I've just finished reading the trinity of books by Rawandan genocide survivor, Immaculee Ilibagiza, and the experience was so profound and moving it will take me several weeks of reflections to absorb the full experience. This was a literary encounter with one of the most extraordinary spiritual witnesses of our times.
I read the books in reverse chronological order, however, the last, Our Lady of Kibeho, I read first, followed by the middle book, Led By Faith, followed by her bestseller, Left to Tell. This gave me a unique perspective on the evolution of this woman's faith and her ascent to holiness, because the last book in the series, Our Lady of Kibeho, recounts the enormous impact which the 1981-85 apparitions of Our Lady to three schoolgirls in Kibehoo had upon the childhood faith of Immaculee. She became completely absorbed, almost obsessed, with the apparitions and followed the news stories of the event assiduously, begging her father to one day take her to the site of the apparitions as they were taking place. However, her father, a cautious man, refused to take his youngest child, though he did go himself several times, returning with many stories and anecddotes as well as expressing his faith in the authenticity of the visions being given to three young African schoolgirls. Immaculee yearned to visit the shrine herself, but she would be in her twenties before the opportunity finally presented itself. We learn through this book, however, that her Catholic faith was profoundly shaped by her devotion to Our Lady of Kibeho, and that when she passed through the horrors of the genocide, with all but one member of her family killed, it was the memory of these Marian visions which sustained her faith in God and Mother Mary.The rosary became her lifeline and she clung to the rosary of her father, the last tangible sign left to her of his loving presence.
The Vatican would eventually approve the apparitions of Kibeho in 2003, and indeed, in light of the Rawandan genocide, how could they not. Looking back on the events thirty years later, we can only be shocked and moved by these events - which are hardly known in the 'Western' Christian world. In short, Our Lady predicted - in a shocking and graphic manner - the 1994 Rwandan genocide, showing to the three schoolgirls graphic visions of thousands upon thousands of bloodied, murdered Rwandans with their heads and limbs hacked off. These visions were given to the girls during what was to have been a day of great celebration, with 20,000 Rwandans gathered at Kibeho to witness what they believed would be apparitions of joy, encouragement and peace. Instead, the three girls - who during previous apparitions had been rapturously joyful - were seen screaming and writhing in agony at the apparition site. It was a shocking event for all the participants and completely unexpected. It was also deeply disturbing and portentous. The message, of course, was the same as with so many previous Marian apparitions. If the world - and in this case - Rwanda - did not repent, a great evil would descend upon the country, a horror of bloodshed and murder. Sadly, fourteen years later, this came to pass. Many Catholic believers -who found their faith profoundly shaken by the genocide - were also sustained in their faith by the knowledge that the Merciful Mother of the Lord had warned her children of this eventuality.
This is only a short summary of the book, however, because the story is so extraordinary and multidimensional that it requires a careful reading to fully absorb it, particularly in the way the apparitions 'spread' from one girl to another. However, what struck me about the event was this. The apparitions occurred in the same year that the apparitions first began in Medjugorje, Bosnia, 1981, and these visions began (depending on accounts) with a vision of a Lady in White weeping on a hill crying out for peace. Some ten years later the first skirmishes of the horrific Yugoslav wars began and fourteen years later, at the time of the Rwandan genocide, the Yugoslav wars had reached a peak of ferocious intensity. The coincidence, to me, is more than striking.
Medjugorje did not contain graphic visions of the Yugoslav wars, but similar to the apparitions of Garabandal, Spain in the 1960's, the visions did warn of a great chastisement coming upon human kind if we did not repent in the future. Ordinarily, I don't focus upon the prophecies of the future of either Medjugorje or Garabandal, but the apparitions at Kihebo have moved me to make this reflection. Just as the prophetic visions of Kibeho were intended to comfort and support devout Catholics (and any who believe) through an impending trial by storm, it has always been my conviction that this is the primary purpose of Medjugorje and Garabandal, at least the prophetic aspects of these events. Something is coming down upon us of enormous magnitude and unimaginable suffering, and many sincere, devout Christians who have visited these shrines and believed in them, will no doubt be succored and comforted in the future by the memory that such trials were predicted. It is also possible that those who feel led to Medjugorje are those most in need of support during this time of trial, or those most authentically called to offer comfort and support to others. The admonition that the impending trials can be mitigated if enough devout believers lovingly practice penance and sacrifice must be taken as poetic metaphor (not to denigrate the value of prayer and sacrifice and their possible salutary effect upon the future). Since the fast majority of the world's peoples have never heard of Medjugorje (let alone Garabandal, which has been eclipsed by it's younger sister) and if they heard of the apparitions, they would not know what to make of these strange events, the message of penance and sacrifice is already limited demographically. In other words, the visions and prophecies should not be seen as a desperate call to 'change the world' before it is too late. but rather as visions of hope and comfort to be remembered 'after the fact' during a time of terrible and overwhelming suffering. We are being prepared to pass through a dark night and perhaps those most in need of succor and support are precisely those who feel most deeply called to visit these holy places of Mary's visitation. Mary is preparing us.
This was the opinion expressed by the lead visionary of Garabandal, Conchita Gonzalez, in a 1980 Spanish TV interview, during which she expressed her belief that it was unrealistic to expect the world to 'repent' in time to ward off the 'chastisement' and as a result she feared for the lives of her children, who she said, would experience the brunt of the catastrophe in their own lives.
She implied that she herself would not be alive to pass through the full force of this future trial, thereby implicitly placing the fulfillment of the prophecies of Garabandal far into the future (as of 1980). Conchita Gonzales is now 62 years old, and for whatever reason, monies are pouring into this tiny hamlet in Northern Spain, the road of ascent is being widened to accommodate a massive influx of pilgrims - after years of relative obscurity-the infrastructure is being developed, hostels put up. Where is the money coming from and why, now in the second decade of the 21st century? Someone knows something, it seems. As with Medjugorje, tales of financial malfeasance are already swirling about and rumors - which I hold to be trustworthy - of Opus Dei seeking to control the tourist trade. Difficult to know what to make of it all, but I was always impressed by the deep spirituality and integrity of this lead visionary, who has remained virtually silent over the past fifty years, living her own quiet live as wife and mother in upper New York State. Yet there are signs and 'whispers' that Conchita, who alone 'knows' the date of the expected 'Miracle', is quietly preparing the devotees of the apparitions for their final fulfillment.
(as an aside, here is an interesting question presented to Conchita in a 1973 interview - Conchita no longer grants interview, but in light of so many revelations over the past fifty years, the statement reverberates in the heart)
Doctor: What do you think about the statement that "many cardinals, bishops and priests are on the road to perdition?"
Conchita: I think every day the Virgin appeared she mentioned priests and that we should pray for them. We never understood why. For us priests were like saints because we never had many come to our village. It was considered a privilege whenever one came.
Regarding bishops and cardinals, we thought it very strange, but we would repeat it the way she said it.)
For any interested in information about this relatively obscured apparition in Garabandal, Spain in the 1960's (obscured by the greater notoriety of Medjugorje) here are several websites. They must be read with careful discernment, however, particularly by anyone of a more liberal Catholic outlook.
It may seem as if I've wandered off topic, but not really. I believe that Garabandal, the approved apparitions of Kibeho, and Medjugorje are united by a common vision and form a trinity of intention on the part of the Mother of the Lord. They are linked together and Kibeho is the key that unlocks the mystery of the other two. We are being prepared for a time of great trial and suffering and the merciful Mother of the Lord is calling us, through her manifold visitations, to absolute faith and trust in the ultimate wisdom and compassion of the Lord of History, no matter what trials may come. Part of this trust and faith, however, entails seeing through the signs of contradiction and even the sinfulness and evil swirling around the apparition sites themselves and not allowing ourselves to be weakened in our faith in the sacredness of their deepest center of holiness. Such is the life of faith in the whole Church itself, seeing the evil without denial, but adhering to the absolute goodness and sacredness within the heart of Mother Church herself - wounded, tattered, sinful, holy, compassionate, wise.
Having read Immaculee Ilibagiza's third book in her trilogy, Our Lady of Kibeho, which described the formation of her Catholic faith in the light of the apparitions and her profound devotion to Our Lady, I fully expected her to have mentioned this fact in her two previous books, which recount her ordeals through the genocide itself, her maturing faith and intimacy with God during this terrible time, and the journey of faith she underwent in the immediate years after the genocide, as she attempted to heal her soul and pull the pieces of her life together. However, this is not the case. Though she does mention her deep devotion to Our Lady and the rosary as the mainstays of her faith during this terrible time, she does not mention the source of this faith in her early childhood awareness of the apparitions at Kibeho. Prudently, perhaps, because she wished to reach the widest audience with her two earlier books, she saves this most intimate disclosure for last - and for those who feel called to journey in faith with her through to her third book. It was a wise choice.
(Visit Immaculee's website here)
Unfortunately, as usual, I'm rushing through this blog post before taking off for two more weeks of summer camp with Czech children, so I can't do justice to Immaculee's two extraordinary accounts of her spiritual passage through the genocide. I can only urge you to read these books, which are among the most inspiring stories of faith of our time. There is a reason why her first book, Left to Tell, has become an international bestseller, with over 350,000 copies sold worldwide (as of this writing). It recounts Immaculee's horrific ordeal during the genocide, when she was sealed up together with seven other women in a tiny bathroom in the house of a Protestant pastor, who wavered in his commitment to protect them, with the killers screaming right outside the door, calling for blood and vengeance. Yet for some inexplicable reason the killers never discovered the women's hiding place, despite being within inches of the door several times. This tiny, cramped, confined space (in which the women had to relieve themselves in close proximity to each other, but which they quickily accepted as a minor inconvenience) became Immaculee's inner monastery of prayer and solitude. Because the women could not even whisper a word for fear of being overhead by the pastor's family who did not know of their presence, Immaculee spent most of her time - up to fifteen hours a day - absorbed in the most intense prayer. As a result of this enforced, prolonged and very intense retreat, experienced under the most harrowing pressure, Immaculee evolved with astonishing speed through the stages of the spiritual life - and that is a very dry descriptive account of the experience she relates. It has to be read to be believed. She reached a depth of serenity, peace and and heartfelt acceptance that can only be called a miracle of grace. This was a depth of surrender under trial usually demonstrated by the great saints of the tradition. Clearly, Immaculee was 'gifted by grace' so that she would be 'left to tell' her story of transformation, that the Spirit of Love and forgiveness can be reached through total surrender in trust to the indwelling Spirit, even when experiencing the greatest threat to one's own life. As a result, when Immaculee finally emerged into freedom, she realized she had been spared because she had been called by 'God' to witness to the power of forgiveness. In one deeply moving scene, Immaculee travels to the prison to visit the head Hutu who directly orchestrated the murders of her mother and father, and who sought her own death so ferociously. She even heard him screaming outside the bathroom door (hidden by a wardrobe), "Where is that cockraoch Immaculee. "Find her, kill her, smash her. " Once in front of her 'enemy,' who cowered in her presence, Immaculee tells him simply and peacefully that she forgives him. It is a powerful moment, but it can only be believed and comprehended by reading her full account. Only then does the reader understand that this is not a facile forgiveness, but springs from the depths of a heart deeply wounded by suffering and even more profoundly healed by grace. Immaculee does reiterate throughout the book her belief that the killers must be apprehended and properly punished for their crimes, but she calls for this (not their deaths) for the sake of their own souls, for their repentance, and not for any wish of her own for vengeance. It is the great message of the book and the single, fundamental message of her own ordeal. Forgiveness is all. Forgiveness of our enemies lies at the heart of the Christian message. "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." Forgiveness forged through suffering and through the divine union she experienced through nine months of confinement in a bathroom space so small she could never stretch out her legs - squatting for nine months under imminent threat of death, but attending to the gentle live giving breathe of the Spirit within- forgiveness is the only force that can truly heal the wounds of the genocide. It is a message few of her fellow Tutsi survivors were willing to hear.
As a result of her attitude and practice of forgiveness - and the story of her encounter with her parents' killer, which reverberated throughout Rwanda - Immaculee received numerous death threats from her fellow Tutsis, who were bent on wreaking vengeance themselves for the horrors of the genocide; In Immaculee's second very moving book, Led by Faith, she recounts how she was led by the Spirit to leave Rwanda and journey through crooked paths and byways to the United States, where she would eventually be employed by the United Nations and where she met her future husband and the father of her two children. It is a deeply moving story of a woman chosen by grace, nourished through the Marian apparitions of Our Lady of Kihebo, purified and sanctified by the Spirit through suffering and trial, and 'left to tell' her extraordinary story of mercy and forgiveness. There are no accidents in this world, only mysteries of synchronicity, and Immaculee's story is one of the most providential of all.
And the providential thread that links the apparitions of Kihebo with those of Garabandal and Medjugorje, with their warnings of chastisements yet to come? What are we to make of this connection and how to view it in faith? That is the question I am considering, but I know that the answer lies in absolute surrender in trust, faith and love to the indwelling Presence of the Beloved within, who is also the Lord of History and the Compassionate Mistress/Master of our sufferings and trials. Whatever may be coming, we are comforted, sustained and protected through the life giving Peace that flows through us from the pierced heart of the Crucified and Risen Lord.