Would you be able to forgive the man who murdered your mother?
Father Ubald Rugirangoga was faced with that momentous question when he returned to Rwanda from exile in neighboring Burundi following the genocide of 1994. Not just that. When he was 7 years old, he had already lost his father in an earlier cycle of violence. Now he had lost 80 members of his extended family and more than 45,000 members of his congregation during the genocide from April to July 1994 in which the Hutu majority, egged on by their own government, rampaged through the country using machetes and crude farm tools to slaughter an estimated 800,000 to 1 million former friends, neighbors and acquaintances, mostly members of the Tutsi minority. When the 100-day bloodletting ended, about 70 percent of the Tutsi population had been killed.
On Feb. 22, Father Rugirangoga was in New York, where he spoke before a packed audience at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in lower Manhattan about his own experience during the genocide and of his mission since to bring forgiveness, healing, reconciliation and hope to his country. Father Rugirangoga talked during a panel discussion following an evening screening of “Forgiveness, The Secret of Peace,” a searing documentary that examines the desolation the genocide wrought and his work to bring together both victims and perpetrators to forge a common future built on peace and brotherhood.
He was joined on stage by Consolee Nishimwe, a fellow Rwandan and genocide victim who now lives in New York City, and by Mother Clare Matthiass, C.F.R., the community servant of the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal, and Father Christopher Argano, vocations director for the archdiocese, who were moderators of the discussion.
For a Catholic priest, there could be no alternative to forgiveness. The words spoken by Christ on the cross are unambiguous. “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Father Rugirangoga forgave the man and, more than that, offered to put the man’s children through school.
“After returning to Rwanda, I started preaching about forgiveness, pardon and reconciliation,” he explained. “I had seen the way of healing after such a horror like genocide was to forgive. I forgave those that had killed my family. I went straight to (the man who had killed his mother) and I said, ‘In the name of Jesus I forgive you’… I wanted to show that freely I had forgiven him. He had no money. I decided to pay his school fees.”
During a healing visit to Lourdes, Father Rugirangoga said he received his commission from Jesus to bring about the healing and reconciliation of his people. He remembers the command as succinct and direct, “Ubald, carry your cross.”
“I said, genocide is a cross for me to carry!” he remembered. That “moment of grace” launched him on his ministry of preaching, healing and forgiveness that has made him an eminent and much sought-after speaker, both in his homeland and abroad, adviser to the Rwandan government on peace and reconciliation issues, and founder of the Center for the Secret of Peace in Rwanda, which seeks to rebuild the lives of both victims and perpetrators.
Father Rugirangoga stressed the desire for forgiveness and pardon must be sincere by both parties. The people who had perpetrated genocide were, in a way, victims too, he said, carrying the horror, the burden and deep shame of what they had done. Many of those people had lived side by side before their government roused them to murder.
“The people you saw in the film were our neighbors,” said Ms. Nishimwe, who has written a book, “Tested to the Limit,” on her own experiences during the Rwandan genocide. “We knew them very well.”
“The victims of the genocide are traumatized by what happened to them,” Father Rugirangoga said. “The executioners of the genocide are also traumatized because of what they have done. Everyone needs inner peace. Forgiveness and asking for pardon is the key to peace. We have to forgive if we want to survive.”
He stressed that forgiveness and asking pardon are ultimately liberating, freeing people to move forward from their trauma and begin piecing their lives, and their community, back together. “If you don’t forgive, you have a burden to carry,” he said. “As it is when you don’t ask for forgiveness.” He illustrated the message by physically carrying Father Argano about the stage on his back while saying, “I will never forgive him.” Then he had Father Argano carry him while refusing to ask for pardon.
During the genocide, Rwanda came about as close as a nation can get to suicide. Since then, miraculous progress has been made. The tiny land-locked mountainous nation, once a slaughterhouse, is now a beacon in Africa for economic development.
The daughter of the man who killed Father Rugirangoga’s mother has progressed, too, in her studies. “The girl is in medical school,” he said. “I am so happy! This year in December she will be a medical doctor.”