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January 6, 2007|
Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Simeon Lourdel was born in Dury, in Pas-de-Calais, France, on December 20, 1853. His father was a farmer; his mother, gentle yet energetic, was graced with great faith. The couple would have five sons. Vigorous and exuberant, Simeon was not enthusiastic about his studies at the minor seminary. Resistant to discipline, he chose the company of the most rebellious students and preferred working in the fields to summer homework. He fervently read stories about faraway missions, and was attracted to the example of missionaries, but the administrators of the minor seminary doubted his vocation. When Simeon arrived two months late for the start of the 1870-1871 school year, having been helping his father with the harvest, he was unceremoniously sent home. Returning home in tears, the child exclaimed, «I want to be a priest! ... They told me I didn't have a vocation, wellI'll prove them wrong.» He began to apply himself seriously to his studies and, in October 1872, entered the major seminary in Arras. During his time as a student of philosophy, he began to think of joining the new Society of African Missionaries, just founded by Archbishop Lavigerie of Algiers. At the start of February 1874, he was admitted to its novitiate, in Maison-Carrée, near Algiers.
It was no picnic
Green hills, cool valleys, and luxuriant vegetation make Uganda a very beautiful country. Its inhabitants, the Baganda, live in huts made of branches. Their crafts are variedironwork, pottery, textiles, baskets, mats, and musical instruments. The country was governed by a king with absolute power. He had a great number of pages recruited from among his officers' children. Polygamy, slavery, and vices were common. Nevertheless, the people were notable for their dignified and polite manner. Respectful of authority and brave, the Baganda were faithful subjects and fearless warriors. The god of the Baganda, Katonda, was worshiped amid other gods whom the sorcerers claimed to represent. The Baganda believed that man did not die entirely at death, but that a spirit was freed from his body. When Islam was introduced into the country in 1852 by merchant caravans, it had undermined the pagan religion in the minds of the elite. In 1875, the English explorer Stanley arrived, followed two years later by Anglican missionaries who were as brave as they were selfless. One of them, Mr. Mackay, settled in Roubaga, the capital, in 1879. The traditional religion maintained an important role in society, but the essential factor for social cohesion was the king, the Kabaka. The best among the king's subjects were not sure that human sacrifices, arbitrary executions, and polygamy were just; from these points of view, they were open to Christianity.
When the White Fathers arrived, the king of the Baganda was a man named Mutesa. Elegant, proud, and powerful, he was authoritarian and hot-tempered. Intelligent and cunning, he quickly understood that the arriving Europeans (English, Belgians, French, and Germans) would begin to compete among themselveshe would be able to play off their rivalries and negotiate with the highest bidder. In February 1879, the arrival of Father Lourdel and the Brother who accompanied him as advance scouts caused great commotion in Mutesa's court. However, the king ended up giving them a warm welcome. He gave them lodgings close to the capital and put them under close surveillance. Hearing the Brother who accompanied Father Lourdel call him «Mon Père,» («My Father»), the Baganda took this for his name, and from then on called him Mapéra. The White Fathers concerned themselves with material development as well as evangelization. Many Baganda came to them for various reasons, but at first, none offered a serious hope for conversion. On the other hand, the prime minister observed with great displeasure the influence exercised by the Fathers, who applied themselves to buying back as many children as possible from the Arab slave traders, receiving them in an orphanage and teaching them the true faith.
The demands of the Gospel
In 1881, Arab slave traders, whose trade was hampered by the missionaries' presence, persuaded Mutesa to declare Islam the national religion, but Father Lourdel managed to foil this plan. Many Baganda had opted for Catholicism after having tried Islam or Protestantism, and often the latter after the former. They had observed the Fathers at length and carefully listened to their doctrine, and then had decided freely. They made excellent catechists, and Christianity would have spread much more quickly if the leaders had not prevented their servants from learning the religion, and if the missionaries had been able to move freely within the country. Other Baganda came to the Fathers with sometimes mixed motives, but, with the help of grace, their convictions deepened. Following Archbishop Lavigerie's directives, the missionaries only baptized those who had persevered for at least four years in the catechumenate.
The slave traders and the rulers, furious at Mapéra's growing influence, vowed a mortal hatred to the Fathers. For his part, Father Lourdel saw polygamy, practiced by the rich and depriving poor villagers of wives, as a cause of the rampant homosexuality. The king himself gave himself over to homosexuality and pedophilia. Mapéra taught his catechumens that to give in to the king's desires in this way was condemned by God. Taking a firm position against the king's lusts exposed them to his anger and to death, but these young Christians did not hesitate to refuse to give themselves to the king. They soon formed a group of serious youth, truly committed to putting their daily conduct in line with the teaching they had received, while at the same time serving the king devotedly.
«Mapéra was your friend...»
In mid-July 1885, the Fathers returned. They saw that the Church had grownthe number of Christians had more than doubled. Father Lourdel wrote, «Mwanga is well disposed toward us; he will leave us, I believe, complete freedom to teach. But for himself, he will have trouble practicing. ... He has renounced all the local superstitions. He has the misfortune to smoke hemp, which will leave him dull-witted in a few years. Many of our neophytes have a great influence over him and do him much good with their advice.» However, Mwanga was prone to sudden about-faces. Like his father, he showed a tendency toward homosexuality. In the declaration Persona humana the Church teaches, «According to the objective moral order, homosexual relations are acts which lack an essential and indispensable finality. In Sacred Scripture they are condemned as a serious depravity and even presented as the sad consequence of rejecting God (Rom 1:24-27; 1 Co 6:10; 1 Tim 1:10). This judgment of Scripture does not of course permit us to conclude that all those who suffer from this anomaly are personally responsible for it, but it does attest to the fact that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and can in no case be approved of» (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, December 29, 1975, no. 8). A fervent Christian, Joseph Mukasa, whose ambition was to live according to Christ's teachings, tried to turn the king away from lust, drugs, and idolatry. He did not hesitate to remove from the palace the young pages under his care when the king solicited them for homosexual acts. «When the king solicits you for something bad, refuse him!» he told them. This attitude irritated Mwanga, but Joseph exhorted him: «My Lord the king, I beg you, don't do this anymore! God hates impurity...» Saint Paul, in fact, condemned lust as a vice particularly unworthy of a Christian, and which excludes one from the kingdom of Heaven: Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals ... will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
Ending the plague of AIDS
«The faithful of the present time, and indeed today more than ever, must use the means which have always been recommended by the Church for living a chaste life. These means are: discipline of the senses and the mind, watchfulness and prudence in avoiding occasions of sin, the observance of modesty, moderation in recreation, wholesome pursuits, assiduous prayer and frequent reception of the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. Young people especially should earnestly foster devotion to the Immaculate Mother of God» (Declaration Persona humana, no. 12).
«Praise» of Christians
The main execution took place on June 3, the feast of the Ascension. The Christians were filled with joy: «One would think that they were going to their wedding!» exclaimed the stupefied executioners. Each Christian was wrapped in reeds and put on the stake, to which the executioners set fire. Spontaneously, the martyrs recited the Our Father. The executioners listened, taken aback. When the martyrs came to the words Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, the executioners were seized with terror, and screamed with all their might, «It is not we who are killing you! It is our gods who are killing you because you call them demons!» A special fate was reserved for Charles Lwanga. After having witnessed the other Christians' martyrdoms, he was led to a stake set up for him. While the fire devoured his body, the executioner shouted to him, «Go ahead, have God come and pull you from this fire!» He replied, «What you call fire is nothing but cold water. As for you, take care that the God you are insulting does not plunge you one day in the true fire that does not go out.» At the moment of his death, he cried out in a loud voice, «O my God!» On June 22, 1934, Pope Pius XI declared Charles Lwanga «patron of African youth.» About a hundred Christians received the grace of martyrdom between 1885 and 1887. In 1964, Pope Paul VI canonized twenty-two Catholics for whom there is accurate documentation.
Why this fury?
Profoundly marked by these events, Father Lourdel confided in his brother, a Carthusian monk, about his prayer life and his spiritual trials: «Sometimes I wonder if my faith is failing ... In mission, one realizes that faith is really a gift from God, for oneself as much as for the souls of the converted. ... I have the misfortune of not being a man of prayer. Obtain the grace for me of being able to meditate.»
Between September 1888 and February 1890, King Mwanga was dethroned twice, but each time he managed to return to power. The Fathers were also exiled twice. When they returned the second time, they witnessed a veritable rush on the catechumenate. The missionaries had to test the candidates' sincerity, because it had come to be considered fashionable to be on the side of the Christians. At the beginning of May 1890, Father Lourdel fell seriously ill. An inadequate diet, persistent fevers, and all the setbacks he had encountered in his apostolate had destroyed his healthy constitution. On May 11, he asked God's forgiveness for not having served Him better, despite the fact that his entire missionary life had been made up of opposition, exhaustion, danger, and sufferings of all kinds endured to make Christ known and loved. The next day, he breathed his last.
At the time, the mission in Uganda numbered close to 2,200 baptized and about ten thousand fervent catechumens. Soon the seminaries, novitiates, and schools for catechists, that Father Lourdel had prayed for, began to spring up. In 1911, Catholics made up 30% of the population and Anglicans 21%. Christianity had become the main religion, its customs and practices the customs of the Baganda. As for King Mwanga, he was exiled to the Seychelles Islands, where he died in obscurity in 1903, after having finally been baptized by the Anglicans.
«We are called to pray assiduously for the missions and to cooperate with every means in the Church's activity all over the world to build up the Kingdom of God, 'an eternal and universal Kingdom: a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace' (Preface for the Feast of Christ the King). We are called to bear witness first of all with our life to our total adhesion to Christ and to His Gospel. Yes, we must never be ashamed of the Gospel and never be afraid of proclaiming that we are Christians, hiding our faith» (John Paul II, message of May 19, 2002, for World Mission Sunday). Let us ask Father Lourdel to obtain for us the grace to witness joyfully to our faith.
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