Holy Mass for the Closing of the Academic Year
at the Regional Seminary of
St. John Vianney and the Uganda Martyrs
15 May 2008, 6:30 p.m.
Solemnity of St. Charles Lwanga and Companions, Martyrs
Reading I: 2 Maccabees 7:1-2.9-14
Reading II: 2 Cor. 4:7-15
Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12
The poor in spirit, the gentle, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for what is right, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted in the cause of right… and all of this because of me, Jesus says, rejoice and be glad for heaven!
Among my all-time favorites from the Second Readings in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of Hours are two in the course of the year from Pope Paul VI, of blessed memory: one, assigned to the Feast of the Holy Family, comes from his talk in Nazareth about all the lessons to be learned from the school of the house of Jesus, Mary and Joseph at Nazareth; the other is from his 1964 homily at the canonization of the martyrs of Uganda.
Part of what thrills me about this excerpt from the Pope’s canonization homily is precisely the fact, that I (the Nuncio), a non-European, am hearing a great European sing the praises of another part of the world other than Europe. I am sure that Europeans are not and cannot be touched by the Pope’s message for the Feast of the Uganda Martyrs in the same way as I or most of us can. Let me quote the text ever so briefly:
“Who could have predicted to the famous African confessors and martyrs such as Cyprian, Felicity, Perpetua and – the greatest of all – Augustine, that we would one day add names so dear to us as Charles Lwanga and Matthias Mulumba Kalemba and their twenty companions?”
They were young men for the most part, whom the Church gladly identifies with the seven sons and their mother from the Book of Maccabees, and who in Christian art are often portrayed as the Black counterparts of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, the three young men singing unharmed in the fiery furnace of Babylon. The reading from Pope Paul VI continues:
“The infamous crime by which these young men were put to death was so unspeakable and so expressive of the times. It shows us clearly that a new people needs a moral foundation, needs new spiritual customs firmly planted, to be handed down to posterity. Symbolically, this crime also reveals that a simple and rough way of life – enriched by many fine human qualities yet enslaved by its own weakness and corruption – must give way to a more civilized life wherein the higher expressions of the mind and better social conditions prevail.”
Hold that thought and let me switch gears for just a moment!
It is a commonly held opinion that today’s students, especially theology students, and major seminarians par excellence, are much more serious about learning than we were years ago. I’ve also read that your typical vocation to the priesthood today is more serious than we were once upon a time. I am glad for you, but also a bit puzzled and will try and explain myself by reflecting for a moment on your great patrons, the Uganda Martyrs.
The heroism of the young men in the Book of Maccabees, brutally tortured and killed for their refusal to eat pork from a pagan sacrifice in violation of God’s Covenant and Law given to Moses and the Chosen People always causes me to shudder, but I have no real problem understanding or accepting their zeal. They give evidence of the typical psychology or should we say appreciation of noble values as understood and embraced by boys, youths and young men of any day and time. Faith in the God of their ancestors was certainly the cornerstone of their sacrifice, but they were martyred essentially because of their adherence to the Commandments and dietary laws of Judaism which were concrete and judged worth holding. This they had learned at their mother’s knee. It is true the Book of Maccabees here and elsewhere offers us among the most articulate Jewish expressions of faith in a future resurrection, but central to these young men’s oblation was their adherence to the law of the God of their fathers.
The Uganda Martyrs, as the Pope points out so clearly, are of a piece with the great North African Martyrs and Saints of the early centuries, whose sacrifice is not described first and foremost by a strict adherence on their part to the observance of the Law but rather by their faith in Christ, to whom they had bound themselves firmly, bound themselves in love and fidelity, bound themselves to Jesus, to the Risen One, to the Victor over sin and death. They, the Uganda Martyrs like centuries of Christian martyrs before them, had embraced what the seven brothers and their mother could only salute from afar.
Recently in Curacao I had a conversation with a man I’d judge to be in his forties, who expressed optimism concerning the attractiveness of priesthood today as a vocational choice for young men here in our region. Even though he seemed to me to be a regular “man in the pew” my guess is that he had also heard as I had about this new generation of conscientious students and hardworking or more-dedicated-than-my-generation seminarians. I’m afraid I may have burst his optimism bubble, by insisting on the old faith imparted to me in primary school by Sister and by Father from the pulpit back when I was just a little boy in the 1950’s.
You see, I am a staunch believer in a timeless understanding of vocation, amply sustained by the descriptions of how men received their calling from God in both the Old and New Testaments. You’ll never convince me that the three basic prerequisites in a boy or young man for a priestly vocation have changed. What are they? They are very simply: 1. sound mind; 2. sound body; 3. somewhat better than average intelligence. Everything else that goes into a vocation is supernatural and mediated by the Church through the voice of authority. God called me to priesthood from my mother’s womb; He gave me the grace to respond; the Church confirmed the rightness of my childish, at first, later youthful and idealistic, longing. The Church trained me and ordained me and has never ceased in love to knock off all my rough edges and purify me, first and foremost for the service of the Altar.
The vocation or call to martyrdom in the act itself is as horrifying as Christ’s Passion. In the Light of Easter Sunday the sense of it all comes clear in God’s plan to raise us up, to save us and our world. Whether hung, drawn and quartered, flayed alive, stripped and locked away in a cold old starvation bunker in a concentration camp in Central Europe, impaled or burned facing the furious rejection of a blood relative who may be a temporal ruler but does not share our hope in Christ, we are talking in the martyr, male or female, child, youth or adult, we are talking in that person about the ultimate unto life’s blood witness of radical respect for the human person. We are talking about a new dignity and worth attributed to the human person through baptism into Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, Who in Himself has raised us to even greater nobility than that we had at the moment of the creation of our first parent. The New Testament or Christian martyr’s witness flows from a true love of God and neighbor. Death is swallowed up in death as we make up for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ (to quote one of the most approved authors).
I hope and pray you all had a great academic year. Some people claim that studies are the ultimate bloodless martyrdom. Pope Paul VI would tell you that the Uganda Martyrs did not choose the path of confrontation but, when pressed to the wall and demanded to choose, chose Jesus. As little more than neophytes, barely graduated from the catechumenate, they were called by Christ. He made their hearts (boyish hearts, youngish or youthful hearts) his own. They knew the Commandments but more essentially they knew their Redeemer; they knew He would raise them up to life and never abandon them; they knew that whole, entire, glorified in the flesh they would with their own eyes see God.
“Symbolically, this crime also reveals that a simple and rough way of life – enriched by many fine human qualities yet enslaved by its own weakness and corruption – must give way to a more civilized life wherein the higher expressions of the mind and better social conditions prevail.”
As I say, I hope you all had a great academic year, that your studies have helped to equip you for “…a more civilized life wherein the higher expressions of the mind and better social conditions prevail.” I am convinced that the Hellenizers who tortured and killed the seven sons and their mother in Maccabees were indeed as enslaved to their own weakness and corruption as Uganda’s degenerate king. The young men of the Old Testament outstripped their torturers in their hope and adherence to principle. St. Charles Lwanga and his companions had the further advantage through their catechism lessons and youthful life of faith of having come to know, love and serve Christ.
The self-oblation of the young men from Uganda must be one of the best possible examples of the glories of the true faith without admixture or ambiguity. I would never wish martyrdom on myself or on any of you, but I am willing to predict that if your faith-life is as straightforward and centered in the person of Jesus Christ as that of any one of those twenty-two boys, youths or young men, we’ll soon be resorting to phrases like “a new Pentecost” to describe the renaissance of Catholic life spreading across the Caribbean like wildfire.
What is ultimately attractive and inspiring? What causes the Gospel to be spread? The life of virtue and adherence to the Person of Christ most certainly! These are gifts of grace, things we learn, things we are trained in. We can identify such traits in ourselves and in others; we can come to live them better and better each day. Our Gospel summary for this Feast again: The poor in spirit, the gentle, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for what is right, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted in the cause of right… and all of this because of me, Jesus says, rejoice and be glad for heaven!
I don’t know how much the bishops share with you about their anxious prayers and efforts for the sake of the life of the Regional Seminary of St. John Vianney and the Uganda Martyrs. We can only speculate concerning what the present and ongoing crisis of the seminary is all about. Part of the problem and perhaps the reason crowds of young men are not knocking down the doors and begging to serve may be that young people have been deprived of the encounter with the Lord Jesus which Charles Lwanga and his companions were blessed to have had at the dawn of the evangelization of Sub-Saharan Africa. No, that is not possible! I don’t believe it! Rather, I would say that maybe there haven’t been enough Eli’s out there to tell the little boys named Samuel, sleeping in the Lord’s House at Shiloh, to simply lift up their heads and say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening!”
The marvelous human traits of the Uganda Martyrs are present also in the youth of this region. God’s call of shepherds in sufficient number to tend the flock is guaranteed. We need more parents like Samuel’s mother who gave her son back to God no sooner than he was weaned and we need more Eli’s to say, “Boy, God is calling. Respond as you should!”
The nuncio prays for you and hopes at the close of this academic year that you’ll have a wonderful vacation or next stage in your life. Life only gets better when you allow the Lord, Who loves you more than yourself, to plot your course.