This priest endured a living nightmare, but God gave him the strength to choose forgiveness.
A vocation born in blood and hatred, the story of Jesuit priest Marcel Uwineza begins with the massacre of his family when he was only 14 years old. It was 1994, and in Rwanda, about 1 million ethnic Tutsis were killed in just three months.
The expression “civil war” is used, but it only vaguely renders what many, like Marcel, had before their eyes: family members killing each other, neighbors turning into executioners. A people that killed itself; an “intimate” war, Father Marcel calls it.
The inter-ethnic hatred between Hutu and Tutsi, both with the common Christian faith, constituted the triggering root of the conflict, although the idea of a racial difference between these two ethnic groups is foreign to Rwandan history and represents, if anything, one of the most controversial after-effects of the Belgian colonial legacy. Korazym
From this sea of blood, one experience manages to wrest the last word from evil: forgiveness.
Without a family, without hope
Everything he called home suddenly disappeared when he was 14 years old. Marcel Uwineza saw his father, mother, two brothers and a sister murdered by people who until recently were acquaintances, with whom he had even played.
Even a Catholic priest refused to give him refuge. In the hellish months of the 1994 genocide, the Rwandan people were crushed in a grip of hatred so visceral and lacerating that it left indelible traumas in the survivors, both victims and perpetrators. This is the extreme cruelty of war: Even the supposed victor bleeds.
But the annihilation of human beings is never total. Although they may be very small, there remain traces of those who do not give in to hatred.
Marcel was saved from the slaughter, together with his 3 younger brothers, because a Hutu man—who “should” have been in the ranks of enemies and executioners—kept him safe, hiding him among the beehives on his property. Despite this good presence, something had broken forever in the mind and soul of the boy who is now a Jesuit priest.
“What erupted inside me was a terrible inner war. How could I still live? What would become of me? For three years I didn’t set foot in a church. Even those who called themselves ‘men of God’ had abandoned us,” he told Tracce.
Small steps, towards an impossible step: forgiving
It wasn’t a rational argument that defeated the deadly poison injected into his heart by fratricidal violence. Instead, it was the experience of God.
An uncle of Marcel’s, who was a doctor, helped him out of the suffocating room of inner confusion and despair. He invited Marcel to meet again the friendly face of God.
As he began to attend church once more, Marcel realized that the only voice capable of healing even the deepest wounds of the soul was kept there. And the cure came through an almost superhuman experience: reconciliation with one’s past … and even with the enemy.
This first spark was followed by other events that were nothing but preambles for the most unprecedented encounter of all. Marcel focused on his vocation and decided to enter the Jesuits.
After his novitiate and before completing his studies abroad, he returned to his village to pray at the graves of his family members. And there, all of a sudden, he was faced with a gesture that was impossible to comprehend: One of the murderers of his brothers approached him and got down on his knees.
In a speech at the United Nations in 2019, Father Marcel Uwineza defined the forgiveness that blossomed from that encounter with these words, reported in Boston College News: “There is a higher power than us. You can’t measure it in a laboratory. It gives meaning to our lives, but it can’t be explained. That power moved me that day.”
A cemetery, a victim, a murderer: from a place of death and two differently mortally wounded souls was born a new perspective on everything. Forgiveness is never solitary, nor is it—on closer inspection—a choice. Perhaps we can say that it is a response.
In Marcel’s case, it was the man who had destroyed his family that triggered the shared experience that is reconciliation. And it’s not an idyllic moment, it is a real ordeal.
We are all vulnerable, and that’s why we need forgiveness
Father Marcel described that moment to Tracce:
In that instant I realized how vulnerable we both were. He bore the wounds of the crime committed, I bore the wounds of hatred for what I had suffered. And it opened up before me the possibility of looking forward again. Before I told him I forgave him, I saw him as nothing but a monster. But when I recognized his vulnerability and the sincerity of his request for forgiveness, that man became a person again. (…) Forgiveness turned a challenge into an opportunity. My test turned into a testimony. Every time I think of that moment, I remember that power that was bigger than me and by which I felt overwhelmed. And I call that energy God.
From this moment on, we are no longer faced with a tale of war in a land far from our own. Instead, we’re at the center of our own lives. From test to testimony: what a marvelous synthesis! The test calls us to an act of freedom, but within every ordeal we’re accompanied by the power—the hand—of God which wants to use our voice to remind the entire world that the suffocating grip of hatred can be defeated by an embrace.