The fourth annual Men’s Spirituality Conference, held March 3 at Archbishop Ryan High School in Northeast Philadelphia, broke its own tradition by featuring a woman for the day’s keynote address. It was an extraordinary step, but Immaculee Ilibagiza was an extraordinary speaker.
In 1994, during 100 terrible days, Hutu rebels massacred 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda, decimating that small east African nation. Immaculee was the only member of her family to survive, and she has uses her second chance at life to promote what she said astounds many people: forgiveness and love.
Immaculee’s survival depended on a local pastor who hid her and seven other young women for 91 days in a 3-foot by 4-foot bathroom, feeding them food left over from family meals. It was a dramatic change, she said, from the days she had her own bedroom, good food, a loving family, and, before the genocide, she was a student at the National University of Rwanda studying electronic and mechanical engineering.
Cramped into that tiny bathroom and, on one occasion, within inches of marauding soldiers searching through the house for refugees to slaughter, Immaculee’s heart festered with the desire for revenge for herself, her family and her village.
As the soldiers tore the house apart, Immaculee, believing death was imminent, was tempted to just open the bathroom door to them, “to get it over with.”
It was another voice that kept urging her not to open that door. That “voice” that of God’s, she now believes saved her life. The bathroom door was the only one the soldiers didn’t touch.
That “miracle,” and the use of the rosary beads that were the last gift her father gave her, reminded her that she was still capable of the love she experienced in her family life.
“I said that rosary over and over. I kept saying it. I felt moved. If I could change in my heart, I realized that those soldiers could, too,” she told an audience of hundreds of men who listened in rapt silence.
Freedom would come with a heavy price. The women were eventually freed and were to be escorted to safety. Instead, the troops abandoned them, forcing them to find their own way into overcrowded camps where atrocities continued.
Finally, the Tutsi Patriotic Front defeated the rebels and drove them out of the country.
Four years after the end of the genocide, Immaculee immigrated to the United States, where she continues to tell her story of survival and faith.
“My faith was crushed [at first], but I came to believe that truly, truly, God is real. Jesus is real. There is genocide in the world because people are unable to love.”
Other speakers included Tony Melendez, a world-renowned musician who also heads “Tony Melendez Ministries,” Tim Staples, a Catholic convert and now director of apologetics and evangelization for Catholic Answers in El Cajon, Calif.; Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, founder and director of DynamicDeacon.com, a Christian evangelism and apologetics organization; and Father J. Brian Bransfield, an archdiocesan priest now serving as Associate General Secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Staples, a frequent guest on the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), said that his office currently receives an increasing number of inquiries about the Catholic faith, and he has seen numerous conversions to Catholicism among the laity and even from clergy of other denominations.
“It is really an extraordinary time because people are hungry for the truth in a world that’s increasingly secular,” he said.
John Nagle, a member of St. Alice Parish in Upper Darby, makes the conference an annual event for himself and friends, all seeking to be “spiritually recharged,” he said.
The conference always delivers, he added.
Nagle, who is a lector, an extraordinary minister, an RCIA coordinator and a member of the parish pastoral council, said he learns something new every time he attends.
“This time I learned from one priest that every prayer in the Mass comes directly from the Bible,” Nagle said. “You learn those things you hadn’t even thought of before. That detail is something I can share with my RCIA class.”
The day began with a prayer service led by Auxiliary Bishop John McIntyre and ended with a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Charles Chaput.
The theme of the day, “Man Up Philly,” was appropriate, said 17-year-old Chris Heffernan, of Mater Ecclesiae, a parish in the Camden Diocese that has no regional boundaries and serves Catholics who prefer the Latin Mass.
“I believe events like this help young men because, in the next few years, our Catholic faith will rest on their shoulders,” Heffernan said.