On July 24, 1990, the U.S. National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus designated November as Black Catholic History Month. The descendants of Africa had a significant role to play in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.
There are thousands of African saints, including three popes, three doctors of the church, eight fathers of the church, thousands of martyrs, and countless religious and lay leaders. Of roughly 1 billion of Africa’s population, an estimated 135 million are Roman Catholic. The world’s largest seminary is in Nigeria and the continent of Africa produces a large percentage of the world’s priests. Of the 192 cardinals, 16 are from Africa. There are over 400,000 catechists.
Among Africa’s many martyrs are the Martyrs of Uganda, Christian converts who were murdered for their faith in the historical kingdom of Buganda, now part of Uganda. Among the martyrs were 22 Roman Catholic men and boys who refused to denounce their faith before King Mwanga and refused to be abused by him. This resistance was led by Charles Lwanga, who became the protector of the boys and their spiritual leader.
The king sentenced the men and boys to be burned alive at Namugongo, a village that was 20 miles away. As they marched to the execution site, they prayed aloud and recited the catechism all along the way. Three were speared to death before reaching the village and the others were led to their burnings. This took place on Ascension Thursday morning.
The martyrs were canonized on Oct. 18, 1964 by Pope Paul VI. During Pope John Paul II’s visit to the shrine, he stated that their sacrifice was the seed that “helped to draw Uganda and all of Africa to Christ.” It is said that, despite their youth — most were in their teens and 20s — the Martyrs of Uganda are the “founding fathers” of the church in modern Africa.
The Diocese of Camden held its first Mass in celebration of the Martyrs of Uganda on June 12, 2011.
Corlis L. Sellers is associate director of Lifelong Faith Formation for Black Catholics, Liaison to the Bishop for the Black Catholic Ministry Commission, and coordinator of the Racial Justice Commission.