“No matter what you go through … forgiveness is possible in every
situation,” said Immaculée Ilibagiza. “You might not be there, but when the
time comes it will surprise you, too.”
Ilibagiza, author and survivor of the Rwanda genocide in 1994,
spent three months hiding in a tiny bathroom with seven other women, praying silently.
Her father, who sent her to safety, died along with Ilibagiza’s mother and two
brothers. Another brother, who was studying abroad at the time, survived. While
in hiding, she prayed the rosary more than 20 times a day, deepening her
relationship with Jesus and Mary.
“I don’t think of myself as more fortunate than those who died,” Immaculée Ilibagiza said. “I believe they died as martyrs. My brother died telling his killers, ‘I know where I’m going. What about you?’”
Ilibagiza was the featured speaker at the annual Women’s Conference
co-sponsored by the diocesan Office of Family Life and the Arlington Diocesan
Council of Catholic Women. The theme of the March 11 conference at St. Joseph
Church in Herndon was “Breaking Free through Forgiveness.” Her speech had the
720 audience members moving between laughter and tears.
Ilibagiza eventually came face to face with her family’s murderer
and forgave him. But before that, she had to work through her anger.
“Anger becomes obsessive,” she told the audience. “The future is
unveiled when the anger is gone.”
In her time in hiding, Ilibagiza learned the importance of
trusting God completely.
“If you put your trust in God, you have learned to appreciate Him
and He will be there again,” she said. “He is everywhere and goes with you
She said often during her prayer she would tell God she had a
good reason not to forgive the killers. Her perspective changed after she asked
God’s help to forgive.
Ilibagiza talked about her difficulty with reciting the Lord’s
Prayer with honesty and not leaving out the part about forgiving others. “Our
Lord’s Prayer isn’t man-made,” she said. “Don’t try to edit God’s prayer.”
“I don’t think of myself as more fortunate than those who died,” Ilibagiza
said. “I believe they died as martyrs. My brother died telling his killers, ‘I
know where I’m going. What about you?’”
Arlington Bishop Michael F. Burbidge celebrated Mass following
Ilibagiza’s presentation. In his homily, he reflected on her story and said,
“We are not necessarily asked to forgive someone who has attempted to take our
lives, but those who killed our spirit or our happiness or self-confidence,” he
said. “It could be a child or a spouse we are called to forgive.”
For Christians, the call to forgiveness isn’t extraordinary, said
Bishop Burbidge, but it is the mandate of the Gospel. “It is only by pardoning
that we can experience the joy and peace only Jesus can give.”
The bishop gave practical tips for forgiveness, including beginning
with gratitude for the number of times we have been forgiven, remembering we
only see the surface of those who hurt us and knowing we need God’s help to
“In the Eucharist, we are reconciled with God and one another,”
said Bishop Burbidge. “May we go forth with renewed commitment to imitate Him,
and know peace, serenity and joy through forgiveness.”
Following lunch, Bishop Burbidge participated in a Q&A
session. When asked how the infertile and single can live out the vocation of
motherhood, Bishop Burbidge said everyone shares the vocation to love and see
one another as God sees the other. “God’s child is my child,” he said.
As Pope Francis began his fourth year as pope March 13, Bishop
Burbidge shared three qualities he believes the pope exemplifies — joy of the
Gospel, respect and God’s plans for us.
The bishop advised the women to find hope in a life rooted in
prayer in Christ. He shared that the best parts of being a bishop include
teaching and sanctifying, while governing is his least favorite.
“It is very humbling to look out and to see all of you,” said
Bishop Burbidge at the end of the day. “I can only imagine the goodness that’s
in this room. I can only imagine the lives that you are touching and the many
people who depend on you, rely on you and look up to you. I prayed for you at
Mass today. I will continue to pray for you and ask that you pray for me.”
Women and children, from infants to the elderly, attended the
conference. Three generations of one family attended. Lara Crouch, a parishioner
of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington, attended with her mother, Kristin,
and grandmother, Christa.
“Faith is something we all share and when my grandma comes from
the Netherlands for two months each year we try to do something special and
appreciate the time to come together with women in the diocese and be
inspired,” said Crouch.
She said she had never encountered such depth of faith as she
witnessed from the Ilibagiza’s presentation. “It’s something I hope to attain someday.”
Kathy Royse, a parishioner of Our Lady of Angels Church in
Woodbridge, has attended the women’s conference for the past three years and
said it’s important for her to attend it. “It sort of frees you from whatever
is going on at home or work or with children and you get to hear from different
women,” she said. “It gets you thinking about things you might not necessarily
Jennifer Zurbach, a parishioner of St. Theresa Church in Ashburn,
brought her daughter, Christine, for the first time. “I always walk away with
something new,” she said. Zurbach has seen Ilibagiza three or four times and
wanted her daughter to see her. “I told her, ‘Wait until you meet her. You see
the light of Christ in Immaculée’s eyes,’” she said.
The Office of Family Life is supported by the Bishop’s Lenten
To buy photos from the Women's Conference go to catholicherald.smugmug.com.