GULU, Uganda — In anticipation of Pope Francis’ first visit to their country, the head of the Ugandan bishops conference has called on Catholics to make themselves ready to welcome the Pope though prayer and charitable works.
“The Pope’s visit and presence during the celebrations requires us to prepare in a special way. The nature of this visit is primarily pastoral and spiritual,” Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu said in his Oct. 7 pastoral letter on behalf of his fellow bishops.
Although Pope Francis will be the third pope to visit Uganda, the real excitement comes from his visit coinciding with the 50th anniversary celebration of the canonization of the Ugandan Martyrs.
These 22 holy men and women, “whose blood has been the seed of Christianity in this country” Archbishop Odama said, were executed by the king in the 1880s for refusing to denounce their faith. Blessed Paul VI canonized them Oct. 18, 1964.
In order to prepare for these events, Archbishop Odama asked that Catholics unite in prayer by praying a set of one “Our Father”, one “Hail Mary”, and one “Glory be” before the final blessing at each Mass from now until the papal visit, “for the intentions of the Pope and the success of his visit.”
Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Africa from Nov. 25-30, with his first stop in Kenya from Nov. 25-27, followed by Uganda Nov. 27-29, and finally the Central African Republic Nov. 29-30.
Archbishop Odama asked Catholics to serve the poor and practice penance “so that we can receive the Papal blessing in a worthy manner.” Above all, however, he said Catholics should “make every effort to reconcile and love one another as Christ has loved us.”
“Most importantly, in a country like ours where unity and national consensus has eluded us for decades, the Pope comes as a bridge builder,” the archbishop said. “His visit provides yet another golden opportunity for us Ugandans to be instruments of unity, peace and reconciliation in the family, and among the various religious, cultural and political groups.”
Such an opportunity “demands of us to imitate Christ who came to serve rather than to be served, it invites us to be servants to one another,” he said.
That some 15 million Ugandans are Catholic today is a testament to the sacrifice of the holy martyrs, he said.
“Uganda presents one of the most remarkable stories in the history of Christian faith and martyrdom,” Archbishop Odama said, remarking that, “(a)t the start of the 20th century, there were barely ten thousand Catholics within our borders.”
The Catholic Church has contributed to the social transformation of Uganda, the archbishop said, especially in the areas of education and healthcare to both the wealthy and the poor.
“As we reflect on the above achievements, we need to ask ourselves what our individual contributions have been,” he said.
However, he added that the Church in Uganda is “best by challenges to which we … need to pay particular attention,” noting the “alarming gap and contradictions between the faith we profess and the life we live, between the gospel and some traditional African practices such as polygamy, cohabitation, trial marriage, witchcraft and human sacrifice. While many Catholics recognize the sacredness of marriage, many are non-compliant to the demands of Christian marriage.”
Ugandan families also face a host of problems, he said, listing domestic violence, alcoholism, infidelity, poor communication, underage marriage, excessive dowry, child abuse, poverty, denial of mutual love, and the spread of HIV/AIDS.
“Before the Holy Father comes, we are challenged to recommit ourselves to promoting the values and sanctity of marriage and the family, and to rebuilding the moral fiber of our country,” Archbishop Odama said.
The Uganda Martyrs provide “an ideal example of what it required to live the faith within the family and the Church,” he said noting that some of them were married “traditionally” but embraced monogamy in accordance with Church teaching.
Catholic Ugandans should also delve more deeply into the Church’s social teaching, especially care for the poor, Archbishop Odama said, as well as protection of the environment discussed in Laudato Si (The Care for Our Common Home).