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The Jesuits of Uganda

By Ian Katusiime

Undugu, vows of poverty, and their selfless living

Tucked away deep in the Kampala city suburb of Nsambya and its many low cost housing buildings is a Christian catholic mission which until recently was relatively unknown. The Society of Jesus or Jesuits as they are called have a centre in Nsambya called the Jesuit Refugee Service.

It is allocated in a quiet compound in which, during our visit, several groups of youth were hunched over in quiet discussions. Occasional sounds of religious singing filtered through from the inner church house and some disabled people ambled about to complete the image of the serenity of a spiritually driven charity. A few vehicles in the parking lot bore the name of the institution.


Father Steven Amani Msele, the head of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Uganda, speaking in a soft tone and with the gait of a man who has lived a life of simplicity explained that the Society of Jesus set up camp in the country in 1986.

He said its mission in Nsambya provides support to the underprivileged especially refugees. It makes arrangement for asylum, provides food, language courses and pays rent for some of the members. During our visit, there was a group of young Congolese refugees at the centre.

“The mission of Jesuits is to teach people to reflect on their relationship with God as their father and Jesus as their brother,” he says, ““We strive to complete the work of Jesus because He lived a life of selflessness; our work is rooted in the teachings of Jesus the same mission that our founder St. Ignatius bestowed on us when he received that vision.”

Jesuits, who are the largest religious order in the Catholic Church, have been in the news since one of their known leaders, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina, became Pope Francis I.

The Jesuits also known as Society of Jesus was founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1540 when he received a vision of Jesus carrying the cross at River Concordia and the Lord told him, “I place you with my son”.

Msele, a Tanzanian, says there are 10 Jesuits in Uganda, two at the Nsambya mission and in Gulu where the core of their work is. Msele explains that they teaching at Gulu University, especially in the science and physics. Jesuits are renowned for their association with science and the new Pope has a master’s degree in chemistry.  As Father Msele confirms, to become a Jesuit, one must be a graduate and pursue other studies as well to be considered. They must sign vows of celibacy and poverty.

Msele says Jesuits are not allowed to seek higher office as their founder St.Ignatius restricted them to only a prophetic role in their missionary work.

“What about Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Jesuit who has just ascended to the papacy?” I ask.

Msele pauses a bit before replying with down-to-earth realism.

“We only thank God for affirming our efforts and hope Pope Francis renews the Society of Jesus.”

Msele speaks with enthusiasm about the devotion he has pledged to his religion. He says he is not overly concerned about the numerous religious sects that have sprung from the mainstream religion and says he expects Pope Francis to generate enthusiasm and renewal amongst the members of the Jesuit following across the world. The Holy Spirit works in different ways, he says, and uses the analogy of a tree that has so many branches but still originate from the same source.

The Uganda Jesuits also run the Ocer Campion Jesuit College, located just after the university. The Jesuit community also has refugee camps affiliated to United Nations Commission for High Refugees (UNHCR) in Adjumani and South Sudan.

The Jesuit Community in Uganda also has another association known as the Undugu Family. With this, they try to address social vices such as violence, segregation, genocide tendencies. Whereas the Jesuit Refugee Service deals with victims, the Undugu Family focuses on prevention of such scourges as HIV/AIDS. Oddly, the Undugu Family works with people from other religions like Islam. It also works with youth and organises traditional galas across the region.

In addition, they conduct a lot of retreats and seminars about spiritual exercises, renewal of the church and renewal of leadership. Something that is synonymous with the multitudes of religious sects in the the country. Some of these are littered all over Nsambya.

When we visited, however, there was not a single sign that this is a religious community from where the new Pontiff hails. Instead, what one senses is the quiet power of an institution whose teachings and beliefs are set to determine the future of the world’s single largest religious body.

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