Millions Expected at Uganda’s Catholic Pilgrimage as Country Relaxes COVID-19 Rules

Bishop Robert Muhiirwa of the Catholic Diocese of Fort Portal addresses members of the Press ahead of the Martyrs' Day celebration in the Archdiocese of Kampala. Credit: Ugandan Catholics Online

With Uganda having relaxed COVID-19 restrictions, including the widely publicized reopening of schools, millions of pilgrims from all over the world are expected to throng the country’s Namugongo Shrine for the annual Martyr’s Day celebrations on June 3.

At a Wednesday, March 23 press conference, Bishop Robert Muhiirwa of the Catholic Diocese of Fort Portal said that the Diocese that has been asked to animate the celebrations had reached out to the Ugandan government to request for a “full-blast” celebration.

He said that while only a few hundreds of people attended the famed Martyrs’ Day at inception, Namugongo has grown to receive millions of pilgrims every year. 

“Fort Portal Diocese last animated this celebration way back in 1997. Since then, several changes have taken place. It used to be a small event of about 300 people, but now it is an event of millions of people,” Bishop Muhiirwa said.

He added, “We have sought government's guidance on the nature of the celebrations, but unfortunately, we have not yet got a response from them as to what format this celebration should take. We are optimistic that they will allow us to have a full blast celebration.”


The 63-year-old Catholic Bishop said that Fort Portal Diocese had received the invitation to animate the Martyrs’ Day Celebrations on February 14.

“We received the great news from the Uganda Episcopal Conference of our choice as Fort Portal Catholic Diocese to lead this year’s Uganda Martyrs’ Day celebration at Namugongo Catholic Shrine. Due to the uncertainties of the Corona pandemic, the news came in a bit late,” Bishop Muhiirwa said.

He added, “The task is enormous and demands serious preparations on the spiritual level and material level so as to profit from the pilgrimage to Namugongo whose purpose is eminently spiritual, the material dimension notwithstanding. We are organizing a number of activities to march the task ahead of us.”

The Ugandan Catholic Diocese has settled on “Baptized and Sent to Witness Christ with Love and Hope” as the theme of the event.

The theme Bishop Muhiirwa said, is reflected in the way the Ugandan martyrs died. The martyrs, he explained, were men of faith baptized with water, “but some were not yet baptized and had baptism of blood.”

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“They had a great love for Christ,” the Ugandan Bishop said of the 45 Christian martyrs, and added, “That is why they opted to die rather than obey the orders of Kabaka Mwanga. They were not threatened by the sword or fire. With love and hope, they looked to the life after death and resurrection without any fear.”

The theme, he explained, is an invitation and inspiration for the people of God to have strong hope amid adversity.

“The theme invites us and inspires us as Ugandans, especially in this post-covid time when we have to witness to our love and have hope in Christ, the different challenges that we have as individuals, as families, as institutions and even our government,” the Local Ordinary of Fort Portal said.

He noted that the East African country is experiencing numerous socio-economic hardships of sickness, unemployment, poverty and even death. “Some people even lost hope,” Bishop Muhiirwa said.

“As Christians and Ugandans, we need to be inspired by the martyrs of Uganda not to give up. They faced several hardships and challenges in their lives. They continued to share the faith and encouraged each other without giving up and indeed they succeeded by giving their lives to the Lord,” the Bishop said.


He added, “This celebration is a great opportunity for us as for Fort Portal Diocese, together with the faithful, Uganda and the Universal Church, to learn more about the martyrs’ witness to Christ with love and hope, and seek their intercession.”

The Catholic Church leader said that organizers of the June 3 event have put most arrangements in order, including writing to government officials to provide necessary support on the day.

Additionally, a choir of about 200 members has been selected and have embarked on their preparations for the celebration.

“We also have contacted different corporate and business bodies to mobilize and advertise (the event) in the souvenir magazine, which will soon be out,” he said, and added, “However, we have a number of gaps because we have been informed of our role at short notice.”

Bishop Muhiirwa said that one of the gaps that exist in the preparations for the Martyrs’ Day is finances.

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“I continue in a special way to appeal to you all people of goodwill to support Fort Portal Diocese in realizing successful and fruitful celebrations. With your spiritual, financial, moral, social and all kinds of support, we shall be able to meet our UGX 1 billion ($277,357) budget, which is very much needed for the success of the occasion,” he said.

Details provided for the financial support of the Martyrs’ Day celebrations in Uganda include the following: Centenary Bank, A/c Name: Fort Portal Diocese 2022 Uganda Martyrs Celebrations, A/c No.: 3203286953, Fort Portal branch.

The other option is Airtel Money No. 0753 503 354 and Mobile Money No. 0771 963 204. Both lines bear the name Robert K. Muhiirwa.

Agnes Aineah is a Kenyan journalist with a background in digital and newspaper reporting. She holds a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism from the Aga Khan University, Graduate School of Media and Communications and a Bachelor's Degree in Linguistics, Media and Communications from Kenya's Moi University. Agnes currently serves as a journalist for ACI Africa.