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Rwanda genocide survivor inspires women at annual conference

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“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 everywhere.”

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 forgive.

“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 think about.”

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 Appeal.

To buy photos from the Women's Conference go to catholicherald.smugmug.com.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017