Priests for the People

Whatever promotes life, transmits life, manifests life, enriches life, saves life, protects life, ensures life, heals life, is good and must be longed for by all.

Fr. John Mary Waliggo

“Let me reiterate the outcry of the sons and daughters of Uganda: children, widows, orphans, displaced people and everybody are appealing to all the fighting groups to stop shedding blood. I say all this FOR GOD AND MY COUNTRY.”

Emmanuel Cardinal Nsubuga

Easter 2019 offers an opportunity to remember two great Ugandan Catholic leaders – Fr. John Mary Waliggo, who died on 19 April 2008 (upper left), and Emmanuel Cardinal Nsubuga, who died on 20 April 1991 (lower left).

Recalling John Waliggo, one of his friends smiled and said to me, “There are some people that when you think of them, you just want to take off your hat.” Among his diverse achievements, Fr. Waliggo was:

  • The greatest church historian of his generation, penning a Cambridge dissertation that remains the definitive account of early Catholic history in Buganda kingdom. He went on to write voluminously in theology and social ethics – his unpublished writings alone stand at over 1,100 pages!
  • A political activist who barely escaped the agents of Amin and Obote – once he was hid under a bed, dressed as a nun, and ferried across the Rwanda border under cover of night.
  • The chief architect of Uganda’s constitutional revision of 1995, once spending two months in the Ssese Islands reducing an 8,000-page draft to the final 800-page document.
  • A leader of Uganda’s first Human Rights Commission, helping to institute human rights training within all of Uganda’s security forces.
  • A joyful person renowned by his friends for his gifts in counseling, his easy laugh, and his love of a good debate.

Eleven years after he died too young from stomach cancer, we remember John Mary Waliggo, the most publicly influential priest in Ugandan history.

When I first mentioned my interest in Cardinal Emmanuel Nsubuga to my research assistant George Mpanga, he smiled. “The Cardinal came to my village when I was a baby and tossed me in the air!” His is among many fond memories of Emmanuel Nsubuga, a shepherd who, in the words of Pope Francis, never hesitated to “take on the smell of the sheep.” Ordained later in life due to health problems, Nsubuga retained a heart for the suffering. As a Cardinal he spent nearly every Friday volunteering at Nalukolongo home for the disabled, a place he loved so much that he requested to be buried there rather than the nearby cathedral. After promising at his 1966 consecration that “I am not just for you Catholics, I am for you all,” he built bridges with Muslims and Anglicans after nearly a century of mistrust and political tension. As Catholic Archbishop of Kampala, he quietly resisted and refused to capitulate to the Amin regime during the 1970s. After the fall of Amin, he collaborated with Uganda’s religious leaders to speak out on government human rights abuses during the early 1980s civil war. The government disliked him so much that they sent soldiers into his cathedral church and searched his personal residence on Ash Wednesday 1982. Unbowed, Nsubuga promptly called a press conference and demanded an apology from President Obote.

Buffeted by sexual abuse scandals and increasingly secularized societies, Western Catholic churches are facing a crisis of authority. Waliggo and Nsubuga were by no means perfect, but they remind us of the importance of public Catholic leadership in the developing world, especially here in Africa. For all of their public achievements, however, what many friends remember about these two leaders was their down-to-earth style and love of regular people. As one friend recalled about Waliggo, he “never showed in his life that he was a big man.”

Fifty years ago in 1969, Archbishop Nsubuga gave a memorable Easter homily in Rubaga Cathedral in Kampala, reminding his audience that Christian hope in God should make a tangible difference in the lives of our neighbors. May his words and witness inspire us throughout this 50-day Easter season and beyond.

“Hope, to be Christian, has to be effective for our fellow men. That means in a concrete way. Our hope has to give hope to them who are poor and 'left out' in our society, our hope has to kindle hope in them who have lost confidence in themselves and trust in the others.”