Young adults from diocese gather lifetime of memories in Uganda


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A group of young Missouri Catholics searched for words to describe the 11-day voyage they were preparing for to the African nation of Uganda.

Some called it a mission trip. Some described it as a cultural exchange. Others said it was “religious tourism.”

“But honestly, none of us knew what was in store for us,” said Nico Keegan, a member of St. Thomas More Newman Center Parish in Columbia.

“We were going out there and were just trusting that what we’re doing is a God thing,” he said.

Eight young adults from the Jefferson City diocese traveled to Kampala, Uganda, over Holy Week and Easter to cultivate relationships with the people of an archdiocese from which four priests are on mission to this diocese.

One of those priests, Father Joseph Luzindana, led the Missouri delegation to his home diocese.

Fr. Luzindana serves here as diocesan moderator for youth and young adult ministry and as associate pastor of Cathedral of St. Joseph Parish in Jefferson City.

He previously served as associate pastor of St. Thomas More Newman Center Parish in Columbia, where several of the people who wound up going to Uganda with him originally got to know him.

He is founder of the Kampala archdiocese’s Y.E.S. Center (, a place for young Catholics in Uganda’s largest city to have their faith life, social life and education strengthened.

Also traveling with the group were Maureen Quinn, diocesan director of religious education and youth/young adult ministry, and Jake Seifert, diocesan senior director of development and of the diocesan Missions Office.

Bishop W. Shawn McKnight visited the Kampala archdiocese in January 2023. In keeping with his vision for a deeper spiritual bond between the two dioceses, the young-adult delegation from Missouri went to Kampala to take part in in a “ministry of presence.”

“Maureen Quinn told us we were coming here just to simply be — to be with the people and show them love from across the world — all one Church on separate continents,” Nico stated in an interview from Uganda.

“We came here from almost a completely other world to become friends with our brothers and sisters in Christ,” he said.

Throughout the journey, the Ugandan people were unreservedly warm and hospitable, treating their American guests as celebrities and dignitaries.

“We’ve received a lot of very warm welcomes and celebrations of us being here,” said Allison Newkirk, who traveled to Uganda with her brother, Matthew.

“We were taken aback by how happy everyone was to see us,” Allison recalled. “We’re just regular people, not anything special, but they were treating us as if we were very special.”

The Americans quickly recognized the tremendous esteem the people in Fr. Luzindana’s home archdiocese have for him.

“The impact he’s had on the Church in Uganda is incredible, and the experiences that he’s been able to lead us through as a result could not be bought with any amount of money,” said Matthew.

Upon arriving in Kampala, the Missourians were greeted by about 30 young people playing African drums and dancing.

Children presented each American visitor with a bouquet of flowers.

“They came and gave each of us hugs, and everyone was welcoming us, and there were three photographers snapping photos of everything going on,” said Allison.

No greater love

Bishop McKnight noted after his visit last year that the Catholic Church in Uganda is young and vibrant and rests firmly on the blood of the Ugandan Martyrs.

The growth of Catholicism in that East-central African nation dates back to the arrival of French missionaries in the 1800s.

Twenty-two Catholics and as many Protestants were killed for their faith in 1885.

Pope St. Paul VI declared several of them saints in 1964.

Mrs. Quinn said it was a tremendous blessing to visit Fr. Luzindana’s homeland with him and see it through his eyes.

On Good Friday, more than 60,000 people followed the priest up a rugged mountain to the Kiwamirembe Marian Shrine, praying the Stations of the Cross at stone pillars along the way.

Fr. Luzindana gave reflections on each Station, alternating between English and the local language commonly spoken in Kampala.

“Even preaching in two languages at the same time for over two hours — for that to be so engaging, and for people to remember everything he said — we were just in awe,” said Matthew.

At every station, Fr. Luzindana laid out a personal connection.

“He’d ask, ‘What is going on in your life, and how does this station connect to that,’” Matthew recalled. “Everybody has real sufferings and issues. He brought a lot of that to life.

“Like at the second and third fall, he’d say, ‘Do you not see how Jesus falls? He understands how we fall, and he encourages us to get back up,’” said Matthew.

“Or when Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus: ‘Who are the people in your life who are helping you carry your cross? Who can you say thank you to?’” Matthew recalled.

Fr. Luzindana consistently wove Easter joy through the Good Friday observance.

“All through the Way of the Cross, he reminded people that ‘you want to be holy, Jesus wants you to be a saint,’” said Allison.

“He made it so engaging,” said Matthew. “So many people in the crowd were moved by his voice.”

Thriving, young Church

More than 700 people were on hand to welcome the Americans to the Y.E.S. Center for Mass on their second day in Uganda.

“The beautiful thing was that they were doing traditional dancing with the drums,” Allison observed. “And if you’d start to dance, they’d invite you in and you’d have so much joy.”

Matthew pointed out that most countries with developed economies are entering what Pope Benedict XVI called a New Apostolic Age, in which people routinely do not hear the Gospel and know little about Jesus.

“But here, in Uganda, you have a new and thriving and growing Church — specifically a Catholic Church, where their relationship with Jesus is first and foremost in their lives,” Matthew stated.

About 50 percent of the Ugandan population is age 15 or younger.

“So many babies! So much faith and optimism!” Nico observed.

They and their traveling companions were amazed to see how genuinely and joyfully the Ugandan people love Jesus, despite not having access to conveniences and even many of the basic needs people take for granted in the United States.

“It’s given me and a lot of people on this trip some serious hope for the future of the Church, how much it’s growing and thriving in Africa,” Matthew stated.

What we have received

Nico said the Ugandan people have the spiritual authenticity of St. Therese of Lisieux.

He believes the welcome and unconditional love and acceptance he and his friends received in Uganda were a taste of the love God has for each person and for all humanity.

“It is being seen without boundaries, without expectations,” said Nico.

He noted that student parishioners at the St. Thomas More Newman Center have been having discussions about the various kinds of love — including the unconditional, self-giving love, known in Greek as “agape,” that God gives.

“I can honestly say: I agape-love the people of this country,” Nico stated. “They’ve given so much to us and enriched us so much and done so much to agape-love and serve us.”

He said it’s actually a challenge to receive and know how to respond to that kind of love.

“But that’s exactly why we’re here today,” he said. “Our part has been to receive love, and it calls us into a mission to give love in any way we can.”

What’s in a name?

The visitors got to know a member of their security detail named Kimera.

He started asking questions about the Christian faith last year while helping provide security to Bishop McKnight during his visit in January 2023.

This year, after attending an outdoor Mass with the young adults from Missouri, Kimera told Fr. Luzindana that he wants to begin the process for being received into the Catholic Church.

A local priest will assist the man through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.

Kimera asked the group from Missouri for a suggestion for a Confirmation name. After prayer and discussion, they suggested Andrew Kaggwa — after one of the 19th-century Ugandan Martyrs whose shrine the group had visited. 

The people from Missouri presented Kimera a rosary and a Bible in his native language.

“We’re looking forward to seeing pictures from his initiation into the Church next Easter,” said Matthew.

Greatest treasure

The group visited Archbishop Paul Ssemogerere of Kampala and toured a school where additional classrooms were recently built with a grant from the diocesan Missions Office.

“Even after we are gone, we’re leaving a piece of us behind,” said Mr. Seifert said of the school addition.

Allison spoke of the most unforgettable sunrise she had ever seen, which she beheld while surveying the beautiful landscape with the group.

“And the landscape and the wind whipping through your hair, so fresh and clean and real nature, and it’s absolutely beautiful,” she said. “That image and feeling won’t ever go out of my head.”

Mrs. Quinn said the journey to Uganda was more powerful than any of the participants could have imagined.

She believes it will take them weeks to finish spiritually unpacking everything they saw and heard and experienced.

“Uganda is a beautiful country, but their greatest treasure is the people,” she stated. “The faith and joy the people radiate is contagious!

“I am so grateful that our diocese values knowing the people in the places we support,” she said.