If you ask Immaculée Ilibagiza why bad things happen to good people, her answer is simple: so we can learn to love more completely.
Ilibagiza miraculously survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide by hiding in a tiny bathroom with six other women for three months. Her best-selling book Left to Tell recounted how the experience drove her into the arms of the Lord.
Now married with two children, Ilibagiza recently released two new books: Led By Faith, a follow-up to her first book, and Our Lady of Kibeho, detailing the message of the only Vatican-approved Marian apparition in Africa. She spoke to Register correspondent Patrick Novecosky from her home in New York City.
You grew up in a devout Catholic family. When did you come to embrace your Catholic faith?
I grew up praying all the time. My family prayed in front of the cross on our knees every night before we went to sleep. The first step that brought me closer to God was in the fourth-grade. My teacher read us the story of Our Lady of Fatima. I was struggling with whether faith was real and questioning so many things.
But when she read that, something convinced me that our faith is real. In my 11-year-old mind, I thought I was going to have apparitions myself. A friend, her brother and I started saying the Rosary together, hoping we would have apparitions.
You told how you survived the genocide in Left to Tell. How was your life transformed during your 91 days in hiding?
During the genocide, my faith was crushed, then reborn. When they were searching for us, I remember saying, “This is over.” There were over 300 people in the house, on top of the house, in every room. There was no way they could miss the bathroom where we were. I wanted God to save me so much; I wanted to know that God is real and that he could hear me.
I almost gave up my faith. I was thinking, “I don’t even know why I believed in God before.” Then there was a voice: “You’ve been praying all these years. You know he’s real. Why don’t you ask him to help you?”
Instantly, I changed my mind and said, “I trust you with all my heart. You are God Almighty, and you are here.”
It was trust out of nowhere.
It’s like when a plane is shot down and you’re hoping you don’t die. In that moment, I put all my hope in God. I told him I would trust even more after this if I survived.
God listens even to the smallest prayer. Prayer became my food in that bathroom. I went through moments of hunger. I went through moments of forgiving.
It all came through the Rosary — especially the part of the Lord’s Prayer that says, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Something was telling me: “Say it with your heart.”
Look at Jesus when he’s dying on the cross. Look at Mary when the angel came and told her she’s going to have a baby.” That made me pray the Rosary from my heart.
I prayed seven Rosaries every day and 14 Divine Mercy Chaplets.
How has your life changed since Left to Tell was published?
It’s day and night. When the book came out, I found my purpose. I had been working at the United Nations since the genocide. I’ve heard that you should do what you love and love what we do. I didn’t love what I was doing.
I found my purpose in talking about the goodness of God. I love it. Everything has changed, especially in finding God.
Spiritually, I have more time to pray, to talk about God, to research about God, to read about God. There’s no doubt I went through that experience to strengthen my faith, to write the book, and talk with passion about my faith.
If people only wanted me to talk about the genocide, I would tell them I’m not coming. But talking about God’s goodness, how he healed me, how I found him is something that excites my heart. Speaking about the genocide would be tiring.
How has motherhood changed your understanding of God?
I used to worry all the time like my mother. I thought I would not get married and have children because I didn’t want to suffer if something happened to them.
Slowly, I understood that I am a guardian angel to my children.
They are God’s children, and he put them in my hands, to love them and not be scared about what could happen.
It has changed me.
They’re angels. It’s an amazing feeling to have someone love me so much.
My parents died in the genocide. It’s tragic to lose people you trust, who have true love for you. So, it’s wonderful to have children and find that true love again, unselfish and unconditional love.
They brought back that sense of belonging.
Having children also made me realize the purity of God, how much he loves us. He loves me better than I love my own children.
How can that be?
It really made me understand that.
Jesus said you don’t give your children stones when they ask for bread. How much more does God love us! It’s really beautiful to understand that he loves us so much more.
Why was it important to write a sequel to Left to Tell?
Many people have asked me what happened after the genocide.
How did you deal with the loss after? How did you hold onto God? Did you only hold onto him in your need or did you keep it up?
I wish I could please God fully, but I’m a sinner.
However, I will definitely defend his goodness to the world in every situation. I wrote the book because I wanted to tell people that God is there for you in your everyday life. It is not just a matter of being in a genocide.
Our Lady appeared to three Rwandan girls during the 1980s at an all-girls Catholic high school in the village of Kibeho. You wrote about how the apparition affected you.
I get so excited talking about that book. I told you my little story about how I wanted to have apparitions.
Well, the summer I was trying to have apparitions was the year Our Lady appeared in Kibeho. Because I was so young, I was one of the first believers in the apparitions.
I was in the audience when the Blessed Mother was talking to the visionaries. She warned us about the genocide.
I can’t describe the feeling you get when you are there. She taught us songs in our language, songs we never heard before. In apparitions in other parts of the world, she would appear for five or 10 minutes.
In Rwanda, she stayed for five hours. That is the culture. If you visit people in Rwanda for only one hour, it’s an insult. She spoke our language and stayed for a long time.
The Vatican approved the apparitions in 2001, so it’s a joy to tell this story. What is my own story compared to a story from heaven?
I love talking about the Rosary, which saved me. Now here we have the author of the Rosary speaking to us. She spoke to us with so much love.
I know I have a mother. I wish the whole world would know we have a mother.
Her message in Kibeho is not just for Kibeho, not even just for Rwanda. She said it is for the whole world.
What is her message, and why is it relevant to the world today?
Most of the message she gave was to convert. We need it more than ever.
She repeated, “Repent. Repent, my children. Put God first in your life. Know me as your mother who loves you. Hold on to me. I will direct you. Hold onto my Son.”
She gave us a meditation about her seven sorrows. She said the Rosary is so strong in grace that those who say it well are capable of healing other people.
It’s especially strong to defeat any obsession, especially in our time when people are so obsessed with things.
In our society these days, we are lost. Everyone is searching. People are leaving the Church.
The Blessed Mother reminded us in Rwanda that no one goes to heaven without suffering.
She said that with the prayer of the Rosary, everything is possible. It’s the true way of peace.
The reason I wanted to share this with the world is because this is the first approved apparition in all of Africa. It gives us such dignity.
She told us, “I have not forgotten Africa. I go where I’m needed most.Many are purified through your suffering. But I have not forgotten Africa.”
Patrick Novecosky is based
in Naples, Florida.