African Episcopacy


Archbishop Joseph N. Kiwanuka
Pioneer of the African Episcopacy


Ambrose J. Bwangatto




Uganda has been blessed by being the “first” among African countries to attain a significant achievement in the Catholic church in the modern times. Uganda was the first country to have a native Bishop ordained in modern times, in the names of Archbishop Dr. Joseph N. Kiwanuka, whose life is the centre of this biographical sketch. On October 18, 1964, Uganda was the first country to have her saints canonised in the universal church. On July 31, 1969 – August 2, 1969, Uganda was the first country to host a reigning Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church in Sub-Saharan African His Holiness Pope Paul VI. In 1998, Uganda was the first country to have one of her sons becoming a Papal Nuncio to Algeria and Tunisia, His Excellency Archbishop Augustine Kasujja. But the most significant event was the elevation of Rev. Dr. Joseph Kiwanuka to the Episcopacy in the Catholic hierarchy in 1939. It drew a lot of protest from missionaries and colonial administrators who were gravely concerned about the competency of the natives in administrative roles. This was taken as a revolutionary experiment as many missionaries remained in doubts. The main question was: Were the natives ready to lead their own church? But Joseph Kiwanuka rose impressively to meet  the larger-than-life expectations placed upon him. Under Bishop Kiwanuka, Masaka diocese shone as an example of authentically African, authentically Catholic Christianity, and as a testament to the power of the gospel to simultaneously transform and adapt to local culture.



Joseph Nakabaale Kiwanuka was the first native African to be ordained a Catholic bishop in modern times. He was born at Nakirebe in Mawokota county, Uganda, the child of Catholic parents, Victoro Katumba Munduekanika of the monkey clan and Felicitas Nankya Ssabawebwa Namukasa of the lungfish clan. Joseph was baptized at Rubaga, Kampala, on June 25, 1899. If we scale back briefly into history, it was twenty years after the arrival of Catholic missionaries in Uganda, the heart of Africa, and fourteen years after the African Holocaust of the Martyrs of Uganda at Namugongo had taken place, on June 11, 1899 a baby boy was born to Victor Kato Mmundwekanika Katumba and Felicitas Namukasa Ssabaweebwa Nankya. Here it should be noted that Kiwanuka's father bore the Christian name of Saint Victor I, the first African Pope of the Catholic Church whose reign was between the year 189 and 199. According to the "Liber Pontificalis," Victor was an African, the son of Felix. He is remembered for having decreed that after an emergency baptism, whether in river, spring, sea, or marsh, the neophyte should be treated as a Christian in full standing. Baby Kiwanuka's mother bore the Christian name of  Saint Felicitas, one of the African first women martyr saints of early Christianity. Felicity, Perpetua's Christian maid, had been a slave. She and Perpetua were great friends. They shared their belief in and love for Jesus. Felicitas, too, was willing to sacrifice her life for Jesus and for her faith. Felicitas was also a young wife. While in prison for her faith, she became a mother as well. Her little baby was adopted by a good Christian woman. Felicitas was happy because now she could die a martyr. Hand in hand Perpetua and Felicity bravely faced martyrdom together. They were charged by wild animals and then beheaded. They died around the year 202. The martyrs were so faithful to Christ that they made great sacrifices. They even gave up their lives for him. [1]


Two weeks after Kiwanuka was born, following  the important practice of sacramental initiation the baby boy was baptized and christened with the name Joseph. [2] For Africans a name is not just an identification tag. A name is the person whose personality is shaped by the name together with its spiritual connections. To Victor and Felicitas these Christian names inspired dedication to their Christian Catholic Faith, which they unabashingly expressed through their daily practices including family morning and evening prayers, family and civic responsibility, hard work, good neighborliness, sociability and weekly Sunday Mass attendance they fulfilled after having walked the eight miles distance from their home to the Mission station. Their home, Kiwanuka's birth place was situated in the village called Nnakirebe in Mawokota county of Buganda Kingdom in Uganda. It is here that Archbishop Kiwanuka grew up under the parental guidance reminiscent of  the words  of Luke the Evangelist speaking about Our Lord Jesus the Christ that, He, "...increased in wisdom and in years, and in favor with God and man." (2:52).

Schooling and Priestly Vocation



In 1910 Joseph Kiwanuka joined Mitala Maria Mission Elementary School. It is during this schooling period there that he was inspired with desires for a priestly vocation. At this tender age the first priestly ordination in Uganda became his immediate motivation for the priesthood. On June 29, 1913 two Ugandans were for the first time ordained as Catholic priests. Soon after ordination the two new priests Rev. Basil Lumu and Rev. Victor Mukasa Womeraka toured the country. In Mitala Maria Father Victor Mukasa Womeraka impressed the little Kiwanuka so much that from this point on, he decided to become a priest like him.


Kiwanuka was admitted to Bukalasa Minor Seminary. A Minor Seminary combines a Middle School and a High School curriculum specifically designed for those students who were aspiring to becoming priests. On August 2, 1914, Kiwanuka entered the Minor Seminary. Due to physical challenges Kiwanuka had incurred by an accident which had badly affected his ankle while he was still in Elementary School, he had such ups and downs which almost failed him. At the Minor Seminary, his intelligence was exhibited by his highly pronounced gift in Latin. In the end he received admission to the Major Seminary.


In September 1919 Kiwanuka entered Katigondo Major Seminary. Here the major subjects of study were Philosophy and Theology. It is in these subjects that he excelled and exhibited his intellectual acumen, which later on was going to be the basis of his selection for higher studies in Rome. [3] 

Ordination to Priesthood


Joseph Kiwanuka was ordained priest by the missionary of missionaries in Uganda the late Archbishop Henry Streicher. The ordination took place at Villa Maria Church the mother of churches in the region, on May 26, 1929.

After his ordination to the priesthood, the then Bishop Streicher took a decisively historic decision. He sent Fr. Kiwanuka to the Angelicum University in Rome to study Church Law commonly known as Canon Law. There after he had successfully completed the Licentiate which is the equivalent of Master's degree he embarked on doctoral studies. The doctoral thesis he wrote was on Marriage Contract. In this he scored a summa cum laude the highest grade possible in such academic exercises. The University faculty was enrapture by the splendor of such intellectual achievement. Dr. Kiwanuka had decisively shattered the myth of African intellectual inferiority. The doors of the Roman universities and other educational institutions of the Western world were since then flung open for more students from Africa.

Missionaries to Yourselves


Dr. Kiwanuka has often been characterized as a man of vision, a person who is ahead of his time. After he had completed his doctoral studies in Rome he now aspired to fulfilling a wish he had expressed to his superiors some years back. The wish seemed to have been foreseeing what later in 1969 would be the admonition to Africa of a reigning Pope on his first visit to the African continent.

What Pope Paul VI said to the African Episcopate congregated in Kampala/Uganda in 1969 urging them to be "Missionaries to Yourselves" is what was consuming Dr. Kiwanuka at the end of his doctoral studies in Rome. This is in reference to the Pope’s visit and as he looked out at the face of the African Catholic Church shaped by Joseph Kiwanuka, he said: “You can and you must have an African Christianity…. Now you Africans are your own missionaries, with an indigenous apostolate totally your own. [4]

He decided to join the  missionary society of the White Fathers thereby becoming the first Black White Father in the order’s history.

To achieve this, in October 1932, he entered the White Fathers' novitiate in Algiers of Algeria in North Africa. And on January 6, 1934, he took his missionary oath at Entebbe, Uganda. He was then respectively appointed vicar at Bikira Mission Station in Masaka District/Uganda and at Bujuni in Mubende District. With this pastoral experience he was appointed Professor to teach at Katigondo Major Seminary where he took his position on July 27, 1938. . In 1947, Kiwanuka played an important role at the General Chapter of the Missionaries of Africa in Algiers by championing the international character of missionary personnel in Uganda and resisting compliance with the desire of the British colonial office to admit only British, Commonwealth and English speaking missionaries to Uganda [5].

The Pioneering Bishop


In the course of the two thousand years, Christianity has been extended to the African continent in three stages. The first stage which is early Christianity, makes Christianity in Africa qualify to be as old as Christianity itself. Even before Christianity was factually Christianity, antecedently, the Founder of Christianity, the Word made Flesh, as a baby resided for a seven some years in Africa, exactly in Egypt as his place of refuge. At the expiration of His ministry on Earth after He had ascended to Heaven, there came the first Christian Pentecost at which the African presence is well noted in the Acts of the Apostles ( Acts 2: 7-11). Among the missionary band of brothers in Antioch where these followers of Christ were for the first time nicknamed Christians, were two Africans. And it is said that it was the African Evangelist Saint Mark who introduced early Christianity to Africa through Egypt as the gateway. With this beginning early Christianity was extended to the northern region of Africa till it was interrupted by the Islamic appearance in the seventh century.

The second stage involves the Portuguese patronized Christianity in Africa. Notable to this extension was the establishment of a diocese in Mbanza Congo at the head of which was  Henry son of King Alfonso who was consecrated bishop in 1518 to be the first black African bishop of early modern times.

The third stage of the Christian extension in Africa is marked by circumstances of contemporary modern times. It is during this period that Bishop Kiwanuka emerges as the first pioneering African Bishop. With the experience of five years of pastoral work, and while he was now bent on the formation of future priests from Uganda and Tanzania as a Professor of theology at Katigondo Major Seminary, Dr. Kiwanuka received news of his nomination as bishop from His Holiness Pope Pius XII, on May 25, 1939, the very year in which he reached the age of 40. He was later consecrated bishop by the same Holy Father in Saint Peter's Basilica together with other eleven missionary bishops, on the Feast of Christ the King of October 29, 1939. Like Pius XI before him, Pope Pius XII believed that “the missions in Africa represent today the richest harvest of conversion,” and that Africans were the most effective missionaries on their own continent.

Prior to the consecration the Ugandan Church was changing. Bishop Streicher had retired in 1933, and Rome divided his old diocese in two. Masaka, the larger half, was administered for six years under a vicar general, while Rome delayed acting upon Streicher’s wishes that an African be ordained as bishop, a moved rumored to be opposed by British authorities. But Kiwanuka thought that the kind of leadership he is to exercise is different from what others perceived it to be. In his wisdom, he told the priests that “After much reflection, I discovered that the leadership people want me to exercise in the country is not political as such but leadership of offering good and wise education which will help our nation and put it on the right path. In such responsibility I can be a leader without necessarily annoying the political rulers [6]”.   Another interesting point to note was that given the feelings of the time, Dr. Kiwanuka's nomination for a bishopric had aroused a controversy among missionary circles. For that fact it was made clear that his elevation to the episcopacy was not less than an experiment and/or a test. Much of the future development and growth of the episcopate in Africa was destined to depend on what Bishop Kiwanuka would make out of this elevation. Bishop Kiwanuka seized the day without losing sight of the future. He seized the challenge  and earnestly faced it. Masaka became a test for the whole African continent.



Spirituality was the center piece of Bishop Kiwanuka's pastoral activities. His spirituality can be understood better with the circumstances in which he exercised his ministry. There were many programs to accomplish and many plans to draw, but all these had the wellbeing of the people as the fulcrum. So prayer was the major motivation for all his working life. This is exemplified by the standard scheduling of his day. Daily he opened the day with  early morning prayers followed by an hour long meditation , meditating in company of a group of priests and religious of the diocesan headquarters staff. Interspersed with work his day would continue in the following manner. He would celebrate the daily Holy Sacrifice of  Mass, pray the breviary, pray the angelus at midday, say night prayers, the rosary and ended the day by entrusting himself and his people to the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Such a disposition is what  is reflected in his motto as inscribed in his Episcopal insignia saying that: Show Yourself That You Are the Mother. [Monstra Te Esse Matrem], this was a challenge to himself, his diocese and his church to live out authentic catholicity and show motherhood to all peoples. His prayer life concurs with what Waaijman writes about prayer: “Prayer is the last thing achieved in revelation. It is an overflow of the highest and most perfect trust of the soul. There is no question here regarding the fulfillment of prayer. The prayer is its own fulfillment. The soul prays in the words of the Psalms: let not my prayer and your love depart from me. To be able to pray, that is the greatest gift presented to the soul in revelation [7]”. In 1947, Kiwanuka played an important role at the General Chapter of the Missionaries of Africa in Algiers by championing the international character of missionary personnel in Uganda and resisting compliance with the desire of the British colonial office to admit only British, Commonwealth and English speaking missionaries to Uganda. [8]

Beginning with the approach and practice in his original diocese of Masaka in Uganda, Bishop Kiwanuka's life and work for the people entrusted to him was based on the principle of integral development as may be summarized in the adage: " A sound mind in a sound body."  Whatever he devised to do, whatever he did and whatever he asked the people under his leadership to do, reflected the ideal of integral development. He cared for the spiritual as well as for the material well being of the people for whom he was the leader. During his tenure as the bishop of Masaka, his diocese was distinguished by its spiritual, educational, economic, medical and social effectiveness.  In an effort to combat the imagined threat of communism and advance the process of democracy and popular political awareness in Uganda, he sent several of his priests and lay leaders to study sociology, economics and political science in universities and institutes abroad. He encouraged priests to study political and economic principles, through regular conferences and privately given assignments so that they assist the laity to understand political affairs. Kiwanuka’s interest in education, prompted him to start a catholic university. The concept of a Catholic University in Uganda dates back as far as the nineteen forties, when the late Archbishop Kiwanuka conceived the idea. Unfortunately, various circumstances impeded the foundation of a university at that time.The idea was only realised in 1993 [9]. Consequently some observers went to the extent of identifying Masaka diocese, as it were, an independent  entity even if Uganda as a country had not yet attained political independence. No doubt Bishop Kiwanuka had passed the test with flying colors. He was indeed an effective pioneer. Because of this, on December 13, 1951, one of Professor Kiwanuka's former students at Katigondo Major Seminary in the personality of the late Laurean Cardinal Rugambwa was elected to become the second black African Catholic bishop of contemporary modern times and was consecrated bishop on February 10, 1952. The same former student of Bishop Kiwanuka became the first African to be elevated to the dignity of a Cardinal on March 28, 1960.

The pioneering  of this African episcopacy has surely bore fruits. Since then there have been more than  ten African cardinals. According to the year's Annuario Pontificio , that is the Annual  Pontifical Directory of 2004, since  the late Archbishop Joseph N. Kiwanuka African bishops of contemporary modern times, counting both the deceased and the living, number about seven  hundred.

The nunc dimitiss


After he had seen what the Lord had done through him it is appropriate to think that Archbishop Kiwanuka saw the end of his life in the light of Simeon's canticle: " Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace." (Luke 2:29-32). In 1960 Bishop Kiwanuka was appointed  Archbishop of Kampala and Primate of Uganda. In this position he spiritually and civically helped guide the nation to  political independence. With the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda he helped promote reconciliation through ecumenism. By his inculturational foresight, he promoted Africanist cultural elements to be incorporated in the Christian liturgy. A case in point: He promoted the music of his musicologistically talented protégé Mr. Joseph Kyagambiddwa, which became originally influential as the real turning point in applying African autochthonal music to Christian liturgy in Sub-Saharan Africa. He maintained an interfaithfully Christian disposition such as helped to sustain mutual understanding with other religions in general, and with Islam in Uganda, in particular. With such experience in the background Archbishop Kiwanuka effectively attended  the Second Vatican Council. As Archbishop of Kampala he untiringly promoted the process of the canonization of the Martyrs of Uganda whose feast day is celebrated annually throughout the Christian world on June 3, under the title of Saint Charles Lwanga and Companions. The canonization of the martyrs, was a consequence of the African Holocaust which had taken place in Uganda between 1885 and 1887. This canonization was the occasion at which for the first time, black African Christians were declared to be Saints, in Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome by Pope Paul VI with the assistance of  Archbishop Kiwanuka, on Mission Sunday of  October 18, 1964. It was one of his most culminating and touching points. In his homily during the mass for the canonization, Pope Paul VI, made an eloquent account of the church in Africa and her ancient and modern martyrs. “These African martyrs add a new page to that list of victorious men and women that we call the martyrology, in which we find the most magnificent as well as the tragic of stories. The page that they add is worthy to take its place alongside those wonderful stories of ancient Africa, which we who live today, being men of little faith, thought we should never see repeated. We are familiar with the lives of the great saints, martyrs and confessors, of Africa, such as Cyprian, Felicity and Perpetua, and the great Augustine. Who would have imagined that one day we should be adding to that list those names that are so dear to us, the names of Charles Lwanga, Matthias Mulumba Kalemba and their twenty companions? [10] On October 29, 1964 Archbishop Kiwanuka quietly celebrated, in Rome, the Silver Jubilee of his episcopate. For his contribution to the growth of Christianity in Africa Pope Paul VI  wrote Archbishop Kiwanuka a touching letter of appreciation and congratulation, dated October 18, 1964. Archbishop Kiwanuka returned home in Uganda where the local celebration of the Silver Jubilee of the African  episcopacy was held on  Sunday, May 16, 1965. He returned to Rome for the last session of  the Second Vatican Council, at the end of which his health appeared to be irrevocably failing. When all this was experienced and done, Archbishop Joseph Nakabaale Kiwanuka returned to Uganda. In 1965 Obote's government in Uganda underwent a political crisis, and Kiwanuka responded by publishing an inspiring pastoral letter on political leadership and democratic maturity. This was Kiwanuka's final legacy, for he died suddenly on February 22, 1966 10:50 p.m. at Lubaga hospital in Kampala. Writing to a friend a few months before his death, Kiwanuka had this to say: 

When you hear all this trouble, plus the weight of other responsibilities, you feel like telling the Lord: My Lord you can see the years I have served. They are sufficient. You better give the burden to another person to carry. [11]

While applauding the late Archbishop Kiwanuka, the Rev. Dr. John Mary Waliggo, one of his prominent admirers, speaks of him thus:

“He positively resisted the thinking that because something had never been done, it cannot be done. He squeezed ripe bananas to make juice and he rejoiced on his success as a child. He resisted being unjustly dismissed from the minor seminary  and was successfully defended by the late Fr. Muswabuzi. He resisted the discouragement that a black person could not become a White Father and he succeeded to open up for other Africans. When he went to study in Rome in 1929, he resisted the racism and discrimination against blacks and showed African intelligence by getting a first-class distinction in his masters and doctorate degrees. When he returned he resisted being discouraged that an African cannot become bishop in the church. When he became bishop, he resisted failure. He resisted the oppression of women by culture and dismantled some of those oppressive cultural elements. Even as he died, he resisted the temptation that where he had seemingly failed others may fail too. In his last will he promised to pray in heaven for success in all those areas where people resisted change due to ignorance. [12]



In conclusion, it is worth noting that Archbishop Kiwanuka has become a symbol of true Christian identity in Uganda inspiring a cross section of the Ugandan church in particular and the whole population generally. This is evident in the many activities which are carried out each year to reflect on the life of Archbishop Joseph Kiwanuka. The annual Archbishop Kiwanuka memorial lecture brings to the fore those aspects of life which made Kiwanuka a unique personality in the Ugandan society. The various speakers selected to deliver this lecture put Kiwanuka’s legacy at the centre and draw out those elements in his life which are ever valid and applicable to life today and hence call for imitation of his virtues and qualities.

Many church run schools both primary and secondary and health facilities carry the legacy of Kiwanuka in one way or another by bearing his name. Kiwanuka continues to make the Ugandan people proud since he excelled in his ministry as a Bishop and vocation as a Christian. His life as a bishop, as we saw earlier on, was all inspired by the motto which he choose: Monstra Te Esse Matrem ( Demonstrate your motherhood). His first diocese of Masaka in central Uganda, has the highest number of vocations to the priesthood and has so far given the church five bishops including a cardinal the primate of the whole of Uganda. The tomb of Bishop Kiwanuka’s body in Lubaga cathedral, Kampala, has turned into a place of prayer where hundreds of people who visit the cathedral kneel in moments of silent prayer and invoke his intercession. His spirituality which was all integral, that is permeating all the aspects of human life, has come to influence the church in Uganda in her pastoral programs. His is a living legacy for the Christians in Uganda and all people of good will and some of his contemporaries still narrate in great detail his charisma and life which was all inspiring.



  1. Bishop Kiwanuka, Letter to priests, Kitovu, 31 July 1947
  2. Kees Waaijman, Spirituality. Forms, Foundations, Methods  Peeters: Leuven, 2002
  3. Waliggo John Mary, A History of African Priests Nairobi: Matianum Press Consultants, 1988
  4. Waliggo John Mary , Essential Writings 1994-2001 Vol. 1 , Kampala, 2002 Unpublished

[1]Cfr. Victor I  and Felicitas in Catholic Encyclopedia online, accessed at 

[2] Aloysius M. Lugira, Archbishop Joseph N. Kiwanuka: A pioneer of African Episcopacy, acessed at

[3] John Mary Waliggo, A History of African Priests ( Nairobi: Matianum Press Consultants, 1988) 24 

[4] Pope Paul VI, Homily at the Conclusion of the meeting of the  “Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), Kampala, 31 July 1969. 

[5] Alyward Shorter, Kiwanuka, Joseph Nakabaale 1899 to 1966. Catholic Church in Uganda, accessed at 

[6] Bishop Kiwanuka, Letter to priests, Kitovu, 31 July 1947

[7] KeesWaaijman, Spirituality. Forms, Foundations, Methods ( Peeters: Leuven, 2002) 765

[8] Alyward Shorter, Kiwanuka, Joseph Nakabaale 1899 to 1966. Catholic Church in Uganda, accessed at

[9] cfr.

10] Pope Paul VI, Homily for the Canonization of the Ugandan Martyrs, 18 October, 1964 

[11] Archbishop Kiwanuka to Fr. Tourigny, July 1965 

[12] John Mary Waliggo, Education for resistance: A paper discussed at the National Teachers College, Nkozi, Mitala Maria campus, February 22, 2000.


Ambrose J. Bwangatto