Ubald Rugirangoga, Forgiveness Makes You Free, Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, IN, 2019.
By John Gillman
Some books are not for the faint of heart, and this is one of them. In the late spring of 1994, as many as one million people were slaughtered in a genocide in Rwanda. The author, a Catholic priest belonging to the Tutsis, lost more than 80 family members and 45,000 parishioners during this killing rampage. In this dramatic story, Fr. Ubald portrays the horrendous nature of the massacre and his overwhelming grief expressed in sleepless nights of tears.
Neighbor turned on neighbor, family members against their own, and seminarians and priests against one another. Such betrayal recalls the foreboding words of Jesus, when households will be divided with father against son and mother against daughter (Luke 12:49-53).
In an apology in 2017, Pope Francis expressed sorrow for the Catholics who were complicit in carrying out the genocide. Afterwards, many left the church. Others remained. Fr. Ubald recalls his mother as being a woman of great faith. Reduced to poverty after her husband was murdered in 1963, she nonetheless found ways to support her family. Looking back on this time, Fr. Ubald “thought of how God had taken care of my family.” Like Job, he did not “charge God with wrongdoing” (Job 1:22). But years later, after learning that his mother and most of his family had been wiped out during the genocide, Fr. Ubald, feeling an indescribable “great darkness,” wondered: “Why had God allowed such a thing to happen, and why was I not allowed to die with them?”
In spite of his immense loss, he carried the cross of genocide, preaching the example of Jesus whose life even up to his death was marked by forgiveness and mercy. Fr. Ubald encouraged the perpetrators, large numbers imprisoned afterwards, to beg pardon and seek forgiveness, for this is the only path to freedom. Experiencing a profound personal healing during a visit to Lourdes, he forgave the burgomaster who ordered the killing of his mother. Seeing the picture of the two of them together smiling speaks loudly about healing and reconciliation.
Listening to the testimony of the victims, many embittered, Fr. Ubald urged them to offer forgiveness, even before pardon is asked. Through his retreats and prayer gatherings at home and abroad, including the United States, he has been sought after for his gift of healing and his ability to facilitate reconciliation.
This book reads as a memoir, with retreat-like exhortations. Readers will be shocked by the enormity of brutality of which humans are capable and will undoubtedly be inspired by the power of forgiveness to heal a fractured people, a forgiveness that leads to inner freedom and renewed bonds of connection.
John Gillman, BCC, is adjunct professor at Franciscan School of Theology in San Diego.