity: He liked what he saw and heard of the Christian message, and he also recognized that his people would benefit from the education and skills that the missionaries had brought with them. But this was not enough to counter his other, stronger, commitment — to a dissolute lifestyle, and especially to the homosexual activities to which he had become increasingly addicted.

After some weeks of tension, which stretched over Eastertide, the young men at court sensed that a major drama was about to unfold. One afternoon, after an unsuccessful day's hunting, King Mwanga sent for a young boy whom he wanted to make a sexual favorite. The boy could not be found, and the king, in a rage, started to shout about the disloyalty and insolence he found at court. He knew that the boy's absence was almost certainly due to Christians hiding him so that he would not have to face the Kabacka's advances. Rounding up the boys known to be the keenest Christians, he ranted and hurled insults at them. He also demanded that they give up their ways of prayer and return to unstinting obedience to him in all things.

It became clear in the days that followed that homosexual activity and willingness to comply with immoral activities were the heart of the matter — the Kabacka's rage had been fueled by the increasing reluctance of his young Christian subjects to indulge him in this. Death was the punishment for opposing the whims and wishes of this absolute sovereign.

But the boys stood firm. Arrested and bound, with ropes cutting into their wrists and feet, they prayed and sang hymns. The older boys, especially Charles Lwanga, taught and encouraged the younger ones, notably Kizito. The youngest of all, he was just 14, and alternated between radiant enthusiasm for Christ and a shaking fear of the death that now awaited them.

Death to "Those Who Pray"

The tribal ritual surrounding executions was grim. As the boys watched it begin, it must have struck terror into their hearts. The executioners, dressed in leopard skins and with their faces painted white in traditional designs, wove in long dances as they wailed a chant while the victims watched: "The mothers of these will weep today — O yes, they will weep today."

Had any of the boys agreed to abandon their prayers and obey the Kabacka, their lives would have been saved. The Kabacka specifically referred to the Christian boys as "those who pray." Any who chose to leave that category and renounce their Christian faith could walk back into favor with the ruler.

Namugongo, the site for executions, was some distance from the Kabacka's court, and the journey there took several days. For some of the boys, tight bonds made walking difficult. On arrival, they were crammed into prison huts near a great funeral pyre that was being stacked — upon which they would be burned alive.

The many eyewitnesses to the martyrdom (the boys were killed in front of a large crowd of their own family members and friends) left a detailed account of the events.

It reads rather like those of the early martyrdoms of Christians in pagan Rome. Extraordinary scenes transpired. The boys prayed and sang hymns as they were rolled in rush matting and dragged to the fire. Young Kizito is said to have gone to his martyrdom singing and calling out that soon he would meet Christ in paradise. As the flames were lit, the prayers did not stop. The young boys' voices could be heard, clear and unafraid, as the fire crackled up to meet them.

When all was over, the mound of burnt wood and ashes remained, to become one day the base of a great shrine which is now visited by thousands of people annually. Every year, on June 3, vast crowds arrive for an open-air Mass. Children are given the day off school. Kizito is a popular name for boys in Uganda, and his story is told to First Communion and confirmation groups.

An Urgent Witness Today

The Ugandan Martyrs were formally canonized in 1964, the first time that African drums were used in a ceremony at St. Peter's in Rome. The emergence of Africa as a new stronghold of Christianity, the ecumenical dimension, the proximity of all this to the Second Vatican Council which was opening up a new chapter in the Church's history — all gave the canonization a special sense of historic importance. But at that time no one thought to question or remark on the moral teachings at the center of it all: the understanding that the young martyrs had witnessed with their lives to the truth that sexual communion is reserved to men and women in the lifelong bond of marriage and that homosexual activity is gravely sinful. In 1964, that was simply taken for granted by Anglicans and Catholics alike.

Today, however, we see the boys' martyrdom as having an extra dimension of significance precisely because of this truth and their courageous witness to it. God speaks to us poignantly through the heroism of these youths. Their witness calls us to join them in courage and faith. We have been given their example at a time when we all need it.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, affirming unchanging truths of the Catholic faith for a new century, quotes Scripture and Tradition in describing homosexual acts as intrinsically disordered and contrary to the moral law. It calls for respect, compassion, and sensitivity towards those who — like the young Kabacka — struggle with homosexual tendencies and calls them to chastity and Christian perfection. The Catechism also hails martyrdom as "the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death" (CCC 2473). The Catechism notes "The Church has painstakingly collected the records of those who persevered to the end in witnessing to their faith. These are the acts of the martyrs. They form the archives of truth written in letters of blood" (2474).

Joanna Bogle is contributing editor of This Rock, is a freelance journalist, author, broadcaster, and lecturer. She is a frequent defender of Christian ideas on British television and radio. She is author most recently of The Pope Benedict Code (Gracewing 2006).

Uganda: The Real ABC's of an Epidemic
Matthew E. Bunson

The first documented case of HIV/AIDS in Uganda occurred in 1982. From that small but ominous beginning, the curse of AIDS soon engulfed the country of Uganda, much as it swept across the African continent through the 1980s and into the 1990s. For Uganda, the epidemic was especially tragic given the nation's desperate efforts to recover from the dark years of the dictator Idi Amin from 1971 to 1979 and subsequent years of political instability. By the early 1990s, the infection rate in Uganda of HIV reached 30 percent, and there was widespread agreement that if action were not taken quickly, the very survival of the country would be jeopardized.

President Yoweri Museveni, who came to power in 1986, settled on an aggressive government-sponsored plan that involved posters, radio messages, training, education, and public rallies and that called on the support of community leaders, local churches, and general public. The message was said to be as simple as the "ABCs": "Abstinence, Be Faithful, and if necessary, use Condoms."

Character over Condoms

A funny thing happened in Uganda, however. While condoms were suggested for those who refused to abstain, the greater focus of the campaign was not on the "C" but on the "A" and the "B": abstinence and faithfulness. Ugandans, especially young Ugandans, were urged to wait until marriage before having sex, or to return to abstinence if they were not virgins. Wives and especially husbands were asked to remain faithful to their spouses. And when the "C" was stressed, it did not mean condoms but the embrace of the Catholic Church in Uganda and the suggestion that the proper meaning of "C" should be "character formation."

The mantra of changing behavior rather than perpetuating a condom culture resulted in startling developments. In the late 1980s, 50 percent of females 15 to 17 years old had engaged in sex; this was down to 34 percent by 2000. Uganda's Demographic and Health Survey of 2000-2004 indicated that 93 percent of Ugandans had altered their sexual behavior to avoid HIV/AIDS.

The results were immediately apparent when Uganda's infection rate began declining. Adult HIV rates dropped from about 30 percent in the early 1990s to 8 percent in 2002. Today, the infection rate hovers at 4.1 percent. President Museveni spoke at a World AIDS Conference in Bangkok in 2004 and declared forcefully that condoms should not be the definitive public health intervention against HIV/AIDS. He was joined in this call to reality by the Kenyan first lady Lucy Kibaki, who regularly teaches school girls that they should delay sex until after marriage and forget about condoms. (See "Why the ABC Message Worked," page 22.) Uganda's success made it a model for other African countries and also played a major influence in the current AIDS relief program undertaken by the Bush administration.

Uganda's progress against AIDS is a story of promoting the culture of life. Everywhere in Africa the Church's stand on the real ABCs — abstinence, be faithful, and character formation rather than condoms — has been adopted, the HIV/AIDS rates are substantially lower. The 2003 World Factbook of the Central Intelligence Agency reported, for example, Burundi had a 62% Catholic population and a 6% AIDS infection rate; Angola had a 38% Roman Catholic population and a 3.9% AIDS rate; Ghana was 63% Christian with a Catholic population of 12% (in some regions it is as high as 33%) and a 3.1% AIDS rate. In stark contrast, those countries that have steadfastly clung to the myth of condom use as the primary means of preventing the epidemic also have the highest rates of HIV/AIDS. In Botswana, where only 5% of the population is Catholic, 37% of the overall population is infected with HIV/AIDS. In South Africa, with a 7% Catholic population, 22% of the total population is infected.

The UN's Failure

Undeterred by the success of the Ugandan methods and enraged by an approach that challenges the assumptions of the Western sexual revolution, the UN and other nongovernmental organizations (including UNICEF, the UNFPA, the World Health Organization, and Centers for Disease Control) are placing pressure on Uganda and other countries to offer only condoms as a solution to their problem. In an interview with LifeSiteNews, Martin Ssempa, a Ugandan AIDS activist, denounced the obdurate position of the United Nations and its UNAIDS program, noting, "UNAIDS has no success story. UNAIDS cannot point at any country where they have given advice and that country has brought HIV down" (LifeSiteNews, October 25, 2007).

The situation is an ironic one. The Martyrs of Uganda gave their lives by refusing to engage in lurid sexual activities and to surrender their faith. Uganda today is being offered a similar choice by the Western culture of death. Only this time, by adhering to the faith and doing what is right, the Ugandans, along with the rest of Africa, will actually be saving their lives. In both cases, moral courage remains the key to a future of hope.

Two Churches, One Martyrdom

A most touching aspect to this story of martyrdom is that both Catholic and Anglican boys were caught up in this drama. The Catholic Church does not presume to impose its forms of canonization on those who are not members — but in the ceremony in Rome which was to write the Ugandan Martyrs into the Church's calendar, special mention with honor was made of the boys of the Anglican Communion who met their deaths — and whose names, incidentally, are recorded on a great memorial in the Anglican Cathedral in Uganda's capital.

Matthew E. Bunson is a contributing editor to This Rock and the author of We Have a Pope: Benedict XVI (Our Sunday Visitor, 2005) and more than 30 other books. He was a consultant for USA Today during the funeral of John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict. He is the general editor of Our Sunday Visitor's Catholic Almanac, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and a moderator of EWTN's online Church history forum.

Why the ABC Message Worked

Looking back, I can say that the message of abstinence and faithfulness has been effective in Uganda for four main reasons. First of all, it is simple and uncompromisingly strong in its intention, and it is delivered continually and with consistency. Secondly, the alarm that was sounded by the political leadership has been taken up and magnified a thousand times by every responsible citizen. The third reason for the effectiveness of the message of abstinence and faithfulness is that it was based on the traditional and cultural beliefs and moral framework of the people of Uganda . . . The fourth reason why the message of abstinence and faithfulness has been effective in Uganda is that people have been confronted with the horror of death, first hand and at close quarters. There is no person, young and old, in Uganda, who has not witnessed a loved one, a family member, or a neighbor, suffer horribly and die prematurely because of AIDS. In such a situation, facts tend to speak for themselves. The sight of fallen comrades is a strong deterrent, and a clear sign that a change in behavior is called for . . . — Lucy Kibaki, First Lady of Kenya, in 2004

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