Twelve years before the genocide in Rwanda that would claim the lives of a million people, the "Mother of the Word" appeared to a pious 16-year-old girl, Alphonsine Mumreke, in the remote village of Kibeho. The Virgin’s first appearance was in late 1981 at a school administered by religious sisters whose students were predominantly Catholic, though some were Protestant and Muslim.
Jeers met Alphonisne’s report of the heavenly visitation. School officials and students refused to believe the girl’s claim unless another person saw and verified the stupendous report that the Queen of Heaven would bother with the poorest backwater of Rwanda. (Rwanda is one of the poorest of African nations and is 70 percent Christian, though murderously fractured by tribal and political divisions.) Two months later, a student who had led the scoffers, Marie Claire Mukangango, also saw the Blessed Virgin. Marie’s conversion startled adults and students.
The Blessed Virgin’s messages in the following months echoed earlier pleas given in the apparitions at Lourdes, Fatima, and Beauraing: Mankind has fallen away from love of God. Sin rules men’s hearts. Repent and return to God:
When I tell you this, I do not speak to you alone, but I speak also to all the others. Men of our times have emptied each thing of its true meaning: he who commits a fault does not recognize that he did wrong.
Subsequent messages stressed the Rosary (or chaplet) of the Seven Sorrows as a means to obtain the grace for true repentance. But perhaps most piercing in our secularized modern world was this warning: "The world has become deaf and cannot hear the truth of the Word."
Visions reported by the girls during 1981-84 included horrific images of "a river of blood, people killing each other, abandoned bodies but no one to bury them, corpses minus their heads." Despite the messages from heaven, strife in the country deepened. During his visit to Rwanda in 1990, Pope John Paul II begged his listeners to heed the Virgin’s example and to pray fervently for peace among political and ethnic factions.
Yet by April 1994, the country was awash in carnage. The Hutu government unleashed an inhuman rage on the Tutsi people and moderate Hutus. The world stood stunned 100 days later at the collective failure of nations to stop the slaughter. I sat in a forum in 2000 where Canadian general Romeo Dallaire, head of the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, denounced the UN’s refusal to send sufficient troops to his aid.
The Church, too, lamented the sins of her sons and daughters, whose tribal loyalties trumped the gospel imperative. As John Paul II said:
I hope furthermore that in seeking those responsible for the tragedy your country has suffered, justice and equity will prevail at the trials of those accused of taking part in the genocide. With regard to the Church, as I have already stressed, she cannot as such "be held responsible for the faults of her members who acted against the law of the Gospel; they will be called to account for their acts. All the members of the Church who sinned during the genocide must have the courage to bear the consequences of the deeds they committed against God and against their neighbour."
Rwanda struggles toward reconciliation. Many now understand that "Our Lady of Kibeho" came to warn and exhort the people in hopes that this heart-wrenching tragedy might be averted. The Church convened the requisite studies of the apparitions and the miracles that were said to accompany them. In 2001, on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, in the presence of all the bishops of Rwanda and the apostolic nuncio, Bishop Augustin Misago announced,
Yes, the Virgin Mary appeared at Kibeho on November 28, 1981, and in the months that followed. There are more reasons to believe in the Apparitions than to deny them . . . . The Apparitions of Kibeho are now officially recognized . . . . The name given to the Marian sanctuary at Kibeho is "Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows."
Since then, pilgrimages to the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows have steadily increased. Rwandan holocaust survivor Immaculée Ilibagiza, who spent 91 days hidden in a bathroom with seven other women, travels the world to encourage pilgrimages to Our Lady of Sorrows.
At the 2005 synod of bishops, Frederic Rubwejanga, Bishop of Kibungo, said,
Eleven years ago, in 1994, the Church in Rwanda and the people of Rwanda lived genocide and unbelievable massacres . . . . The courageous and pertinent intervention by Pope John Paul II was especially appreciated. The Pope was the first to set the alarm off, to call things by their true names and to openly denounce the genocide committed. The International Community hesitated in speaking about genocide so as not to have to intervene. In this intervention by Pope John Paul II, we have a model of ecclesial sensitivity that the Eucharistic celebration should urge us to imitate.
Also, it is a fact that certain persons were killed in our churches . . . . [Our] challenges never lack, especially the one of reconciliation, but the vast majority of survivors of the national drama have understood, better than ever, the need for the sacrament of the Eucharist that gathers and seals our ties of broken brotherhood. Among the promising signs, there is the increase in the devotion to Our Lady of Kibeho, whose apparitions have been recognized by the local Bishop, for the past four years. The central message of these apparitions was conversion while there is still time.
"While there is still time" is a message that we might ponder with great profit.