Ugandan martyrs are ancestral intermediaries to God

  • At St. Charles Lwanga Church, windows of the Catholic Ugandan martyrs look down upon the length of both sides of the church.
  • At St. Charles Lwanga Church, windows of the Catholic Ugandan martyrs look down upon the length of both sides of the church.
  • An image of St. Charles Lwanga, one of the Uganda martyrs, in Kinshasa, Uganda.
  • Image of the martyrs at the St. Charles Lwanga Church, Jinja Karoli.
  • Devotional objects for homes for sale outside of the church at St. Peter's Nsambya, Uganda.
  • Side shrine at the Cathedral of St. Peter, Nsambya, Kampala, Uganda.

Marian devotion is fairly strong in Uganda, and 19th century European images of Mary, the Immaculate Conception, or Fatima, are common in homes. 

One interviewee, an elderly Jjaja, or grandmother, typified others’ comments when she said that her prayer was “directed to God the Father through His son Jesus, but I have special veneration for the Mother. I know when I pray through the mother, my prayers are granted.” She had a number of Marian images in her home but preferred to pray facing the crucifix.  

Though Marian images overwhelmingly tend to feature Mary by herself, rather than as Virgin with Child, Ugandans interviewed for this project stressed Mary’s motherhood when they talked about her. A Theotokos theology seems to have great appeal to Ugandans, who speak reverently about her privilege to be the Mother of God.

As interviewees talked about saints, it was clear that they served a three-fold function in actual practice — as intermediaries, as protectors (all children are expected to have Catholic saints’ names for this purpose), and as role models. No one of these functions stood out much above the others. 

Of all the saints other than Mary, few could surpass the importance of the Uganda martyrs, St. Charles Lwanga and companions. Their feast is an enormously important national day. A million people are said to flock to the shrine at Namugongo, and even more people attend Mass at their home parish that day before watching the six-hour shrine events on television. Ugandans who speak about the Ugandan martyrs often express admiration for their courage to stand up for their convictions. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the martyrs in solidifying the faith of Ugandans. Stories told about the martyrs repeatedly recalibrate Catholicism’s colonial legacy from imposition to agency – from something that might be seen as foreign or imposed, to a brave choice that Ugandan ancestors took up for themselves, to great result. In a country where respect for ancestors is a paramount value, the Uganda Martyrs cult – the fact that these common ancestors made a bold choice for Christianity on their own volition – mitigates the feeling that Catholicism entails unacceptably rejecting one’s ancestors. The martyrs are Ugandans’ own, reliable, ancestral intermediaries to God. 

Kenneth, a recent university graduate, speaks about his devotion to Mary.
Audio file

Further Reading