When I arrived in Uganda for the first time the country was in the middle of a dictatorship instigated in 1971 by Idi Amin Dada. The regime had targeted the leadership of the acioli tribe, where the first of the CL movement arrived.
The border dispute between Uganda and Tanzania over the Kagera region provoked war in November 1978. The Ugandan exiles, who wanted to return to the country, joined the Tanzanian regular army. All of Uganda awaited liberation from the terror of Amin. Any trace of a hope for a new beginning, however, was immediately rendered illusory due to serious divisions between different ethnic groups and due to the starving for power between different political groups. Some freedom!
After Amin was deposed and Milton Obote was elected, disturbed by electoral fraud and corruption and by results declared with armed rifles, Yoweri Museveni, starting from southern Uganda, led a revolt that many young people soon joined. Shortly thereafter, we found ourselves in the midst of an unprecedented civil war. The people, mostly young people, were willing to sacrifice their lives for money, giving themselves over to crime. Others joined with guerilla groups in the forests for liberation from Obote and the northern tribal powers. In that storm, we found ourselves surprised as we began asking for what we would be willing to risk our lives. It was the beginning of 1981.
In August of that year, I participated in a theological convention in Katigondo, in south Uganda, with other priests of the Movement. The debate swung between the proposal of a faith that had to be acculturated (cheaply forgetting the fact that the Ugandan martyrs received their faith through French fathers, only after two years were they able to give their lives for this) and a not-so-veiled sympathy for the guerrilla army, as a real contribution to the liberation of the people. Instead, we were keenly aware that there was one single source of life and freedom for us and for our people: the gift of communion that we lived. Those days gave birth to the idea that we could propose to everyone the companionship of the Movement and the desire to entrust our lives and the entire country to Mary, through the Act of Consecration, which came about in December 1981 (the text of the prayer can be found beside the article).
That prayer, a manifesto of our faith and hope, is still recited today in our house in Nairobi and the communities in Uganda and Kenya. In effect, only the fullness of a life received and present is capable of illuminating the possibility of the total gift of one’s very life. Only through belonging to Him who gives us life allows us not to fear death.
My mission in northern Uganda was at the center of clashes between the rebels and the regular army. During the hardest periods of the war, when I was isolated in Kitgum town and could not stay in my village of Palabek, I was reprimanded because I tried to bring my parishioners together at least for the most important occasions. They said I was crazy, that they would kidnap me and kill me, and that my being white and being a priest did not matter to the rebels. My answer was always the same: “They can kill me, but they never decide the meaning of my life and my death.”
At the time, the Movement here was in its infancy in the midst of the precariousness of war and the constant threat of losing one’s life, yet it grew and spread like an unstoppable flow friendship. Among the first of the community was Francis, a Catholic elementary school teacher who was very involved in the mission. Every day he fearlessly went to church, until November 22, 1982, when he was ambushed as he was walking his normal route. He was beaten by sticks and died from the blows. Francis was the living testimony that all of us carried an overabundance of grace such that we could not contain it.
During the years of war, I saw emerge from the hearts of men the best and the worst of which they were capable. It happens that the most extreme situations bring to light the profound motive for which we live. In particular I saw the totality of belonging to Christ, who alone renders us available to martyrdom, incarnate in my friend and catechist Santo Okot. He enabled me to contemplate a radicality so profound as to lead him to face any persecution as a chance to unite his sufferings to Christ’s. One time for example he arrived to the parish late, with his face swollen, riding on his bicycle. He told me with great serenity that he had been beaten by soldiers at a checkpoint until finally, after he was identified as a commander, he was released. In front of my anger toward the soldiers, some of whom were my acquaintances, and to my suggestion to take another route home, Santo replied flatly: “You must be joking! I want to go to them, give them the Act of consecration and do so in a way that they understand that there is one thing for which it is worth living.” And this he did. In the midst of the war, Santo was a fellow believer who taught me passion for bearing witness to Christ, to his final “yes” pronounced on his deathbed in the parish in Palabek, from which he never wanted to distance himself, but for which he had instead decided to sacrifice himself.
Through witnesses like these, martyrdom became a real possibility that each one our lives could potentially face. Indeed, the possibility was already present among us in our living awareness of belonging to the gift that had been giving to us. Martyrdom was the extreme testimony of our being Christ’s. This is why, even today, as a missionary of St. Charles in the great city of Nairobi, among AIDS patients or preparing couples for marriage, I experience the relationship that exists between martyrdom and virginity, between martyrdom and consecration. Martyrdom is virginity made flesh. I am no longer I who live, but an Other who lives in me. Thus there is no fear of losing anything because everything is already his- even my staying alive. Even my death.
Act of Consecration
The following is the Act of Consecration of our life to Christ through Mary, so that the Church may become the source of new life for all people.
Mary, you are the Mother of Christ,
Mother of the Communion that your Son gives us,
a gift that is ever new and powerful
and is a taste of new life.
Through You therefore we consecrate all of ourselves,
all of our joys and suffering that Your Son chooses for us
and our very lives,
until You become the Mother of Life
and until Christ gives to all people the same taste of new life
that He gave to us.
In the picture: a procession with Fr. Gabriele Foti.