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Oh when the Saint came marching in

By Vision Reporter

Added 15th September 2015 12:05 PM

Pope John Paul II visited Uganda in 1993 - one of 104 apostolic voyages he made outside Rome.

Oh when the Saint came marching in

Pope John Paul II in Uganda in 1993. Photos/File

Pope John Paul II visited Uganda in 1993 - one of 104 apostolic voyages he made outside Rome.

KAMPALA - Pope John Paul II visited Uganda in 1993. It was one of 104 apostolic voyages he made outside Rome. Little did we know then that Pope Francis would canonize him saint (April 27, 2014). Mathias Mazinga recalls the five days February 5-10, 1993 when the saintly Pope was in Uganda.

For a pope who made 104 foreign trips, more than all previous popes combined, a visit to Uganda was a matter of course. John Paul II averaged four major trips a year, logged more than a million kilometres and spent about 6% of his papacy outside the Vatican and Italy. Having visited African countries 51 times, rebounding in 4 countries (DR Congo, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Nigeria) and in 2 countries (Kenya and Ivory Coast) thrice, it would have been news if Uganda had not been on his destination list.

The news then was that the pope gave Uganda five full days. He visited Kampala, Gulu, Soroti and Kasese. Nobody knew that 21 years later, the same pope would be declared saint in the Catholic Church. 

He was canonized by Pope Francis on April 27 2014. When Pope Francis visits in November, Uganda will be the only country in Africa to have been visited by three popes, the first one being Pope Paul VI in 1969.

The tree planted by Pope John Paul II at Rubaga Cathedral presbytery. Photo/Mathias Mazinga

Inviting the pope

According to Emmanuel Cardinal Wamala, who was the Metropolitan Archbishop at the time, it all happened when Catholic bishops from the world had visited the Vatican on their periodical official visit (ad Limina) in 1991.

“The Holy Father entertained us to a sumptuous lunch. We then presented him with our request to host him in Uganda. He assured us that he would think about our request. When we returned home, we wrote an official letter, inviting the Pontiff.  But we also had to agree with government because the Pope is a head of state in his own right. And government also sent an invitation,” Wamala explained.

When the Vatican responded, Pope John Paul was giving five days! Wamala said they sat as bishops and proposed that he uses that time to move to the four regions of the country.

“We suggested Namugongo, Soroti, Gulu and Kasese,” Wamala said. And the Vatican agreed in spite of the logistical implications. There was still political instability in Gulu and for Pope John Paul II to risk that, was a laudable move that some have referred to in acknowledging his sainthood qualification.

Photo/Mathias Mazinga

Alphonse Oseku, a retired man who worked as a chief government protocol officer then said the visits to different regions of the country reduced on the crowds that would have flocked Kampala.

“Gulu represented the north and people moved from as far as West Nile, Kitgum, Lira and other surrounding districts to Gulu and meet him,” he said. “Soroti represented the whole of the east. Kasese the west and the climax of the Pontiff’s visit was the mass at Namugongo Shrine in Wakiso District.”

The transport detail, including the helicopter which took him to all the other regions he visited in the country, was provided by the state, Oseku said.

The plaque of the memorial clock of Pope John Paul's visit.
Photo/Mathias Mazinga


Kampala was cleaned up and full of welcome arches, some costing as high as sh0.5m, like the one by Captain Mike Mukula, then LC3 Chairman, Nakawa. Kampala city had been decorated with papal posters. And many corporates didn’t work or left offices earlier deeming it a public holiday. Papal souvenirs like T-shirts, key-holders, badges, calendars, photographs, posters, table cloths, scarfs, cups and plates were many on sale.

The access road to Entebbe Airport was limited to invited guests. The road between Kireka and Namugongo Shrines was also closed to the public, allowing only VIPs, cyclists, pedestrians and wheel-chairs, until the Pope’s departure on Wednesday, February 10. The then District Administrator of Kampala, Serapio Karashani even stopped business transactions around the areas in Kampala the Pope visited like Nakivubo stadium.

A one-day papal motor rally was organized and 15 cars were flagged off at Agip, Crested Towers.

By 10 o’clock, people had already lined up along the Entebbe-Kampala road.

The chair on which Pope John Paul II sat. Photo/Mathias Mazinga

John Paul’s arrival

Pope John Paul II arrived at 3:30pm, aboard an Alitalia A-300 Air-bus to arousing cheers byt thousands waiting. However, according to Robert Ssempa, the former head of the laity of the Archdiocese of Kampala said, unlike for Pope Paul VI where crowds were allowed at the airport, the security was tighter for John Paul. A few people were allowed on the tarmac at the airport.

The plane finally taxied to a stop at 4:00pm and the 72-year old Pontiff emerged looking tired but still wearing his trade-mark smile.  He removed his cap and waved at the gathering dignitaries and crowds cheered ecstatically.

He was welcomed by President Museveni and his wife Janet, Vice President Samson Kisekka, Prime Minister Cosmas Adyebo and Hajji Moses Kigongo. Others at the red carpet were the then Army Commander Major General Mugisha Muntu, Police Chief Cossy Odomel, Prison Commissioner Joseph Etima and a number of military officers. Others were the diplomats, cardinals and bishops. Traditional dancers were there doing their best.

The guard of honour was mounted by NRA officers, smart in their green uniforms and navy blue berets, black boots and white gloves.

Saint John Paul I I’s footstep at the residence of the Archbishop in Rubaga.
Photo/Mathias Mazinga

After the anthems and a 21-gun salute, the Pontiff and Museveni addressed the gathering before the entourage started their journey to Kampala. The motorcade was received at various trading centers by huge crowds, who had eagerly waited for the Pontiff since morning. The pope travelled in an open State Mercedes Benz Limousine, which Cardinal Wamala said was provided by the government.

“I personally enjoyed those moments. The pope was a very free, humourous and jokey pontiff,” Wamala said.

From Entebbe, the Pope was driven to Nile Hotel for a state reception after which he proceeded to the Apostolic Nunciature in Mbuya, where he resided throughout his visit. The State agents would come in the morning to get and escort him to wherever he was to go, and take him back at the end of the day.

(Read about his visit to Gulu in Sunday Vision)

Emmanuel Katongole helps Pope John Paul II to cut the tape as he inaugurated the memorial clock of his visit at Rubaga Cathedral. File Photo 

Day 2 Gulu visit

On February 6, Pope John Paul II was flown to Kaunda Grounds in Gulu, where he arrived at 10:00am, in the company of Archbishop Emmanuel Wamala. He was received with ululations and cheers from thousands of Christians who were waiting for him.

Gulu was at that time not very peaceful, but the people turned out in huge numbers. However, security at Kaunda Grounds, where the Pontiff said mass, was so tight that thousands of Christians were barred from entering. Only Christian groups from various dioceses in northern Uganda, South Sudan, DRC and officials with special cards were allowed to enter. Christians who had walked distances of up to 180 Km to the Gulu were left frustrated. Even those who entered were kept 150 metres away from the altar.

John Paul II received by Ssekamaanya and Msgr.  Katende. File 

Their consolation was the street opportunity to wave at the pope driving through in the Presidential Limousine, as crowds sang, ululated and waved flags. At one time, he got out and walked through the crowds and shaking hands with them. There were scenes of unprecedented excitement and hysteria, when some lucky few Christians managed to touch the Pope’s cassock or hand.  The Pope then proceeded to greet the President, who had arrived thirty minutes earlier.

At the stadium, the Pontiff put on his mass vestments from a grass-thatched hut behind the altar. And just before he began the mass, he veered off to bless some disabled persons, who were seated close to the altar. He gave Holy Communion to 50 selected Christians. Later, Christians offered the Pope various gifts including fresh fruits and handcrafts. He also presented a chalice to Bishop Martin Luluga. At the end of the mass, at 1:30pm, the Pope took a group photo with priests and the religious, went to the residence of Bishop Luluga, after which he was flown back to Kampala at around 2:00pm.

Fr. Francis Ouma of Gulu diocese later told the Catholic Review media house that it was from this papal visit in Gulu that he got his vocation to be a priest.

“I was 7. I looked at him and resolved to be a pope,” he said. “My mother explained that I had to be a priest first and, six years later, I joined the seminary.”

Ouma said he still remembers a potato garden which was destroyed to make a road from the airstrip to the diocese. It was at a tough time when many people were facing the brutality of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. His oldest brother was killed in the conflict and his father was kidnapped but later escaped.

Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi(L)  II receives Pope John Paul II during his visit to Uganda in February 1993

The youth at Nakivubo

After mass in Gulu, the Pope was flown to the residence of the Apostolic Nuncio in Mbuya for a short nap before he met the youth at Nakivubo Stadium at around 6:00pm. Over 50,000 youths from various schools and the 16 Catholic dioceses, joined by 250 youths from Kenya and 50 youths from Tanzania, were present. They performed songs, poems and drama skits, but Veronique Nakalanzi’s performance stole the show. The 14 year old narrated her emotional sad story of how she had been defiled at the age of 13 and infected with HIV as she returned from school in Mukono, one evening.

The Pope prayed for the youths and counseled them against premarital sex. They presented him gifts and he gave them Rosaries.

Robert Ssempa, who was among the youth at Nakivubo, said the Pope excited them with a greeting in Luganda: “Nsanyuse okubalaba, mwebale kujja”

“There was one thing that I will never forget; as the Pope started to talk to the youth, at exactly 7:59pm, power went off and there was total darkness. I think it caused the subsequent broadcasting interactions which resulted into the unfortunate dismissal of Edith Lubwama, then an employer of Radio Uganda.

Msgr. John Waynand Katende, who was also at the stadium, also recalled the black out.

“When power went off, the youth lit their candles and the flickers all around the corners of the stadium sort of became relevant to the theme. For about one hour, the stadium was being lit by candle lights. Then the Pope drew a spiritual message out of this and said: “Now the light of the youth has shone before the Pope. Dear youth, I ask you to take this same light to the people out there, so that through your good words and examples, they can see the goodness of our God.”

(Read about his visit to Namugongo, Kasese, Soroti in Saturday Vision)

Pope John Paul II being welcomed by President Yoweri Museveni and his wife Janet Museveni

Day 3 Namugongo

February 7 was the climax mass at Namugongo where Pope John Paul attracted probably his greatest crowd, estimated at 300,000 people. The four-hour mass was also attended by President Yoweri Museveni and his wife Janet, cabinet ministers and pilgrims from countries like Kenya and Tanzania.

The Pope first visited the Anglican martyrs’ shrine at Nakiyanja, where he prayed together with the Anglican Archbishop, Yonah Okoth and Bishop Misaeri Kauma. He had a brief talk with the then Ssabataka of Buganda, Ronald Muwenda Mutebi, to whom he later donated a Rosary and a gold medal. (Mutebi was 5 months later crowned Kabaka)

He returned to the Catholic site for the Pontifical mass which he began with some luganda words that excited the crowds: “Baana bange abaagalwa, mbalamusizza mwenna. Mwebale okujja. Katonda Kitaffe tumugulumize”. (My beloved sons and daughters, I greet you all. Thanks for coming. Let us praise God our Father).

William Mubiru says the choir was comprised of cream choristers from various parishes.

“They sang so well that at the end of the mass, the Pope thanked them saying: You are a great choir. You have sung great music.” I personally enjoyed the song Ye ggwe lwazi, a papal song by Fr. James Kabuye, which was sung before the Pope started to say mass.”

Katende says Pope John Paul declared Namugongo shrine a Minor Basilica.

During mass at Namugongo, Pope John Paul II personally gave Holy Communion to some believers.

Oseku the protocol officer said only 10 people were selected to receive Holy Communion from the Pope. He also remembers how people rushed to touch the chair where the pope had sat the moment he left.

“I had to quickly take it away to safety, otherwise they would have broken it to pieces yet we had to keep it as a souvenir,” he said.

Pope John Paul II at Namugongo Martyrs Shrine, where he conducted Mass

Nsambya Hospital

From Namugongo, the Pope went to St. Francis’ Hospital, Nsambya, where he visited the sick. It was a time when HIV/AIDS was rampant in the country. He was taken to AIDS patients and told that 60% of the 400 patients at the hospital were either HIV-infected or suffering from AIDS-related illnesses. He blessed and prayed for them. He was so touched that he later urged the youths to embrace abstinence.

"The sexual restraint of chastity is the only safe and virtuous way to put an end to the tragic plague of AIDS which has claimed so many young victims," he said.

There were no speeches at the hospital. The pope had a written message to all the sick which he handed over to Bishop Henry Ssentongo, who was the chairman of the Uganda Catholic Medical Bureau.

Pope John Paul II at Namugongo Martyrs Shrine where he conducted mass in February 1993

Meeting bishops

After Nsambya hospital, the pope went to the Uganda Catholic Secretariat where he met the bishops of the Uganda Episcopal Conference. The staff too the opportunity to line up and greet him. Later his entourage had supper with the ishops at the Nuncio’s residence.

Day 4: Pope visits Kasese

It was February 8, and Pope John Paul II arrived at the residence of Bishop Egidio Nkaijanabwo of Kasese, a few minutes to 11:00am. He was driven from Kasese Airfield in a presidential Mercedes Benz Cross-Country and received by a mammoth crowd, many of whom shed tears of joy on touching his robes. It took over 30 minutes greeting the people, many of whom had travelled from as far as Rwanda and DR Congo. Again he excited the Christians by starting the mass with the local language, Rutooro. “Abagonzebwa Omu Kristo Muroho muta?”

The Pontiff prayed for the success of the efforts to end the armed conflict that was prevailing in Rwanda so that the people could return to their homes. He later blessed the new residence of the bishop and the foundation stones of several church projects of Kasese diocese.

The 2-hour mass was co-celebrated by 7 bishops and a number of priests. Government was represented by the then Second Deputy Prime Minister, Dr. Paul Kawanga Ssemwogerere.

The pontiff returned to Kampala at around 3:00pm.

Pope John Paul II being welcomed by President Yoweri Museveni and his wife Janet Museveni

Day 5: Soroti visit

Pope John Paul II was received by thousands of excited Christians at Soroti Sports Ground. He was hosted by Bishop Erasmus Wandera. Government was represented by Hon. Eteker Ejalu.

Soroti then was emerging from rebellion and calamities. Political rebellion had just ended and left some areas desolate, cattle had been stolen and raided, HIV/AIDS was rampant, and famine was looming. The Pope seemed to reinvigorate the area with energy that made them forget their woes of poverty and war.

He began the mass with a greeting in a local language: Ikaitotoi angakaitotoi alotooma Kristo, (Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ.)

His main message was overcoming rivalry and hatred by putting aside the desire for revenge and embracing the virtue of forgiveness.

President Museveni(R),  and Pope John Paul II (L) 

Rubaga Cathedral

After Soroti, Pope John Paul II returned to Kampala and, in the afternoon, went to Rubaga Cathedral, where he met Catholic priests and the religious.

Katende says the Pope never said mass at the Cathedral. “We just had evening prayers with him. Of course the Cathedral was closed to the public. But there were multitudes of Christians outside the Cathedral wanting to catch a glimpse of the Pope.”

A joint choir of seminarians from St. Mbaaga’s Seminary Ggaba and Ggaba National Seminary led the singing. During his address, the Pope did not sit in the Cathedra, but on the scarlet-red arm-chair, which was placed infront of the main altar.

The chair had been bought by the late Hon. Patrick Musisi, to be used by the main celebrant during mass. It is the same chair  that the Pope had sat on at Namugongo. That chair is still at Rubaga Cathedral. It is the chair that the main celebrant sits on.

By the time the Pope came out of the Cathedral, it was getting dark. All the same, he managed to shake hands with some including members of the Cathedral Foundation whom he gave Rosaries. He also planted a tree in the courtyard of the presbytery, before inaugurating the memorial clock of his visit, erected near the Cathedral. The Pontiff was later taken to the residence of the Archbishop, to sign in the visitors’ book.

 “The Rubaga ceremony was very marvelous,” Katende said. “I remember the pope as a very down to earth person and I am not surprised he is a saint now. He carried himself in a very dignified manner, despite the excitement his presence created among Ugandans.

Mrs Museveni(R), President Museveni(C),  and Pope John Paul II (L)   

Day 6: Pope departs

On February 10, the Pope flew back to Italy. Wamala recalls: “We accompanied him to Entebbe Airport, where the President was waiting for him. The Pontiff expressed his gratitude to the president and Ugandans for their warm hospitality.

The departure of the Pope was an emotional moment. He spent about 2 minutes at the entrance of the Alitalia A-30 Airbus, bidding farewell to President Museveni, government dignitaries and several Ugandans that went to Entebbe to see him off.  He disappeared into the plane a few moments later and again waved back. By 9:30 am, he was airborne, bound for Sudan.

Earlier during his farewell speech, the Pontiff said: “The noble people of Uganda will remain forever in my heart and prayers. Having derived much joy and comfort from your love, I entrust you and your families to the goodness and loving kindness of God.”

He also had these words in Luganda: “Ayi Katonda Kitaffe, Kuuma Uganda. Mweraba, Omukama Abakuume.”

Msgr. John Waynand Katende: 
I was privileged to host the Pope at Rubaga as the Cathedral administrator. I also got the opportunity to meet him later during my holidays in Swaziland in 1998. I had gone to the house of the bishop there and, surprisingly the bishop left me with the Pope at the steps. I seized that opportunity to remind him about his visit to Uganda.

The Pope could remember well the events and he told me he had enjoyed the visit. He said everywhere he went, he was impressed by the multitudes of people waiting to see him. That Papal visit resulted into the creation of four ecclesiastical provinces. Previously, we had only the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Kampala. But after the papal visit, Tororo, Gulu and Mbarara also became Archdioceses.

Canadian Senator, Ugandan born Indian, Mobina Jaffer, representing British Columbia: My father Sherali Bandali Jaffer, offered to host the entire papal entourage free at his Fairway Hotel. Even as a Muslim man, my father has always had the utmost respect for the Vatican. In 1969, he met Pope Paul VI and provided accommodations for his entourage on their visit to Uganda.

It was not long after this that my family and I were forced to leave Uganda as refugees. But even after re-establishing himself in Canada, my father took the first opportunity to return to Uganda and be there during Pope John Paul II visit in 1993.

As a result the pope personally presented to him a medal and three rosaries, one of which I was lucky enough to receive from. It remains one of my most prized possessions. Even before my father died, he still spoke of Pope John Paul II and the time he spent with him, with pride and emotion in his voice.

Part of the mammoth crowd struggling to shake hands with the Pope John Paul II at Kasese

Pope John Paul II in brief

Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Cracow was elected pope on October 16, 1978. When he became the 263rd pope, he chose the name John Paul II in honor of his predecessors, Pope John Paul I, Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI. He was the first non-Italian pope since Adrian VI (1522-23) and the first Polish pope ever. At his election, he was the youngest pope since Pius IX (1846-78). And he lived on to become the longest-reigning pope elected in the 20th century. He died on April 2, 2005, at the age of 84 and was canonized saint on April 27, 2014. But the decision to canonize him was made official by Pope Francis on 5 July 2013, which means his canonization was first tracked, taking a record 9 years.

Important dates in the life of Saint Pope John Paul II:

1920: Karol Wojtyla is born May 18, baptized June 20 in Wadowice, Poland.

1929: His mother dies; he receives first Communion.

1938: Moves to Krakow with father; enters Jagellonian University

1940: University studies interrupted; joins World War II as manual labourer.

1941: His father dies.

1942: Enters secret seminary in Krakow.

1944: Is hit by a car, hospitalized; is hidden in archbishop's home to avoid arrest by Nazis.

1945: World War II ends; he resumes studies at Jagellonian University.

1946: Nov. 1, is ordained priest; goes to Rome for graduate studies.

1949: Named assistant pastor in Krakow parish.

1954: Begins teaching philosophy at Catholic University of Lublin; earns doctorate in philosophy.

1958: Sept. 28, ordained auxiliary bishop of Krakow.

1962: Goes to Rome for first session of Second Vatican Council.

1963: Attends Vatican II second session, is named archbishop of Krakow Dec. 30.

1964: Installed as archbishop of Krakow; attends council's third session.

1965: Makes three trips to Rome to help redraft Vatican II document on church in modern world; attends final council session.

1967: June 28, made cardinal; named to first world Synod of Bishops but stays home to protest government's denial of a passport to Poland's primate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski.

1971: Attends first of several bishops' synods in Rome; is elected to its permanent council.

1978: Oct. 16, is elected 264th pope; visit to Assisi is first of 146 trips within Italy; visit to a Rome parish marks start of visits to 317 of Rome's 333 parishes.

1979: Visits Dominican Republic and Mexico, his first of 104 trips abroad as pope; also visits Poland, Ireland, US and Turkey.

1980: Becomes first modern pope to hear confessions in St. Peter's Basilica.

1981: May 13, is shot, severely wounded; names Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger head of Vatican doctrinal congregation.

1982: Marks anniversary of attempt on his life with trip to Fatima, Portugal; meets with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat; makes Opus Dei the church's first personal prelature.

1983: Promulgates new Code of Canon Law; opens Holy Year of Redemption; visits his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, in prison.

1984: Establishes diplomatic relations with United States.

1985: Warns that abortion in Europe is "demographic suicide"; convenes special bishops' synod to review 20 years since Vatican II.

1986: Makes historic visit to Rome's synagogue; calls world religious leaders to Assisi to pray for peace.

1987: Opens Marian year and writes encyclical on Mary; attends first international World Youth Day in Argentina.

1989: Is widely seen as key figure in collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.

1992: Has benign tumor on colon removed

1993: February 5-10, Visits Uganda

1994: Declares that women cannot be priests; establishes diplomatic relations with Israel

1998: Historic Cuba visit is 81st trip abroad; starts first permanent Catholic-Muslim dialogue.

2000: Makes historic visit to Holy Land.

2003: Beatifies Mother Teresa of Kolkata

2005: Hospitalized, undergoes tracheotomy. Dies April 2.

2011: May 1, beatified by Pope Benedict XVI.

2014: Canonized saint by Pope Francis (April 27)

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Oh when the Saint came matching in

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