“Life ought to be a struggle of desire toward adventures whose nobility will fertilize the soul.” ~ Rebecca West
Things are happening in threes this week in the Catholic Church as today we read from the Book of Tobit (6:10-11; 7:1, 9-17; 8:4-9) for the third day in a row while also revisiting Mark’s Gospel (Mark 12:28-34) as Jesus is presented with his 3rd teaching opportunity in 3 days, introducing today the two great commandments to an inquisitive young scribe. Our Church also celebrates its third canonized martyr in three days, today memorializing Saint Charles Lwanga and his 21 saintly companions. His story is a fascinating tale of valor and heroism, so let’s start with the man who would go on to become the Patron Saint of young African Catholics, converts, and torture victims.
A pagan convert himself, Saint Charles Lwanga and many other martyrs for the Christian faith died between November 15, 1885 – January 27, 1887 in Namugongo, Uganda. Catholicism began spreading in Uganda in 1879 due in large part to the work of The White Fathers, a congregation of priests founded by Cardinal Lavigerie. There were at first peacefully received by King Mutesa of Uganda. The priests soon began preparing catechumens for baptism and before long a number of the young pages in the king’s court had indeed become baptized Catholics.
King Mutesa would soon die however, giving way to his son Mwanga, a wicked man who engaged in ritualistic pedophilic practices with the younger pages. Joseph Mukasa, a Catholic who went to tireless lengths to protect the younger boys from the king’s deviant passions, denounced Mwanga’s actions, leading to his public beheading on November 15, 1885.
Enter the 25 year old Charles Lwanga, a man ardently dedicated to the Christian instruction of the younger boys. He promptly stepped in to serve as the chief page, protecting the youth of Uganda from the king’s advances with the same vigilance as his predecessor. On the night of the martyrdom of Joseph Mukasa, realizing that their own lives were in danger, Lwanga and some of the other pages went to the White Fathers to receive baptism. Another 100 catechumens were baptized in the week following Joseph Mukasa’s death.
The following May, King Mwanga was informed by one of his close advisors that one of the boys was being schooled in Christianity. Furious over this revelation, Mwanga ordered all the pages to be questioned separately. The Christian pages, fifteen young men in total ranging in age from thirteen to twenty five, bravely stepped forward. The King asked them if they were willing to keep their faith. Their response was unflinching and in unison: “Until death!”
On June 3, 1886, on the Solemnity of the Ascension, Charles Lwanga was separated from the others and burned at the stake. The executioners slowly burnt his feet until only the unrecognizable charred stumps remained. Still alive, they promised him that they would let him go if he renounced his faith. He refused saying, “You are burning me, but it is as if you are pouring water over my body.” He then continued to pray silently as they set him on fire. Just before the flames reached his heart, he looked up and said in a loud voice, “Katonda! – My God!,” and breathed his last. His companions, now twenty one in total, were all burned together the same day, praying and singing hymns as the flames engulfed them.
Webster’s defines the word nobility as “exalted moral excellence, grandeur or magnificence.” The nobility displayed by Saint Charles Lwanga and his 21 companions was stunning. They had numerous opportunities to save themselves, but chose instead to die for a noble cause.
Now that the calendar has turned to June, we find ourselves in what many in the secular world refer to and celebrate as “Pride Month.” Yet pride we know is one of the Seven Capital or “Deadly” Sins. Pride is the reason that the bad angels were thrown down from Heaven into Hell. One could make a compelling argument that pride is the worst of the Deadly Sins. “We put pride into everything, like salt,” observed Saint John Vianney. “We like to see that our good works are known. If our virtues are seen, we are pleased; if our faults are perceived we are sad. The Saints were not like that. They were vexed if their virtues were known, and pleased if their imperfections were known.”
That’s humility. That, in many respects, is nobility.
The great Italian conductor Riccardo Muti once said “Nobility of spirit has more to do with simplicity than ostentation, wisdom rather than wealth, commitment rather than ambition.” Saint Charles Lwanga chose substance over style, truth over whimsy, valor over self-interest. He knew that his identity lied not in who he slept with, but instead in what he stood for. What he lived for. What he died for.
In light of the slew of martyrs our Church celebrates this month ~ Saint Boniface is next up this Saturday ~ the month of June should be re-claimed and re-named as “Nobility Month,” in addition of course to increased devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus https://discover.hubpages.com/religion-philosophy/The-Solemnity-of-the-Most-Sacred-Heart-of-Jesus. The pursuit of the virtue of nobility allows us to abide and live by the Gospel, for through it we grow in our love of God and love of neighbor. Nobility trumps pride any day.
For nobility, as Saint Charles Lwanga and his 21 Ugandan companions teach us, echos throughout eternity.
“O God, who have made the blood of the Martyrs the seed of Christians, mercifully grant that the field which is your Church, watered by the blood shed by Saints Charles Lwanga and his companions, may be fertile and always yield you an abundant harvest.” Amen