Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

‘Thank you for raising up Father Luta’

Story and photos by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the July 1, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)

“Mweebele kukuza Father Luta!”

Roughly translated from Luganda, the native language of a major tribe in Uganda (Africa), the phrase means: “Thank you for raising up Father Luta.”

The muffled “M” at the beginning of the word indicates a plural recipient of the expression of gratitude. The “you” here clearly is not a single person, but an entire village. Yes, indeed, it takes a village to raise a child – in this case, to nurture the vocation of a priest, Father Lutakome “Luta” Deo Nsubuga. A journey of faith begun with baptism at a simple church in the environs of the village of Nabbingo, a short hour’s drive west of Kampala (capitol of Uganda), has brought one of its native sons first to Washington State University to study biology and then, by the unexpected gift of God’s grace, to the halls of seminary formation and now to his priestly ordination in the service of the Diocese of Spokane (see Inland Register, June 10, 2010).

Sister Noel Namagembe, principal of St. Theresa Mayirye Primary School in Mwera-Mityana, Uganda), prepares stalks of sugar cane for the offertory presentation at a Mass presided over by Father Michael Savelesky, pastor of Assumption Parish, Spokane. (IR photo)

“Mweebele kukuza Father Luta!” The words of gratitude were not spoken at his ordination ceremony in Spokane – although they well could have been since a significant number of family and friends from Uganda were present to witness the laying-on of hands by Bishop Skylstad. Rather, the words were spoken at a special Mass of Thanksgiving on May 30, presided over by newly ordained Father Luta in the front yard of his home in his native village of Nabbingo.

Several local priests were present, as well as a cousin Bishop, spokespeople from his native tribe, relatives who work for the government, and relatives who work the nearby plantations. Two very white-skinned friends were more than obvious in the sea of Ugandans: Msgr. Robert Pearson, diocesan Vicar for Priests, and yours truly, who was present as pastor of Spokane’s Assumption Parish. Msgr. Pearson has had long seminary association with Father Luta. Assumption parishioners and I have been connected through our support of St. Theresa School in a village (Mwera-Mityana) some distance from Nabbingo, where Father Luta’s biological sister, Sister Noel, serves as principal of 700 students.

Students at St. Theresa Mayirye Primary School honor Sacred Scripture in song and dance. The procession is a visual reminder that the Good News of Jesus Christ is received as gift and welcomed as grace. (IR photo)

Despite the heat and brilliant sunshine, the several tents erected and colorfully decorated for the occasion were packed with hundreds of parishioners, family members, dancers, drummers, and prayerful well-wishers. My rough count came up with more than 300 folks! The magnificent, multi-colored formal dresses worn by the women were particular eye-catchers. (How on earth did they keep them clean and sparkly after the lengthy walk many of them had to make?!) According to custom, the site for the celebration was the home turf and not, as often in the United States, the home parish church of the newly ordained. The Mass began promptly at 10 a.m. with a procession led by a mini-brass band and a long line of clergy and dignitaries.

Both Msgr. Pearson and I had responded enthusiastically to Father Luta’s invitation to accompany him and his family back to Uganda for the celebration of the newly-ordained’s traditional Mass of Thanksgiving. We both prepared ourselves with the bothersome vaccinations for Typhoid and Yellow Fever and Hepatitis A – and we had begun the regime of devouring anti-malaria pills. Nevertheless, neither of us was prepared for the incredibly inspiring experience of faith which we encountered in the heartland of Africa.

In retrospect, I suspect that the first clue of amazing things to come should have been gleaned from a first-day-there visit to Christ the King Church (on “Colville Street,” by the way!) in downtown Kampala. Father Luta used to pray there often as an adolescent. Like all Third World countries, the streets were crowded with a jockeying menagerie of cars, mini-van taxies, motorcycles (all choking the air with their spew of exhaust) and well-dressed pedestrians, vendors and workers of all sizes and shapes. All were the same color, except a wide-eyed specimen of mazungo – white man. But no one stared or pestered.

We readily gained permission from the pastor to concelebrate the noon Mass. Father Luta’s fluency with Luganda came in handy! He picked this particular Mass because he knew it would be celebrated in English (reflecting, incidentally, the historical influence of British colonial era). I expressed my gratitude for his thoughtfulness, but was soon to discover that English in Uganda is not the same as English in Spokane. It sounded more like English in India than what touches the ear here in the Northwest.

Father Lutakome “Luta” Nsubuga (left), ordained a priest for the Spokane Diocese May 21, leads the congregation in prayer during his Mass of Thanksgiving on May 30 at his home in Nabbingo, Uganda. Following local custom, the Mass is celebrated by the newly ordained at home with family, friends and other members of the faithful. (IR photo)

A quick vesting in the tight, humble, but immaculate sacristy prepared me for the short trip to the altar by a side door. But how does one prepare for the sight of 400 faithful gathered during lunch hour to celebrate a weekday Eucharist?! The participation in the 40-minute Mass and the devotion of the faithful were palpable, rich and deep. The prayer and song clearly came from the heart and not just Catholic tradition.

Afterwards, many of the faithful came up to us, not asking for a handout (not even candy), but for a blessing or a prayer for a need or a loved one. A few had learned that Father Luta was newly ordained. Down they went on their knees right in the public square, seeking the grace of his first priestly blessing.

Perhaps another clue should have come from a special celebration the next day at Sister Noel’s St. Theresa School in Mwera-Mityana. A corridor of 700 delighted, sharply uniformed students greeted Father Luta, Msgr. Pearson and me as we drove onto the campus and climbed out of our car, which once again had survived a multitude of cavernous potholes on the way. The students and their parents had gathered from villages, farms and environs for the celebration of the Eucharist in decorated make-shift tents. They were on school break, but had returned for the special occasion to thank Assumption Parish for its support of St. Theresa School.

School officials noted that the school survives because of the meager lunch program (a cup of corn porridge and bit of bread) funded by Assumption parishioners. Others pointed out with a strange mixture of pride and gratitude the solar panel system, purchased by the parish for the school, which feeds electricity to twisted neon-style light bulbs hanging from naked rafters in each of the classrooms. I was told that, truly, a little bit of help goes a long way in Uganda – the school achieved #1 ranking in the district last year! My heart was particularly touched by the mumbled words of one eighth grader who said to me shyly: “I am Samuel, a student at St. Theresa School. Thank you for your help.” I remember feeling like the young man was speaking through me to every one of my generous parishioners!

Once again, we priests experienced a Mass celebrated with attention, profound devotion and a deep attachment to the Catholic Faith. After the Mass the “program” began in earnest. We would learn quickly that it would evidence the cadence of all the celebrations experienced that week: after the celebration of Mass came picture-taking, speeches, native dancing, song, speeches, more dancing, more speeches, skits, gifts, more dancing and song – and, of course, prayer. The program proved to be long by North American standards, but fully expressed the profound sentiments of a people who speak more with their bodies and song than they do with cleverly crafted words. Above all, the students and parents exuded an unabashed excitement about growing in their Catholic Faith and the unity they share with other believers through the Eucharist. The Mass began at 10 a.m.; we three exhausted priests climbed back into our car at 5 p.m. for the trip back to Kampala. (We learned later that the celebration continued into the night.)

The next day brought us yet another glimpse of the vibrancy of the Catholic Faith on the other side of the world. Deacon John Bosco Kamoga, Father Luta’s grade-school classmate in Nabbingo, was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Cristopher Kakooza, auxiliary bishop of Kampala. The site was Our Lady of the Visitation, one of Father Luta’s childhood parishes. Deacon Kamoga belongs to the Community of the Holy Spirit, an order committed to the evangelization of Africa. Bishop Kakooza commented afterwards to Msgr. Pearson that he was delighted to have a native son like Father Luta serving in the United States. Similar to other dioceses in the nations of Africa, the archdiocese evidently loans priests to dioceses in the U.S. where there is a shortage of priests. Msgr. Pearson was quick to remind the bishop that Father Luta belongs to the Diocese of Spokane and that he was not on loan!

The ordination blessed us with yet another experience of the richness and vitality of the Catholic Faith in Uganda. Only a brother priest knows the grace and inspiration that comes from sharing in that special moment in the ordination rite when all the priests in attendance (regardless of nation, color or diocese) follow the ordaining bishop in imposing hands on the head of the ordinand. For a brief moment, Msgr. Pearson and I were not visitor-priests, but brother-priests – priests forever, one and all, according to the Order of Melchizedek.

The ordination Mass was but the beginning of another day-long celebration – this time with Father Kamoga’s family, friends, the faithful and well-wishers.

By the time the celebration of Father Luta’s Mass of Thanksgiving shattered the silence of his rural neighborhood the next morning, it was obvious that the Catholic Faith was very much alive and well in the heart of Africa. The fact that the country is over 50 percent Catholic (as well as 35 percent Anglican) was in evidence nearly everywhere. I did spot a scattering of mosques whose call to prayer seems to ruffle a few Christian feathers. And my attentive ears caught the bothersome blare of speakers occasionally from roadside evangelical churches. But nothing came close to matching Msgr. Pearson’s and my experience of hundreds of joy-filled members of the Catholic faithful who carried themselves with dignity and exuded a warm spirit of hospitality and welcome.

The hundreds who gathered for Father Luta’s Mass of Thanksgiving were no exception. They forgot their work in the nearby farms and plantations to focus on the celebration of the Eucharist with their favorite son. The gleam of joy on the faces of parents, relatives and friends required no translation.

Msgr. Pearson and I experienced no small measure of difficulty following Father Luta’s Mass, including the baptism of an infant cousin. But then even our newly ordained friend seemed to stumble at getting through the Eucharistic Prayer written in his phonetically complex native Luganda. We two visitors from Spokane, nevertheless, had no difficulty joining in the dynamic flow of the Eucharist itself or experiencing the unity it both celebrated and created. We were at home at a Banquet which nourishes the Catholic faithful from one corner of the earth to the other. Ironically, the absence of comfortable, recognizable language seemed to enhance the deeper grace of the Sacrament.

After experiencing the celebration of the Eucharist in a variety of settings, Msgr. Pearson and I mused over what cultural adaptations to the liturgy we would want to bring back home to Spokane with us: The engaging processions which literally carried the Word of God into the presence of the faith community? The long homilies (to no one’s complaint)? The light, respectful applause at their conclusion? The presentation of (live) chickens, eggs, and plantains at the offertory? The deeply reverent applause after the consecration of the Bread and Wine? The profound reverence at the reception of Holy Communion? The expressive drumming and colorful dance narratives? The long fellowship time?

Nothing … but nothing in the week-long experience of the African culture and its embrace of the Catholic Faith could have prepared us for the experience that will remain forever etched in our hearts. The red vestments which we three priests received as gifts from the People of God a few days earlier at St. Theresa School were but a hint.

Thursday, June 3, brought us to a concelebrated Mass at a place known to every Christian in Uganda. There at Namugongo a large altar stands in the center of a simple but sizable basilica, marking the very spot where St. Charles Lwanga and his companions were martyred for their Christian faith. Right there, on June 3, 1887 – just two years before Washington became a state in the Union, and cities like Walla Walla, Spokane, and Colville were expanding centers of commerce – 18 young men and boys were wrapped in reeds and slowly burned alive at the order of Kabaka (King) Mwanga of the tribal nation of Buganda. The tragedy was the culmination of tension between the king and the increasingly noticeable conversion of the young pages from his court to Christianity. The Anglicans had arrived in Uganda in 1877; the Catholics, two years later, on the shores of Lake Victoria (at a site marked by simple statuary just off the landing strip at the airport in Entebbe). Between 1885-1887 believers from both denominations were to suffer persecution and brutal deaths by spearing, beheading, dismembering, butchering, and burning because of the commitment of their faithful to their life in Christ.

The relics of the martyrs were carried in solemn procession at the beginning of the Mass and were placed on the altar for the faithful to venerate visually as they joined in the Eucharistic Sacrifice of their Lord and Savior. The scene and all its stunning reality left me deeply moved and still failing in vocabulary sufficient to communicate its profound touch of grace. The reality of it all was there, right before the eyes of us three richly blessed priests whose good fortune gave us seats not more than 25 feet from the outside altar specially constructed for the occasion.

We were but three among hundreds of priests, scores of bishops, and pilgrims numbering between 700,000 and 1 million gathered for the celebration! Who knows how many more were watching on live Catholic television or following on the radio! (They would have heard the Master of Ceremonies publicly mention Msgr. Pearson and me by name, if they were – thanks to the machinations of Father Luta!) Our collective focus was not our distance from the altar but the unity faith we shared with so many and our common hunger for a more authentic commitment to it. I for one could not help but reflect on my own cowardliness in the face of conflict and opposition. Would I have the conviction and dedication to Christ to join the likes of those young martyrs? And I thought, too, of the fact that just a few hours later as the earth made its turn, how a priest would be standing at the altar in my home parish, celebrating the very same liturgy of the day. Somehow, I knew that those gathered there would be praying for us.

The amazing silence among the million pilgrims gathered for the feast at that spot moved the soul to its depths. Suspicion is that every June 3 from now on will find us three priests clad in our red vestments celebrating with deeper emotion than most that day the Solemnity of the Ugandan Martyrs.

It is said, according to ancient Christian tradition, that from the blood of martyrs the Church is born. All during the Mass that reality did not escape my attention. The math speaks for itself. The deaths of 22 young men and boys (as young as 14) who chose martyrdom rather than to give into the perverted sexual desires of the native king (historically, that does seem to have been the bottom line) have given birth to a vibrant Catholic Faith which now numbers in the millions. The entire nation of Uganda stops every June 3 to celebrate the Solemnity of the Ugandan Martyrs. Pilgrims come from other African nations as well as other continents to venerate a moment in religious history which changed African history forever and continues to touch the ends of the earth in the likes of a Father Luta Nsubuga – even Spokane, Wash.

Oh yes, we two mazungos (white men) did indeed seize the opportunity during our time in Uganda to search out the gazelles, lions, giraffes, water buffalo, hippopotami, antelope, elk, deer, crocodiles, chimps, monkeys, baboons, and colorful birds. But our hearts had been captured by something much more real and exciting. I pondered that anyone can capture a televised Africa on the Discovery Channel in the comfort of home. No trip to the wilds of Africa, no safari hunt, can even come close to the deep appreciation of a Eucharist-centered Catholic Faith we two pilgrim priests found very much alive and well in the heart of Africa.

And, yes, we have made sure that Father Luta has returned to the United States to bring a measure of its depth and vibrancy to the People of God he will serve as priest in the Diocese of Spokane. We have become his new village.

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