As I write this, thousands of people across the Midwest are without power and water from one of the greatest storm fronts (if not the greatest) ever to hit their neck of the woods. Thousands more are in hospitals, fighting the COVID-19 virus up close and personal. All of us, in some way, have been walking the way of Lent for more than a year. So … why Lent? Why this year, after so many have been through so much already?
When I recently came across this quote by Romano Guardini (who lived in the 19th century, when Catholics really knew “how to Lent,” it stirred something in me: The idea that at times we can choose to relinquish not just sins and toxic habits, but even our little human indulgences, in order to make room for something better. And so, Lent.
A few weeks ago at Fr. Ubald’s funeral, I touched my rosary to his cold, still hands and asked God to let Fr. Ubald pray for my daughter, so that she might be healed. These past few weeks have been pretty tough on all of us, and I really don’t know how to help her. So this year during Lent we are going to do a nightly rosary for this intention. I would be grateful if you would be willing to join your prayers with ours.
I pulled into the parking lot of the cathedral last Friday evening with barely five minutes to spare. It was my first time in the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. Dedicated in 1901, the cathedral’s breathtaking, richly colored mosaics adorn the walls and ceilings, replete with gilded angels and saints. I had worried I wouldn’t be able to get in because of the limited seating due to COVID, but the midweek service was being broadcast all over the world, and so there was room for all of us who made the trip. So many had come — from Chicago and New Orleans, from North Carolina and Florida. Many, many from the Rwandan community, including the two who worked in the hospital where Father spent the last weeks of his life, and had ministered to him when no one else was allowed inside his hospital room.
At the end of the service, Father’s coffin was opened so we could each spend a few moments saying goodbye. I touched my rosary to my friend’s hands, and reminded him to pray with me for a special family intention. The last time I’d asked him to pray, God wound up healing my knees instead of my actual prayer request … so I decided to try again, and see if maybe he could send the miracle our way now that he had God’s ear up close and personal. Time will tell.
The next day we gathered at the cathedral again for the funeral — the Deseret News did a spectacular job of covering it. The Rwandan choir sported t-shirts with his smiling image, as a youth choir chanted beautiful Latin and English tributes. Already people were hinting broadly that God had worked so many miracles through him during his lifetime, that his cause for canonization should be opened quickly … but for now, those of us who loved him, needed a little time just to get used to the idea that his earthly work was done.
A few of us gathered for lunch at a nearby bbq place, and it was great to catch up with old friends. “Now we have to take up the message and bring it to those who didn’t know him.” it was an idea that came up more than once in the two days I was there. And of course, this is only right. I used to teach my kids that God sends every baby into the world with a gift to share, a burden to carry, and a job to do — and that when that job is done, he takes us home to be with him forever. Fr. Ubald had finished his task so faithfully. So … what work still remains for me?
Fr. Ubald’s death has shaken me, both personally and professionally. Working on his book was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to bring a message that the world needs to hear into book form. Now that he is gone, I can’t help but feel that I need to be doing more of this. Jesus, I trust you to show me how.
The first thing you’d notice was not his collar, but his smile. Despite the great sorrows he had experienced — or perhaps because of them — Fr. Ubald Rugirangoga was full of joy. I think that this joy was actually a source and sign of his healing gift, for both things emanated from the same place: an unshakable trust in the God who never failed him.
Not when he lost first his father, then his brother and mother and dozens of members of his own family, in the genocide against the Tutsi people.
Not when his own parishioners cast him out of the parish he had served faithfully for ten years … and went on to slaughter thousands of their brothers and sisters in a matter of days.
Not when thousands of people pressed him from every side, desperate for healing. It happened everywhere he went — from the big diocesan cathedrals to tiny country parishes here in the US, to churches across his homeland in Rwanda, and especially at the Center for the Secret of Peace, which he labored so hard to build as a testimony to the power of forgiveness in the heart of a nation. (Something we need so desperately today.)
Sadly, I had not been in touch with Fr. Ubald for some time before he died; like many authors, his friendship was a gift to me for a time. Now that he has gone to his reward, I can only look back on those beautiful days and thank God for what he taught me about being willing to let go of anything that does not keep us in the presence of the Father. And how the willingness to forgive and to be forgiven is the first and more important step to finding healing for our deepest, most painful wounds of body and spirit.
Twenty-five years ago today, in the landlocked African country of Rwanda, over a million people — primarily Tutsi, including women and children — were slaughtered in just 100 days. In the “land of a thousand hills” the blood ran like rivers, as bodies piled up or were tossed into unmarked mass graves. In many cases, there was no one left to bury them. For Fr. Ubald, more than five years passed before he learned the fate of his mother and other extended family members — when the man who had given the order for their execution stepped forward to beg his forgiveness, then took him to the place they had been buried.
Fr. Ubald at his family’s memorial
His family home was destroyed, obliterated by crops that his former neighbors had sown in an effort to eradicate the memory. “They could not look at us, could not speak to us,” remembers Fr. Ubald. “They had too much shame.” And yet, in time, they found peace. They discovered, as Fr. Ubald so often tells people, that Forgiveness Makes You Free.
What is most remarkable about Fr. Ubald is not only the fact that survived, or that he was able to forgive and show mercy to those who had committed such unspeakable crimes. What is most remarkable is the spiritual legacy that he has built since then — a beautiful retreat center called the Center for the Secret of Peace.
Since 2009, Fr. Ubald has expanded his ministry to the United States at the invitation of his friend Immaculée Imibagiza, author of the NYT bestseller Left to Tell.He travels all over the world, inviting people to open their hearts to Jesus, to let go of old burdens, and to receive the healing Jesus wants to give them. If you would like to experience this for yourself, you can find his speaking schedule here. Or you can get a copy of his new book here.