First Baptisms in Uganda 132 years' ago
"You too, go and work in my vineyard." (Mt. 20: 4)
On the 27th March 2012, the Catholic Church in Uganda will be commemorating the first baptisms. These were four young men: Paul Nalubandwa, Peter Kyonooneka Ddamulira, Joseph Lwanga and Leo Kaddu, who were baptised by Fr. Leon Livinhac during the Easter vigil in 1880 at Lubya-Nabulagala. The following day, that is on Easter Sunday, they received the sacraments of Confirmation (except Kaddu because he was young) and Holy Communion. Note that although the Protestant missionaries were the first to come to Uganda in 1877, their first baptisms (5) were made two years later on the 18th March 1882 at Nateete.
The baptism names which were given to these first Catholics are very significant. Peter the successor of Jesus, Paul the Apostle to the gentiles (non-Jews), Joseph the husband of Mary and foster father of Jesus, and Leo which could have been chosen because of one of these two reasons: either in honour and remembrance of Pope Leo XIII who authorized the Evangelization of East Africa or because of Fr. Leon Livinhac who was the superior of the pioneer missionaries and who baptised them.
This day marks the birth of the Catholic Church in Uganda. It is our Pentecost and should therefore be among the feast days of the Church in Uganda. Naturally, the yearly theme for reflection on this day should be related to our baptism.
Recruited to work in the Vineyard of the Lord
This year when we are celebrating the 50th Anniversary of our Independence, I would like to take the parable of "the Workers in the Vineyard" (Mt. 20: 1ff.) for our reflection as the spiritual grandchildren of Nalubandwa and his companions.
This parable is about the Kingdom of God, not about the Church. This Kingdom of God which is symbolised by the vineyard includes the whole of Creation: human beings and all other living and non-living beings (animals, insects, plants, minerals, etc.). Thus we read in Deuteronomy: "Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the highest heavens, the earth and all that is in it." (Dt. 10: 14. See also Ps. 24: 1 and Qur'an 3: 109). Uganda, its people and all that is in it, is part of this Kingdom of God, this Vineyard.
The owner of the vineyard, that is God, goes out at different times of the day to recruit workers for his vineyard. We can have two interpretations of this recruitment, the general one and the specific one. The general one would refer to all human beings. By the fact that each human being is created by God and put to live on earth, he or she is automatically recruited to work in the vineyard of God. I would call this the 'baptism in humanity' or what the author of Genesis refers to as 'creation in the image of God' (Gn. 1: 26-27). In this general recruitment through the 'baptism in humanity' each person who is born is put in the vineyard of God (Eden) 'to cultivate it and guard it.' (Gn. 2:15). Each birth is a new recruitment.
The specific meaning would refer to the Christians, who through their baptism are recruited to work in the same vineyard as all other human beings and for the same end - the Glory of God and the wellbeing of all His Creation, but their way of working, unlike their fellow human beings, is the Jesus-Way: "Learn from me (Mt. 11: 29) I have given you an example (Jn. 13: 15)." I call this the 'baptism in Jesus Christ'. Understood in this way, the first four Ugandans who were baptised on this day are those that the owner of the vineyard in the parable recruited on the first hour. And, like in the parable, God continues up to this day to recruit Christ-like-workers through the sacrament of baptism for His vineyard.
Vineyard ravaged by wild beasts
At the time of the first baptisms, the beauty of this country and the wisdom of its people and leaders made the European explorers to call it the 'Pearl of Africa'. Were those same people to come back to life, would they describe the Uganda of today in the same way? What about the Ugandans who today are more than fifty years old, what do we say about our beloved Mother Country, not only in reference to her natural resources, but also in reference to the wisdom and morals of her leaders and children?
I have little doubt that majority of us have this image in our heads and prayer in our hearts that the Psalmist well put together in these verses: "Bring us back, Almighty God! Show us your mercy, and we shall be saved! You brought a grapevine out of Egypt; .... You cleared a place for it to grow; its roots went deep, and it spread out over the whole land. It covered the hills with its shades; its branches overshadowed the giant cedars. It extended its branches to the Mediterranean Sea and as far as the River Euphrates. Why did you break down the fences round it? Now anyone passing by can steal its grapes; wild pigs trample it down, and wild animals feed on it. Turn to us, Almighty God! Look down from heaven at us; come and save your people! Come and save the grapevine that you planted, this young vine you made grow so strong!" (Ps. 80: 7-15)
What have we done with our Baptism?
During his first visit to France in 1981, the late Pope John Paul II asked the French people this question: "France, eldest daughter of the Church, what have you done to your baptismal promises?" By coincidence, all the first Catholic Missionaries in Uganda were French. The question, therefore, that the Pope put to the compatriots of our ancestors in the faith, could as well be addressed to ourselves: "Uganda, the Country of Martyrs, what have you done to your baptismal promises?"
When the 'baptised' are not only a few but the majority among those that the psalmist refers to as 'thieves, wild pigs and wild animals' in this verse: "Now anyone passing by can steal its grapes; wild pigs trample it down, and wild animals feed on it", what conclusion can we make? Can we any longer boast of this country as being majority Christian?
Time is gone to focus on numbers instead of focussing on quality! Time is gone to engage in the war of statistics! In Uganda as in many other African countries, one wouldn't be surprised that each faith community has different statistics in relation to the religious affiliations of the country's total population. Time is gone to look at baptism as a 'passport' or a 'visa' to heaven. Now is the time to reflect seriously on the meaning of our baptism and what we are doing with our baptismal promises in this part of God's Vineyard.
When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, the Holy Spirit launched him forth on his mission of announcing, in word and action, the Good News of God's Kingdom, (Mk. 1: 9-15). Now is the time to ask ourselves, we the spiritual grandchildren of Nalubandwa and his companions: What have we done with the call and gifts of the Holy Spirit given to us through Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist? Have we used them in the spirit of our National Motto: For God and My Country? Let us renew our baptismal-promises committing ourselves to 'cultivate' (develop) and 'guard' our Mother Land, Uganda, in the way that Jesus would have done it, in Jesus-Way.
Nnyombi Richard, M. Afr.