Pope Francis’ visit to Uganda

Pope Francis’ visit to Uganda: Bringing Christ’s Love Closer Home

Stephen Ssenkaaba

It was March 2014. Nearly six months after the rumour that the Holy Father had been invited to preside over the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the 1964 canonisation of the Uganda Martyrs, the news finally came: Pope Francis would not be visiting Uganda for this. There was considerable disappointment from many Catholic and non-Catholic followers of the Pope. So when the news came more than one year later that the Pope would be visiting Uganda in November 2015, the excitement was understandably overwhelming. “The visit of Pope Francis to Uganda is a real sign pointing us to something…this great man, this busy man, this person who seems to be loved by everyone and who loves everyone…what message is he bringing to us in Uganda?” said retired Emmanuel Cardinal Wamala to Vatican radio. Wamala felt particularly blessed for, with Pope Francis’ visit, he will have witnessed all three papal visits to Uganda. “I think I am very fortunate to have been here during the visits of Blessed Pope Paul VI and Pope St. John Paul II to Uganda. I hope that Pope Francis finds me still alive. Like everyone else, I am eagerly waiting for this visit with great excitement,” he said. Wamala echoed the sentiments of many Ugandans who felt blessed that a man whose simplicity and beaming face has captured the imagination of the world would be their guest for some three days.

Quick preparations

The confirmation of the visit on June 12th left only five months for the organising committee to prepare. The time seemed too short. But that did not discourage all involved from doing their best to prepare a memorable visit. People responded overwhelmingly to various fundraising drives, particularly towards the two major construction projects: the completion of Munyonyo shrine where the trail to Catholic martyrdom started and where Pope Francis would meet catechists and teachers, and the refurbishment of the Namugongo Catholic Martyrs shrine where most martyrs were executed and where the Holy Father would celebrate public mass.  From June, the shrine was closed to the public as was the mini-basilica which is also the Namugongo parish church. The Namugongo Primary School soccer field served as an open air “church” for local parishioners. They endured five months of ‘exile’, walking by busy, dusty construction trucks on their way to church. But they did not complain. People offered what little money they had to support preparations for the Papal visit. Roko Construction worked overtime to ensure that the shrine would be ready for Saturday, November 28th. Christians were rallied to contribute to the reconstruction that would see shs 44 billion (about £9 million) spent on improving both venues. Corporate organisations joined to support the initiative. “Yoyoota”(refurbish) Namugongo became the buzz word for a raffle draw that offered Archbishop Cyprian Kizito Lwanga’s Mercedes as the grand prize to the lucky winner. But it was the Vision Group’s initiative to sell rosaries imported from the Vatican and blessed by the Holy Father – at sh 100,000 ($29) – that got many Catholics talking. Many rushed to book their rosaries. The sceptics said shs 100,000 was too much for a rosary that ordinarily costs about shs 10,000 ($3) but many could not hear of that.

Preparations were hasty, sometimes worrisome. Some people did not believe that a place that had been nearly razed would be ready for such a world event only five months later. None of that defeated the resolve of Ugandans to make this a memorable visit for Pope Francis. “We have been working day and night to give new life to Namugongo,” Maroria Matoya, the site architect and project manager at Namugongo said. The doors to a partially completed Namugongo were opened on Friday evening, November 27th. The altar was not complete but able to host mass.

Uganda’s “Habemus Papam”

People stayed glued to their television sets waiting for 5:00 pm when the Papal Alitalia aircraft was expected to touch down at Entebbe. At 5:15pm the Pope emerged from the white and green plane to applause and excitement from dignitaries waiting on the tarmac and many more Ugandans lining the streets and watching TV. He flashed his wide friendly smile, waving to the masses and handing out both his hands to greet the President, bishops and other dignitaries.

The Pope’s programme was crowded: a meeting with the President and some dignitaries at State House followed by another session with catechists and teachers at Munyonyo on the Friday of his arrival. Mass at Namugongo catholic shrine the following day, following a short visit to the Anglican shrine in Nakiyanja, led on to a session with the youth at Kololo, a meeting with the sick and the elderly at Nalukolongo Bakateyamba home and thereafter a session with bishops, priests and the clergy at Lubaga Cathedral.  Then on Sunday morning he would fly to the C.A.R.

The Indefatigable Shepherd

There were very few signs of exhaustion by Pope Francis from his previous visit to Kenya when he stood on a podium inside State House to address dignitaries. The smiling pontiff, in his slow deliberate tone took his chance there to draw the world’s attention to Africa.  “My visit is also meant to draw attention to Africa as a whole: its promise, its hopes, its struggles and achievements,” he said.

People waited into the darkness as the Pope left State House for his meeting with catechists and teachers in Munyonyo. Here he blessed the new statue of St. Andrew Kaggwa, one of the martyrs killed there, and addressed the eager crowds: “May you be wise teachers,” he said. He thanked the catechists for their work before planting a tree. He retired after 9:00pm.

Saturday morning was bright and beautiful. The Pope, still looking as fit as a fiddle, was on the streets of Namugongo Road by 8:00 am on his way to celebrate mass at the Catholic shrine. He even got off his little black Kia SOUL SCV1 car on to the popemobile to have greater access to the cheering crowds. The anticipation, the love and the smiles told of a man loved by people, one ready to reach out. After a short visit to the Anglican shrine, he then led mass at the newly refurbished man-made lake at the Catholic shrine, leading a procession of red-robed bishops in sublime church hymns. “Today we recall the sacrifice of the Catholic and Anglican Martyrs,” he said during the eucharistic celebration that united rival presidential candidates. He called on Uganda to embrace fidelity to God, honesty and integrity of life and genuine concern for the good of others.

In Kololo independence grounds, the Pope embraced the youth, many of whom had been waiting there since early morning. He arrived at about 4:00pm to music and screams. He drove around the grounds to drumbeats and ululations. He sent a powerful message to the youth summarized as three points: overcome difficulties, transform the negative into positive and pray.

The Holy Father was well received in Nalukolongo where he embraced the elderly, sick, disabled and orphaned. He visited and prayed in the chapel there and at the burial site of the late Emmanuel Cardinal Nsubuga, founder of the home. He also paid tribute to him for his vision. He called upon parishes to pay attention to the needy and the elderly.

It was getting dark when he got to Lubaga Cathedral where he met the Kabaka of Buganda and his wife Sylvia Naginda before meeting the clergy. Pope Francis asked the clergy to “honour the memory of the Uganda Martyrs by their witness and be faithful to their ministry.” A tired Pope went back to have a rest before heading off to the airport early on Sunday morning.

He certainly enjoyed his trip as much as Ugandans did but most importantly taught great lessons to Ugandans and touched the hearts of many. People like Tamale Mohammed, a crippled cobbler from Kawempe, who crawled several metres on his amputated legs, beating security just to see the Holy Father in Nalukolongo. “It was not easy to get here amid the tight security,” he told me, “but I had to come to see this man. I have heard that he is a kind man. I had to see him in person. I feel happy that I have touched him,” he said brandishing a rosary handed him by a Papal aides. It is such that energise Pope Francis. It is these that his papacy revolves around.

Stephen Ssenkaaba is a journalist working with the World Vision newspaper.