c. 1886 to 1968
John Muswabuzi was the first modern native African theologian in the 19th century missionary movement that started in the mid-1850s. He was born around 1886 in Bikira, Masaka, Uganda to Mr. Kibulassozzi and Mrs. Ermentina. He joined the seminary at Kisubi in 1901 and was among the first minor seminarians in 1902 when Bukalasa Minor Seminary was opened. He enrolled in the major seminary in order to study philosophy and theology at Bikira in 1905. He then moved with the major seminary when it was transferred to Bukalasa. Later he entered Katigondo Major Seminary in 1911, finishing in 1913. Upon his ordination as a deacon in 1913, Muswabuzi was the third Katigondonian to be ordained a deacon. That same year, his older brothers were ordained as priests. Following his ordination as a deacon, Muswabuzi was immediately posted to Bukalasa Minor Seminary to teach. After a third year of probation he was ordained a priest on March 7, 1915 in Katigondo Chapel. Notably, Muswabuzi was the very first priest to be ordained at Katigondo Hill, giving him a special place in the history of Katigondo National Major Seminary.
Muswabuzi was both the first modern African theologian and a Ugandan liberation theologian. He developed an indigenous theology for the liberation of the local clergy from the clutches of those trapped by cynicism, pessimism, narrow-mindedness, legalism, parochialism, paternalism, discrimination, fear, and domination. He was eloquent and fluent in Latin. At Bukalasa Minor Seminary, Muswabuzi was a good instructor and taught students with great zeal, love, and prudence. He was a man of great valor as he defended many of his students against accusations brought against them by staff members. For example, he ably defended Joseph Kiwanuka (later to become the first African bishop) when he was about to be dismissed because the staff considered him too sickly.
According to the testimony of Fr. Ddiba and Msgr. Timoteo Ssemwogerere, Muswabuzi did a lot of writing but much of his work was destroyed out of neglect or out of fear of his writings. Muswabuzi loved and defended African culture. He generated many new proverbs which he recorded in the book called Engero Ensonge (Self-critical Perceiving Proverbs). His book of proverbs was used for a long time to teach children and adults the Luganda language. In fact he started his own printing press and funded it himself because he was convinced that printing and publishing were crucial to the development of African thought and theology. He had come to realize that many of the works by African scholars at the time were either not published or were being excessively edited to fit into the mindset of western scholars. Muswabuzi considered this to be a form of domination that was not helpful in the promotion of the creation of true African thought. Thus, he named his printing press “Liberatum,” seeking to show that publication should be used as a tool of liberation and development.
One of Muswabuzi’s greatest achievements was his struggle for the equality of the bafaza (local clergy) with abapere (foreign missionaries). The first priests Katigondo produced received excellent training and education but this did not guarantee their equality with the missionaries. Muswabuzi made it clear to the missionaries that the local clergy and the missionaries received the same valid priesthood and that there was no need to differentiate between them based on the color of their skin. They were all brothers and all had the capacity to effectively lead the church and and help it prosper. Furthermore, Muswabuzi was not afraid to destroy those elements that seemed to create a difference between the local clergy and the missionaries. At Bikira he once broke all the cups, glasses, and plates because they were used to separate the priests and to threaten their brotherhood. He vehemently opposed the superiority complex of the missionaries and rejected their haughty attitudes in the use of petty features, such as beards, as a symbol of their authority. Even though the local clergy were forbidden from growing a beard, he grew his beard in protest. When he was reprimanded by his superiors he questioned them on the hidden meaning of the beard and its value for the priesthood. When no satisfactory answer was given, they dropped the issue of the beard. He had the habit of stroking his beard as he talked to the missionaries the way they did with the local clergy.
Muswabuzi fought the good fight. With time both missionaries and local clergy came to recognize their true fraternity, which they had to embody for the good of their mission. This realization was largely the work of Muswabuzi who some considered crazy because of the prophetic signs that he encountered as he fought for the liberation of the African clergy—signs that equal treatment and mutual respect between missionaries and indigenous clergy were becoming a visible reality among the clergy. In this, he long anticipated the demands of great letters of Pope Benedict XV, Maximum Illud and Pope John XXIII, Princes pastorem, regarding the local clergy.
Muswabuzi developed a local theology in which he tried to explain fundamental church concepts. For example, he called the church ssere (black jack) in order to express its catholic attribute: Klezia Katolika eringa essere kubanga etulikidde ensi yonna, (the Catholic Church like black jack has burst, spreading all over the world). He explained the indelible mark of ordination using the image of distilled banana wine and the banana wine itself: Nga walagi bwatasobola kuddamu kufuuka mwenge, bye kityo n’omusaserdooti nga amaze okufuna obwafaaza tayinza kuddayo kuba muntu wabulijjo (once one has been ordained a priest, he can never return to the lay state for he remains a priest forever).
Muswabuzi fought for the self-reliance of the local churches and insisted that local Christians must develop the capacity to support themselves and church programs. He invested heavily in teaching them how to work diligently and productively. In all the parishes in which he was posted, Muswabuzi struggled to make them centers of both evangelization and development. In Bukalasa, Bumangi, Narozari, Bigada, Bikira, Bukulula, Kitovu, Kyamaganda, Villa Maria he is known to have been a man of great creativity, initiative, and a promoter of self-reliance and development. In Bukalasa Minor seminary, he established a large garden of vegetables and an orchard to improve the diet of staff and students. In Narozali, together with fellow priests, he created a road through the bush to join the main road at Kabuwoko. Finally, Muswabuzi bought land in Bukakata and starting planting trees that would provide material for making paper for his printing press.
Muswabuzi was a capable preacher and teacher. He gave beautiful inspiring homilies and taught in many schools with a kind of clarity that is impossible to describe. In this way, he inspired many young people to take up the priestly life and to love education. He fought illiteracy and ignorance through many of his writings, which unfortunately were lost. He was a strict disciplinarian who instilled in many of those he interacted with a sense of responsibility and a love for justice and equity. He was a brave and dedicated pastor as Emmanuel Cardinal Wamala observed, “I saw Fr. John Muswabuzi and the other first priests Victor Mukasa and Bazilio Lumu. As a boy I admired them especially as they celebrated mass. They covered large territories of their parishes. They were brave, they could stay in villages for days administering sacraments, counseling, and instructing people.”
Muswabuzi taught that a priest after long years of service is entitled to retirement and pension. He argued that if there are no systems in place to achieve this, priests must learn to generate wealth through proper and acceptable means and save some money for their old age. In order to show this properly, he built his own home at Kyassonko in Masaka and there he stayed as an old man, occasionally helping out in Kyamaganda parish as his energy would allow.This was Muswabuzi’s final legacy, for he died on December 23, 1968 and was buried at Bukalasa Cemetery. With his death, the modern African diocesan clergy as well as modern African theologians received a powerful ancestor in his person. He was the second to get this title of ancestor after Fr. Bazilio Lumu.
Benedict Ssettuuma Jr
1. John Mary Waliggo, A History of African Priests (Nairobi, Kenya: Matianum Press, 1988), 106-107.
2. Waliggo, A History of African Priests, 51.
3. Waliggo, A History of African Priests, 62.
4. Waliggo, A History of African Priests, 106-107.
5. Interview with Fr. Jerome Lubega (86 years old), Rest House Kitovu, June 14, 2012.
6. Interview with Fr. Denis Mayanja (72 years old), Bisanje Parish, October 10, 2013.
7. Emmanuel Cardinal Wamala, quoted in Ssettuuma Benedict, Coming of Age in Priesthood: A Centenary of Indigenous Catholic Priests in Uganda (Kampala Uganda: Angel Agencies, 2013), 172.
8. Interview with Fr. Jerome Lubega (86 years), Rest House Kitovu, June 14, 2012.
9. Interview with Fr. Denis Mayanja (72 years), Bisanje Parish, October 10, 2013.
10. Emmanuel Cardinal Wamala, quoted in Ssettuuma Benedict, Coming of Age in Priesthood: A Centenary of Indigenous Catholic Priests in Uganda, Angel Agencies, Kampala 2013, 172.
Fr. Denis Mayanja, interview by the author, October 10, 2013, Bisanje Parish, Uganda.
Fr. Jerome Lubega, interview by the author, June 14, 2012, Rest House Kitovu, Uganda.
Muswabuzi, John. Engero Ensonge. Kitovu, Uganda: Liberatum, 1940.
--------. Trinita Omutukirivu. An unpublished manuscript in possession of the author. 1942.
Ssettuuma Jr., Benedict. Katigondo Major Seminary Through a Hundred Years 1911-2011. Kampala, Uganda: Angel Agencies, 2013.
--------. Coming of Age in Priesthood: A Centenary of Indigenous Catholic Priests in Uganda. Kampala, Uganda: Angel Agencies, 2013.
Waliggo, John Mary. A History of African Priests. Nairobi, Kenya: Matianum Press, 1988.
This story, received in 2014, was written by Fr. Benedict Ssettuuma, a diocesan priest from Masaka Diocese who holds a doctorate in missiology from Urban University in Rome. He teaches pastoral theology and missiology at St. Mary's National Major Seminary, Ggaba, Uganda. He is also the chairperson of the board of directors of the Center of African Christian Studies (CACISA), a DACB participating institution.