The Catholic imagination has long been captivated by apparitions. In large part, this is because they magnify the reality of a heaven that loves so much that it reaches down to earth. It sprinkles paradise over our everyday world and stirs our appetite for the Eternal One.
Apparitions are one of heaven’s most dramatic ways of piercing human history. They call us to a new view of life. In Willa Cather’s novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop, one of the main characters—a missionary priest—puts it like this:
"Where there is great love there are always miracles. One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. . . . The miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always."
We seem to have a special affection for Marian apparitions, because Our Lady so often comes to the humble, the lowly, the forgotten—those most ready to receive her. To these she shows herself, always pointing to her son. These are the ones she visits with her motherly reminders: "My children, pray, fast, convert, I love you." And as a result, hearts are turned toward heaven, and healed.
Mysterious Stranger. In 1981, Our Lady again began visiting the lowly—this time, with an impassioned, urgent, at times ominous plea for the world’s conversion. It happened in the village of Kibeho in southern Rwanda, a place that meant next to nothing to the wide and busy world beyond.
Named by French explorers the "land of a thousand hills," Rwanda is a densely populated and profoundly impoverished country with a complicated, often violent history of tribal and civil conflict. Its people are from the Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa tribes—"ethnic labels" that have been virtually meaningless for centuries, but are still the cause of horrendous atrocities. No one knew in 1981 that Rwanda was facing its most horrifying episode of violence yet.
On November 21 of that year, seventeen-year-old Alphonsine Mumureke was working in the lunchroom of the Catholic convent in Kibeho, where she attended school. When she heard a voice calling out to her, she stepped into the hallway and was astonished to find a beautiful woman dressed in white. "My daughter," the woman said to her.
Stunned, Alphonsine asked the visitor’s identity. She replied in Kinyarwanda, the local native language: Nyina wa Jambo, she said. "I am the Mother of the Word."
The woman went on to ask Alphonsine what religion she preferred. "I love God and his Mother who have given us their son who has saved us," the teenager answered. Pleased at this response, the Virgin said she wished that more of Alphonsine’s friends had such faith. She indicated that she was coming to Kibeho as a mother, and that she wanted to be loved and trusted in order to lead people to her son.
Then, as Mary ascended gracefully out of sight, Alphonsine dropped to the ground, overcome. She remained unconscious for about fifteen minutes.
Meetings with Mary. Alphonsine’s report of these events was met with an understandable skepticism, but the Virgin appeared to her the very next day and the visions continued. While Alphonsine was mocked, some of her fellow students began to pray for the grace to share in the experience so they could validate her account.
On January 12, 1982, the Virgin also appeared to twenty-year-old Anathalie Mukamazimpaka. She received messages about increasing prayer and practicing humility and self-sacrifice.
Her report added the necessary credence to Alphonsine’s account, and soon the entire school was being transformed through increased prayer, especially the rosary. Many students asked their two friends to have the Virgin bless their rosaries. During these blessings, some of the rosaries became so heavy that Alphonsine and Anathalie could barely lift them. The Blessed Mother explained that these rosaries belonged to those whose hearts were not yet converted.
Then, on March 22, Marie-Claire Mukanganga also encountered the Virgin in a vision. Once one of the most skeptical and scornful critics, the twenty-one-year-old found herself begging for forgiveness and exhorting her fellow students. She told them that Our Lady asked them to meditate on the Passion and on her seven sorrows, and to pray the rosary, asking for the gift of true repentance.
"Water the Garden." Soon pilgrims were flocking to Kibeho. Hundreds of people began gathering before the apparitions to sing Marian songs and pray the rosary together. Conversion took root. Healings were reported.
At Our Lady’s request, the young women began blessing the crowds at the end of each apparition. As they did, they reported seeing not people but a garden of flowers—some fresh and vibrant, others faded. Our Lady explained that the fresh flowers were the people whose hearts were devoted to God, while the faded flowers were those whose hearts were fixed on things of this world. "Water the garden," she told them.
The visions continued through 1989 and were similar to many of the Marian apparitions of the last century—also manifested in unlikely, impoverished areas of the world. Like the others, Kibeho’s messages urged people to convert, to pray with the heart, to fast and pray the rosary, to practice humility and guard against sexual impurity.
Conversion and the Cross. Frequently, the Virgin underlined the importance of salvific suffering. As she said to Anathalie, "Nobody arrives in heaven without suffering." She invited the young women to accept suffering with faith and joy, to make sacrifices, and to give up earthly pleasures for the conversion of the world. Thus, Kibeho’s messages underline the centrality of the cross in the life of the Christian and the church.
This call to penance and conversion was especially urgent for troubled Rwanda, where violence was brewing. During one vision to Alphonsine, the Virgin had a message for those in authority there: "I speak to those who hold power and who represent the nation: Save the people, instead of being their torturers."
In another, Our Lady told Marie-Claire, "I am concerned not only for Rwanda or for the whole of Africa. I am concerned with, and turning to, the whole world. The world is on the edge of catastrophe."
Most disturbing was the vision on the Feast of the Assumption, August 15, 1982, which took on an apocalyptic character. In this eight-hour-long apparition, attended by nearly twenty thousand people, Mary warned that if Rwanda did not turn to God, there would be "rivers of blood." The visionaries, who suffered intense tremors and weeping throughout this apparition, saw burning trees, chopped and decapitated bodies, and so many corpses that there was no one to bury them.
In light of the Rwandan genocide that followed just over a decade later, many saw these terrifying visions as a warning and prophecy.
Rivers of Blood. In fact, what most of us know about Rwanda could be summed up in one word: genocide. In 1994, Hutu rebels killed an estimated 77 percent of the Tutsi population of Rwanda, as well as many Hutus who opposed their actions—approximately eight hundred thousand people.
Kibeho itself became the setting for some of the most horrific violence. Many students were killed on the very site where the apparitions took place. Alphonsine and Anathalie survived, but Marie-Claire was killed in a nearby town.
A year after those killings, the site was used to hold a reported one hundred thousand to two hundred thousand refugees. During one weekend in April 1995, up to eight thousand of those innocent people, including women and children, were viciously slaughtered before the eyes of UN officials, who had strict orders not to engage.
The Rwanda genocide was most recently recounted in Left to Tell, by Immaculée Ilibagiza, a Tutsi who survived when a Hutu neighbor hid her and seven others in a bathroom for three months. Immaculée’s father was shot. Her mother and two of her brothers were brutally chopped to death by Hutu gangs with machetes. Only one member of her immediate family, a brother studying in Senegal, survived.
Immaculée sometimes spent as many as twenty hours a day in meditation and contemplation while in hiding. Her story is a gripping testimony to the importance of prayer and trust in God, no matter how grim your circumstances.
Now living in New York with her husband and two children, she sounds the call for conversion and reconciliation and has even visited her brothers’ murderer in jail to forgive him.
Learn from the Past. What can we learn from this sobering story of violence and grace?
Local bishop Augustin Misago says that the apparitions teach the importance of "striving for reconciliation with enemies, asking forgiveness of people we have offended, and respecting others." He officially recognized them in 2001, following more than twenty years of medical and theological examination. Pope Benedict XVI granted a plenary indulgence to pilgrims visiting Kibeho during the twenty-fifth anniversary jubilee year, which ends next month.
"Our Lady of Kibeho is a beacon of hope, a light for all Africa and the world," says Bishop Misago. Immaculée Ilibagiza sees it this way, too. She has made many pilgrimages to the Kibeho shrine and notes that this is where she feels Mary’s presence most.
Writing to The Word Among Us, Immaculée explains: "It is never too late for Our Lady’s messages. As she said, she came to Rwanda, not for Rwanda alone, not even for Africa alone, but for the whole world." She came to offer a remedy that can be used "in every country to avoid any war and troubles of all kinds."
Past failures in using Mary’s remedy should not paralyze us with fear about the future, Immaculée insists. It’s okay to regret our sins and mistakes. "It gives us a chance to reflect on them and to do something about them, not to repeat them. However, it is also necessary and important to trust in God’s infinite mercy and not dwell on the past.
"We can never change the past, we can only learn from it. . . . It is now that we need to heed the messages. They are still valid . . . we need to pass them on."
Our Lady of Kibeho, pray for us.
Liz Kelly is the author of "The Rosary, A Path into Prayer", and "May Crowning, Mass and Merton and Other Reasons I Love Being Catholic", which won a first place in the 2007 Catholic Press Association Book Awards. She lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.