The 2004 movie Hotel Rwanda told the harrowing story of the massacres of 1994. But what happened after that?
Mission of the Congregation of the Mission in Rwanda and Burundi
This is a mission I admire, in spite of its having initiated in a simple way, with slow, but sure, progress. It was Rob- ert Maloney, the Superior General at the time (1997), who bravely encouraged the Colombian Province to open the mission of Rwanda and Burundi: two countries that emerged from the ashes of shameful tribal warfare and terrible genocide. It was a very important moment for the history of these countries.
The Assembly of the Province of Colombia, if I remember correctly, in 1997, approved the offer of Father Maloney and decided to send three missionaries to initiate this work. Of them only one, Juan de Jesús Ávila, reached his des- tination, because the other two did not manage to obtain entry visas for Rwanda.
Father Ávila settled in Nemba, in the north of Rwanda, in October 1998. One year later another missionary came, Rogelio Toro, who, after linguistic, cultural, and environmental preparation, settled in Rwisabi, Burundi. These two confreres shape our historical memory of the beginning of the Mission in Rwanda/Burundi. Many other Colombian confreres followed them, some are still present and others have returned to their homeland.
We are all conscious and know well that the initial moment of a mission is difficult. Father Juan remembers and counts the difficulties he had to face in beginning this mission. Once the big difficulties were overcome, the confreres developed a “Justiniana” missionary methodology after the manner of Saint Justin De Jacobis, who was Italian by birth, but Abyssinian by vocation. In fact, in the evangelization of Africa, to do and to give was prevalent on all sides, while our Colombian confreres presented an unprecedented face in the evangelizing work of the Church on the African Continent: frugal, poor, simple, humble, discreet, but happy. They did not travel by Land Cruiser, but on foot or with and like the local people by public transport, which, incidentally, is always crowded.
This unusual attitude of the missionaries surprised many people and the Rwandan clergy. Their equality with the conditions of the poor people, with a simple lifestyle, an evangelizing method, I would say “against the tide,” for our African mentality. The people begin to ask: Who are these people? Why are they poor like us and to our measure? Father Juan told me that, at first, the people called them “poor whites,” a beautiful name.
My Abyssinian ancestors called Saint Justin De Jacobis, “the humble and holy white one.” We are close to that! Yes, our confreres with their humble, discreet, and poor attitude have tes- tified to being followers of the poor Jesus, who “has nowhere to rest his head” (Luke 9:58). And this is not anything, they have presented the transfigured face of Jesus crucified, the content of all evangelization past, present, and future. Truly worthy of praise.
The initial objectives of our presence in Rwanda-Burundi were principally two: to supplement the lack of diocesan priests in the Church in Rwanda and to assist the Daughters of Charity in both countries. It was a moment of crisis: after the fratricidal war in Rwanda and Burundi, many parishes were without priests. This was due to the fact that the priests were either murdered or had escaped to neighboring countries.
The Church in Rwanda, emptied of its ministers, was forced to plead with religious communities to intervene on behalf of the Rwandan people. In short, the first motive of the mission was to re- spond to the emergency of the lack of clergy. Now after 14-15 years, the situation is totally different. The Diocese of Ruhengeri, where we opened the first mission (Nemba), today has 50 priests for 11 parishes (although there exist many centers that function as parishes). Now the question would be: What sense has our presence in Nemba, in Rwanda? What sense has our presence in Rwisabi? We can insist on these questions given the understanding that the motive for which we had opened these missions has been more than achieved. I think in a different way:
Now that the emergency no longer exists, the Vincentian community, together with the entire Vincentian Family, can rethink, reevaluate, and, especially, qualify our presence. If we accept that “substituting for the priests in the parishes” was not even our Vincentian vocation, therefore, thanks to God, we can center on that which is specific to our Vincentian vocation, building our “valuable” Vincentian presence, as has always been done in the Church in Rwanda-Burundi. In fact, I believe that the region possesses a valuable opportunity to improve its presence in this area.
It is true there are many clergy now in Rwanda and Burundi, but what type of clergy, with what spirit? What will be our specific role in the midst of the Church in Rwanda-Burundi? During the time that I have been in Rwanda, I was moved to see an indigent Rwandan father. Why? His story is very particular: he, on returning from exile, after escaping the genocide, did not find any of his family. His entire family was exterminated by the genocide. This father, at not finding anyone from his family, lost his head and became indigent. Stories like these, unfortunately, abound in this place. To fill the emptiness, many are alcoholics. So much so that a confrere told me: “we are almost like in the time of Saint Vincent.” This is the main reason why our presence in this region can be more relevant and effective.
The two lungs of the Vincentian Charism are: the Mission and the Formation of the Clergy. If we so wish, now they can be even more visible and credible in Rwanda and Burun- di. Bearing in mind the future of those native to the countries, the new forces that are arising in the region, thanks to the efforts of the Province of Colombia, they now need to sensitize and to raise awareness of the charism to the Rwandan and Burundian diocesan clergy.