By Denise Trull
"I know Him in whom I have believed." - 2 Timothy: 1:12
This Saturday we celebrate the feast St. Charles Lwanga and Companions. This is a story about power, but not where you would assume it to be.
The tale starts powerfully enough with a Ugandan Chief, King Mwanga. This is a man who is used to getting what he wants. He is irascible, erratic, passionate, cruel, full of lust and cunning — terrifying qualities in a man who wields supreme authority over his minions. He is a king who must be obeyed, or dire the consequences. It is a terrifying prospect, that kind of power. But up against the mysterious ways of God, not powerful enough, as it turns out, for King Mwanga was not counting on the likes of one Joseph Mkasa, a Christian layman who was responsible for all the young pages in King Mwanga's court.
Joseph Mkasa had received his faith through the preaching of the white robed fathers. He had the supreme gift of wisdom. He rose up one fateful day and, with the strength of grace, challenged the king by telling him that it was wrong to have put to death some good Christian men, including Episcopal bishops, just because they had ‘annoyed’ him. While he had the king’s attention, Joseph went even further and calmly called out the king's lust and his rampant pedophilia among the young boys in his court. Joseph loudly, and in the company of the whole court, pronounced it a grave and terrible evil.
I am sure you could have heard a pin drop in the court assembly. Everyone assumed, and rightly, that this was the kiss of death for Joseph Mkasa. But in reality it turned out to be the kiss of... life. Because Joseph knew in whom he believed, as St. Paul tells us in the first reading of this Saturday’s Mass. Alas, King Mwanga then made a terrible mistake. He put Joseph to death thinking that would be that. But in that death a martyr was born, and the seeds of his martyrdom made their way into the fertile soil of a young page named Charles Lwanga, who had loved Joseph and had watched his faith and charity in action.
Quiet, joyful Charles took over the care of the pages when Joseph died. Charles taught them their Catholic faith right under the nose of the king and his court. He also protected and shielded the younger pages from the king's lust with holy cunning of his own.
Eventually, the king found out about this covert Catholicism growing in his court. He became furious. He called one young man after another into his powerful presence and asked if they were teaching the Catholic faith. Each one simply said, "Yes.” That was all. Calm. Courageous. Even cheerful. Talk about speaking truth to power. They did not uprise. They did not organize an underground army to overthrow the king. They were not filled with resentment or anger. They knew Him in whom they had believed. They said yes when they meant yes, and no when they meant no and nothing more. The power of this simple, direct faith, this peaceful meekness, became as a rock, a fortress that withstood fear. These boys were a mere twelve, thirteen, fifteen years old. Grace had made them quiet, joyful giants of resolve. It is such a wonder. Such children bested a king with the power of Him in whom they believed.
King Mwanga, with his sense of sadistic drama, made a huge roaring fire and threw them all into it. He even had the father of one of the younger pages light the fire. Every horror he could conceive did not shake their resolve. Charles, being the ring leader of this band of boys, was given his own pyre, so all the court could watch him suffer his personal agony. With delightful hutzpah, Charles Lwanga calmly arranged the logs of the fire that would eventually consume him. He called out to his companions to keep the faith until he died with the simple words, “My God!” on his lips and complete forgiveness of sadistic King Mwanga in his heart, that astounding forgiveness which is always the greatest victory.
Power. It isn’t always where we think it will be. God’s ways are not our ways.
In the end, where did all this courage come from? It hearkens back to the beginning of the story, and one Joseph Mkasa. His charity, his care, and protection of the purity in helpless, innocent boys, his courage, and his willingness to die for truth. What a saint for our times! A saint who died protecting the innocence of the young.
Do we protect the innocence of our own children? Do we shield them from the lust and muck they find all around them on the internet, in movies, and in a world whose sole purpose is to tempt them away from Christ? It seems too powerful for us to fight against sometimes. But power isn’t always where we think it will be. We can ask Joseph to help us keep courage and to speak up — to say yes when we mean yes, and no when we mean no — to trust in the grace of Him in whom we have believed! I love Joseph more and more.
The blood of martyrs is, indeed, the seed of the Church. That isn't just some pretty saying we have gotten used to quoting. On this beautiful feast, we see the power of that blood. It lavishly watered the seeds that sprouted in the young hearts of Charles Lwanga and his fellow pages who bested the power of a king.
I hope Joseph was the first to greet them and bring them to the One in whom they believed. This would have only been right and just.