ST. GILBERT OF SEMPRINGHAM
Gilbert was born in Sempringham, England, into a wealthy family, but he followed a path quite different from that expected of him as the son of a Norman knight. Sent to France for his higher education, he decided to pursue seminary studies.
He returned to England not yet ordained a priest, and inherited several estates from his father. But Gilbert avoided the easy life he could have led under the circumstances. Instead he lived a simple life at a parish, sharing as much as possible with the poor. Following his ordination to the priesthood he served as parish priest at Sempringham.
Among the congregation were seven young women who had expressed to him their desire to live in religious life. In response, Gilbert had a house built for them adjacent to the Church. There they lived an austere life, but one which attracted ever more numbers; eventually lay sisters and lay brothers were added to work the land. The religious order formed eventually became known as the Gilbertines, though Gilbert had hoped the Cistercians or some other existing order would take on the responsibility of establishing a rule of life for the new order. The Gilbertines, the only religious order of English origin founded during the Middle Ages, continued to thrive. But the order came to an end when King Henry VIII suppressed all Catholic monasteries.
Over the years a special custom grew up in the houses of the order called “the plate of the Lord Jesus.” The best portions of the dinner were put on a special plate and shared with the poor, reflecting Gilbert’s lifelong concern for less fortunate people.
Throughout his life Gilbert lived simply, consumed little food and spent a good portion of many nights in prayer. Despite the rigors of such a life he died at well over age 100.
When he came into his father’s wealth, Gilbert could have lived a life of luxury, as many of his fellow priests did at the time. Instead, he chose to share his wealth with the poor. The charming habit of filling “the plate of the Lord Jesus” in the monasteries he established reflected his concern. Today’s Operation Rice Bowl echoes that habit: eating a simpler meal and letting the difference in the grocery bill help feed the hungry.
Today is the 20th anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop Janani Luwum of Uganda. The Church in Uganda and other Churches around the Communion will be commemorating this special anniversary.
Janani Luwum was born in 1922 at Mucwini in East Acholi in Uganda. His father was a convert to Christianity. As a boy Janani spent his time herding the family’s cattle, goats and sheep. His father could not afford for him to go to school until he was 10 but then Janani worked hard and went on to Gulu High School and then on to Boroboro Teacher Training. Janani taught in a primary school before he was converted in 1948. He became very active in the East African revival movement. First he studied to be a lay reader, and then a deacon. He was priested in 1956. Early on his leadership skills became apparent and he was chosen to do a one year course at St Augustine’s College in Canterbury, Uk. After working in parish work and at Buwalasi Theological College he returned to Britain to study at the London College of Divinity, returning to Uganda to become Principal of Buwalasi. In 1966 he became Provincial Secretary and in 1969 he was consecrated bishop of Northern Uganda.
In 1974 Janani Luwum he became Archbishop of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Boga-Zaire. Three years previously Colonel Idi Amin had overthrown the Government of Uganda and established a military dictatorship. Amin’s regime became infamous around the world. Thousands of people were arrested, beaten, imprisoned without trial and killed. Archbishop Luwum often went personally to the office of the dreaded State Research Bureau to help secure the release of prisoners.
Tension between Church and state worsened in 1976. Religious leaders, including Archbishop Luwum, met to discuss the deteriorating situation and asked for an interview with Idi Amin to share their concern. The President reprimanded the Archbishop. But Archbishop Luwum continued to attend Government functions. One of his critics accused him of being on the Government side and he replied:”I face daily being picked up by the soldiers. While the opportunity is there I preach the Gospel with all my might, and my conscience is clear before God that I have not sided with the present Government which is utterly self-seeking. I have been threatened many times. Whenever I have the opportunity I have told the President the things the churches disapprove of. God is my witness.”
On 5 February 1977 the Archbishop’s house was raided by soldiers who said they had been ordered to look for arms. On 8 February the Archbishop and nearly all the Ugandan bishops met and drafted a letter of protest to the President and asked to see him. A week later, on 16 February, the Archbishop and six bishops were publicly arraigned in a show trial and were accused of smuggling arms. Archbishop Luwum was not allowed to reply, but shook his head in denial. The President concluded by asking the crowd:”What shall we do with these traitors?” The soldiers replied “Kill him now”.The Archbishop was separated from his bishops. As he was taken away Archbishop Luwum turned to his brother bishops and said:”Do not be afraid. I see God’s hand in this.”
The next morning it was announced that Archbishop Luwum had been killed in a car crash. The truth was that he had been shot because he had stood up to President Amin and his Government. The Archbishop was killed just a few months before the centenary celebrations of the Church of Uganda, an anniversary which marked the martyrdom of Anglicans in Uganda nearly a century before. At a memorial service Janani Luwum was proclaimed the first martyr of the Church of Uganda’s second century.
The Church in Uganda began with the deaths of martyrs (see Martyrs of Uganda, 3 June 1886, and James Hannington and his Companions, Martyrs, 29 October 1885). Around 1900, Uganda became a British protectorate, with the chief of the Buganda tribe as nominal ruler, and with several other tribes included in the protectorate. In 1962 Uganda became an independent country within the British Commonwealth, with the Bugandan chief as president and Milton Obote, of the Lango tribe, as Prime Minister.
In 1966, Obote took full control of the government. In 1971, he was overthrown by General Idi Amin, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces. Almost immediately, he began a policy of repression, arresting anyone suspected of not supporting him. Hundreds of soldiers from the Lango and Acholi tribes were shot down in their barracks. Amin ordered the expulsion of the Asian population of Uganda, about 55,000 persons, mostly small shopkeepers from India and Pakistan. Over the next few years, many Christians were killed for various offenses. A preacher who read over the radio a Psalm which mentioned Israel was shot for this in 1972.
Early in 1977, there was a small army rebellion that was put down with only seven men dead. However, Amin determined to stamp out all traces of dissent. His men killed thousands, including the entire population of Milton Obote’s home village. On Sunday, 30 January, Bishop Festo Kivengere preached on “The Preciousness of Life” to an audience including many high government officials. He denounced the arbitrary bloodletting, and accused the government of abusing the authority that God had entrusted to it. The government responded on the following Saturday (5 February) by an early (1:30am) raid on the home of the Archbishop, Janani Luwum, ostensibly to search for hidden stores of weapons.
The Archbishop called on President Amin to deliver a note of protest at the policies of arbitrary killings and the unexplainced disappearances of many persons. Amin accused the Archbishop of treason, produced a document supposedly by former President Obote attesting his guilt, and had the Archbishop and two Cabinet members (both committed Christians) arrested and held for military trial. The three met briefly with four other prisoners who were awaiting execution, and were permitted to pray with them briefly. Then the three were placed in a Land Rover and not seen alive again by their friends.
The government story is that one of the prisoners tried to seize control of the vehicle and that it was wrecked and the passengers killed. The story believed by the Archbishop’s supporters is that he refused to sign a confession, was beaten and otherwise abused, and finally shot. His body was placed in a sealed coffin and sent to his native village for burial there. However, the villagers opened the coffin and discovered the bullet holes. In the capital city of Kampala a crowd of about 4,500 gathered for a memorial service beside the grave that had been prepared for him next to that of the martyred bishop Hannington.
In Nairobi, the capital of nearby Kenya, about 10,000 gathered for another memorial service. Bishop Kivengere was informed that he was about to be arrested, and he and his family fled to Kenya, as did the widow and orphans of Archbishop Luwum.
The following June, about 25,000 Ugandans came to the capital to celebrate the centennial of the first preaching of the Gospel in their country, among the participants were many who had abandoned Christianity, but who had returned to their Faith as a result of seeing the courage of Archbishop Luwum and his companions in the face of death.