On All Saints Day we celebrate, remember, and honor all the saints, known and unknown. Back in the earliest days of the Church, we did not so much think of “saints” but rather martyrs were especially esteemed. It was very much a local event, as the local church celebrated the anniversary of a martyr’s death on the anniversary date and in the place of martyrdom. By the 4th century the list of martyrs had grown considerably with some martyrs being celebrated more universally. The Church was caught between its desire to remember and celebrate the martyr’s witness and death, an ever expanding geography, and the practical matter of finding days to set aside to celebrate. Very soon there was a movement to find a common day to celebrate martyrs that were important to the Church while leaving the local communities to set aside days for martyrs that loomed larger in local memory.Of course there were always Saints that were universally celebrated, e.g. Sts. Peter and Paul (always together), the other Apostles, Popes, founders of religious orders, individuals with the orders, missionaries, and the list goes on. There has always been a leaning towards saints in the city of Rome – which makes sense as it was the place of martyrdom for so many. With Rome as the center of church life and hierarchy, others were drawn to Rome, e.g. St. Philip Neri, a Florentine but called the 2nd Apostle of Rome. But then he was also Italian. Given the length of time Christianity was focused on Europe, some 1,500 years prior to the missionary expansion of the Church to the Americas, Africa, and Indian sub continent, we should not be surprised at the continued European focus of canonized saints. Even the first missionaries were European by-in-large.
Today the Church Universal celebrates St. Charles Lwanga and the Ugandan martyrs. Likely you do not know much about him and the 21 people that were martyred along with him. Most folks don’t know too much about St. Josephine (Sudan), and Isidore Bakanja (Congo), or Benedict the Black (Italian born of African slaves). But then most folks (me included) only know a handful of the more than 10,000 canonized Saints.
Today’s celebration of St. Charles Lwanga and Ugandan martyrs is a major feast and holiday in East Africa. And a reminder to us that this truly is a church universal – katholica.