When I taught in Nairobi, Kenya in the late 1980s, one of my students shared with me a saying from his Ugandan village: “If a priest puts a curse on you, curse him back, but if a bishop puts a curse on you, dig your grave.” While this ominous maxim had nothing whatever to do with the ecclesiology I was trying to teach, it did serve as evidence that bishops were formidable figures in East Africa. The most formidable bishop I met over there was Serapio Bwemi Magambo, of the Diocese of Fort Portal Uganda.
Fort Portal is a market town near the Rwenzori Mountains – sometimes called the Mountains of the Moon. It is the home of the Congregation of Holy Cross in East Africa. The first members of the community to serve there were three newly ordained Holy Cross priests who arrived in 1958 to assist the White Fathers who had established the mission long before. A Holy Cross priest, Vincent McCauley, was consecrated the first bishop of the newly established diocese in 1961. Bishop Magambo, McCauley’s successor, was the first African bishop of the diocese. He held the memory of his predecessor in great reverence, preserving the founding bishop’s old office just as he had left it, as a kind of shrine. In this Bishop Magambo proved prescient, as Bishop McCauley’s cause for sainthood has since been introduced. Bishop Magambo was a burly, robust, charismatic man with a deep, booming, resonant voice. He had an ample waistline in at a time when great girth was indicative of high status. He had a warm, avuncular personality and exuded sublime confidence in the dignity of his office.
Bishop Magambo invited all of us members of Holy Cross to Fort Portal to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of our community’s arrival in the diocese. The Feast of the Epiphany was chosen for the celebration. The cathedral was filled to capacity for the Mass. In his sermon, Bishop Magambo told the hushed throng that, for Fort Portal, the arrival of the White Fathers had been the first epiphany. The arrival of the Congregation of Holy Cross was the second epiphany. Then, after a significant pause, his great voice boomed out with tremendous gravity, “I am the third epiphany.”
After Mass, Bishop Magambo invited his Holy Cross guests back to his compound for a reception. He assured us that knowing our community as well as he did, he knew precisely how we should best be entertained. By this time night had fallen. After a reverent visit to Bishop McCauley’s office, he led us back outdoors, where he personally handed each of us a warm bottle of Pepsi Cola, which he had specially obtained for the occasion. Then it was time for the crowning touch of his hospitality. He had a record player brought out, and placed on the turntable an old, rather scratched recording of the Notre Dame Glee Club. For the rest of the evening that record was played over and over again, and the strains of the Victory March wafted over the foothills of the Mountains of the Moon.
Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C.