By Fr. Philip Odii
A somber mood filled the air as thousands of people gathered at Uganda Martyrs Cathedral Parish Nyangole in the Archdiocese of Tororo, Uganda, to pay their last respects to Archbishop Emeritus James Odongo on Wednesday, December 9, 2020.
The Funeral Mass and burial were presided over by the Most Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Obbo, Archbishop of Tororo and concelebrated by His Grace John Baptist Odama of Gulu Archdiocese, His Grace Denis Kiwanuka Lote Emeritus Archbishop of Tororo, Rt. Rev. Charles Martin Wamika of Jinja Diocese, Rt. Rev. Sabino Ocan Odoki of Arua Diocese, Rt. Rev. Joseph Eciru Oliach of Soroti Catholic Diocese and hundreds of priests, Religious men and women, political, civil and cultural leaders and the lay faithful from Tororo Archdiocese and beyond.
At the beginning of the Mass, messages of condolence were read from His Holiness Pope Francis, the Prefect for the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Chairman of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa (AMECEA), and the Chairman of the Uganda Episcopal Conference.
The Holy Father in his message signed by the Vatican Secretary of State, Pietro Cardinal Parolin and sent through the Apostolic Nuncio to Uganda, His Excellency the Most Rev. Luigi Bianco, expressed his sadness and heartfelt condolences to the Archbishop of Tororo, the clergy, religious and the lay faithful of the archdiocese.
“United with you in prayerful thanksgiving for Archbishop Odongo’s many years of priestly and episcopal ministry in Uganda, His Holiness prays that our merciful Father may grant him the reward of his labours and welcome his soul into the peace and joy of his heavenly kingdom. Upon all who mourn the late Archbishop’s passing, the Holy Father cordially imparts his Apostolic Blessing as a pledge of peace and consolation in the Risen Lord”, read the message from the Holy Father.
The Prefect for the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle in his message requested the Ordinary of Tororo, the Most Rev. Emmanuel Obbo to extend their heartfelt condolences to the priests, religious, the laity of the archdiocese as well as the relatives of Archbishop Odongo.
Meanwhile, the Chairman of AMECEA, Rt. Rev. Charles Kasonde who is also the Bishop of Solwezi Diocese in Zambia highlighted in his message the memories that the bishops of the region have of Archbishop Odongo.
“The bishops in AMECEA region which he served as chairman from 1973-1979 shall remember Most Rev. Odongo not only as a co-worker who believed in pastoral solidarity but also a great spiritual and visionary person. During his leadership the Association realized a number of its pastoral dreams such as the initiation of AMECEA Documentation Service, the Institution of the Apostolate towards Nomadic Ethnic Communities and, more importantly, the bishops’ endorsement of Small Christian Communities (SCCs) as the region’s Pastoral priority”, the statement reads.
In his message of condolence on behalf of the Uganda Episcopal Conference, the clergy, Religious and all the faithful in Uganda, Rt. Rev. Joseph Antony Zziwa also Bishop of Kiyinda-Mityana Diocese paid special tribute to Archbishop Odongo “for the growth and development of the Church since Vatican II (which he attended in 1965)”.
“He was pivotal and committed to implementation of the Council and its documents. To the Conference he gave his total devotion for the unity and orthodoxy of the Catholic Church in Uganda”, Bishop Zziwa states, adding that “Archbishop Odongo was head and member of various Commissions of the Conference which he served well. As for Tororo Archdiocese, he was not only its first local native bishop but also a founder of parishes and other institutions”.
The Archbishop of Tororo, Most Rev. Emmanuel Obbo in his speech described his late predecessor as a special person who lived a good life and persevered amidst a lot of suffering. He noted that Archbishop Odongo truly depended on God as his motto indicates, “Adiuva Nos Deus Salutis Nostrae” (Help us God our Salvation).
In his homily, Msgr. John Baptist Kauta, the Secretary General of the Uganda Episcopal Conference referred to Archbishop Odongo as one of the icons of the Catholic Church in Uganda, who “has truly lived as shepherd of the multicultural mosaic of many tribes in Tororo Archdiocese”.
Msgr. Kauta noted that Archbishop of Odongo strove to live by the divine standards such as loving and caring for other people (Mt. 25:31-46), being ready to forgive (Mt. 18:22), reconcile and live in peace (Mt. 5:9; 23-25). He pointed out the following as some of the attributes of the Archbishop: simplicity, care of neighbour, willingness to share, kindness, cheerfulness, and truthfulness.
He further described the Archbishop as a man of prayer who cherished the liturgy (the Holy Mass and Breviary), the Rosary, and the reading of the Bible and spiritual readings; a man who promoted vocations to the priesthood and religious life and valued the role of the laity in the life and ministry of the Church. He summarized Archbishop’s life as “a life well lived, a life lived for God and for humanity”.
In his condolence message, the President of the Republic of Uganda, His Excellency Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, described Archbishop Odongo as a faithful shepherd who had made good use of his talents for the Church and the country at large. He called on the people to celebrate his legacy and emulate his life which was characterized by hard work, faithfulness, love and dedication.
The message of the President and his financial contribution of Uganda Shillings 20 million were delivered by the Attorney General of Uganda, Hon. William Byaruhanga.
Archbishop James Odongo and his late twin brother, Fr. Alfred Opio were born on March 27, 1931 in Molo village, present Tororo District in Eastern Uganda. He had his seminary formation at Nyenga Minor Seminary, Ggaba Major Seminary in Uganda and Propaganda Fide College in Rome. He was ordained a deacon on September 29, 1956 and a priest on December 22, 1956 in Rome. He was elected Auxiliary Bishop of Tororo on November 25, 1964 at the age of 33 and consecrated Bishop on February 16, 1965 5. On August 19, 1968 he was appointed Bishop of Tororo and on January 2, 1999 he became the first Metropolitan Archbishop of Tororo. He retired on June 27, 2007 upon attaining the canonical retirement age.
Archbishop Odongo who was the first African Bishop of Tororo Diocese and its first Metropolitan Archbishop passed on at the age of 89 on December 4, 2020 at St. Francis Hospital Nsambya in Kampala. He had been admitted due to complications related to diabetes and high blood pressure.