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Transforming Tragedy into Triumph: A Journey to Forgiveness

Posted on May 26, 2024 in: Reflections

Transforming Tragedy into Triumph: A Journey to Forgiveness

In the spring of 1994, I was thinking about all the typical teenage things any junior in high school is consumed with: my driver’s license, grades, girls, a new job at Burger King. I was vaguely aware of talk of a problem in a faraway land called Rwanda, but my young mind was too focused on my small concerns. Meanwhile, my contemporaries in Rwanda had real problems: a genocide unfolding around them.

There had always been tensions between the two tribes that inhabited Rwanda: the Hutu and the Tutsi. But now, it was exploding into intense violence. Almost overnight, a “madness” seemed to overtake the nation, as members of the Hutu tribe began massacring the Tutsi. Neighbor turned against neighbor, friend against friend, and blood poured down the streets. For three months, savage attacks destroyed the nation. And afterward, the people awoke almost as if in a daze, scarcely believing what they had done.

But a warning about the brutality had already been given by Our Lady. Thirteen years earlier, in 1981, the Blessed Mother began appearing to a series of schoolchildren in the Rwandan village of Kibeho. Overall, her visits were a cause for great rejoicing in the relatively obscure nation! Mother Mary started appearing to girls at a high school, directing people to the holiness of life and salvation. Eventually, eight credible visionaries reported amazing messages from heaven. The radio even began broadcasting the apparitions throughout the nation. Rwandans were ecstatic that the Mother of God had chosen their little nation to become a beacon of hope throughout the world.

But something changed on Aug. 15, 1982, the feast of the Assumption. A huge crowd had gathered in Kibeho, celebrating the feast and anticipating that Our Lady would have a greater message than usual. But when she appeared, she was weeping. She told the visionaries that she was too sad to listen to their songs of joy. The visionaries were quite distressed, wondering what could cause the Blessed Mother to be so filled with sorrow. Their puzzlement soon turned to terror, as they were shown the upcoming genocide. The children started screaming about seeing rivers of blood, and Rwandans hacking each other to death with machetes. They could not believe what they were seeing! Their beautiful country, so blessed by Mary’s visits, was being torn apart by hatred and violence. 

While Our Lady continued to appear sporadically throughout the 1980s, most of the visionaries stopped seeing her in 1982 or 1983. But none ever forgot the visions of the bloodshed. They could not imagine how it could come to be. Our Lady had warned that if people did not convert their hearts, let go of hatred and offer forgiveness, this would be their future. Sadly, there was not enough conversion, and it indeed came to pass.

Many people know the stories of Our Lady’s visits to Kibeho, and the horrors of the Rwandan genocide, thanks to the efforts of one Catholic author and speaker: Immaculée Ilibagiza. Immaculée’s incredible story of surviving the genocide involved hiding in a small bathroom with seven other women for 70 days; she relates her ordeal in her book, Left to Tell. Her faith, and praying the rosary, kept her strong during the nightmare, which claimed the lives of most of her family and many friends. Reading her story is very powerful, especially contrasted with the silly concerns of my own at the same time.

Immaculée also has a deep connection to Our Lady of Kibeho. She was not a visionary, but she had been deeply interested in the apparitions from the start. Her pastor first brought news of the visitations of Our Lady to their tiny village, stoking young Immaculée’s fervor. She begged her parents to allow her to make a pilgrimage to the apparition site, but such a trip was too arduous and dangerous for a little child. Instead, she regularly listened to all of Mary’s messages and became bound to the apparition by grace. She tells the story of the Blessed Mother’s visits to Rwanda in her book, Our Lady of Kibeho.

After enrolling at university, but before the genocide, Immaculée finally had the opportunity to visit Kibeho and hear some of the visionaries who were still receiving messages. On her very first trip, Our Lady instructed:

My children, you must love each other and not hold onto anger. Many in this country have hatred in their hearts; you must cleanse your own heart with my son’s love. Pray children — pray to me and I will help you. A small seed of anger can grow into a great tree of hatred that can block God’s light and cast you into darkness. My children, please listen. You must grant forgiveness for the sins of others and pardon those who have hurt you. Remember how much I love you, and love others the same way.

 

These would not be idle words for Immaculée. Soon, she would face her greatest test. Would she live this message? Could she? Her world had been torn apart; former friends and neighbors had butchered her family. She and her nation had been terrorized for three months. It would have been easy to give into anger, to begin to hate, to strike back with the same ferocity at those who had hurt her.

But Immaculée knew that our Lady wanted more from her. She understood that the message was for her. She would have to forgive if she wanted peace. And so, she resolved to pardon her enemies. She would not resent those who had ruined her life. Trusting in our Lady of Kibeho, she would embrace forgiveness for others.

Immaculée now shares her story throughout the U.S. and the world, regularly leading pilgrimages back to Rwanda. She has found the freedom that forgiveness brings, and she now spreads the message of mercy to everyone she meets. I encourage you to read her books for the full story. And listen to this message of our Blessed Mother. Embrace forgiveness. Pardon those who have hurt you. It is the only path to internal peace.

 

By Father Jeffrey Ellis


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