This is a remarkable true story about hate, murder, love, and forgiveness amidst the genocide in Rwanda. For 3 months Immaculee Ilibagiza survived the murderous rampage in a 3' x 4... Read more
Father Les Czelusniak, MIC, with Immaculee Ilibagiza (second from left), in front of the shrine in Rwanda dedicated to Our Lady of Kibeho. They are with Kibeho visionary Nathalie Mkamazimpaka (far right).
By Dan Valenti (Nov 28, 2008)
For a humble priest such as Fr. Leszek Czelusniak, MIC, (pronounced Zell-lose-niak), hobnobbing among the glitterati in Hollywood would seem out of character. Father Les, however, understands that in the celebrity overkill and media hype of La-La Land, Les is sometimes more.
As a consequence, Hollywood is showing serious interest in a story to which Fr. Les has an intimate connection. If the story hits the big screen, it will be a score for Divine Mercy. If the film makes it to the Big Screen, Justice will require Fr. Les a key assist if not the chance to make an acceptance speech on Oscar night.
The visit to Hollywood came as a surprise. Father Les had been in the United States in mid-October on a speaking tour to drum up support for the Marians' mission in Rwanda, Africa, which he leads. He had visited Marian parishes in Darien, Ill., and Kenosha, Wisc.; appeared on the Relevant Radio Network in Green Bay, Wisc., presented a seminar on his work to a gathering on Boston, and visited Chicago. He "sandwiched" his U.S. stay with visits to the Marian Helpers Center in Stockbridge, Mass.
On to Hollywood
It was an exhausting but productive tour. While he was in Chicago, Fr. Les received a call from Immaculee Ilibagiza, whose book, Left to Tell, chronicled her terrifying ordeal hiding for three months in a small bathroom during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Immaculee, who survived her ordeal by turning to God's mercy and forgave those who killed her family, invited Fr. Les to accompany her to Hollywood, where she would be meeting with producer Steve McVeety.
McVeety is well known to film audiences for his work with Mel Gibson and his credits as producer or executive producer for such movies as "The Star of Bethlehem" (2007), "Bella" (2006), "The Passion of Christ" (2004), and "Braveheart" (1995). Having heard Immaculee's story, McVeety realized the potential good — as well as the commercial appeal — of a warm, "feel good" drama with such harrowing content.
"The trip to Hollywood went well," says Fr. Les. "There is a need for stories and films of this type. If it gets made, this film would illustrate that forgiveness is all."
Genocide's Wounds Still Fresh
Father Les knows what he's talking about. Though the genocide is 18-plus years in the past, the wounds are still raw. One reason for this, he noted, is that for the first 10 years, people were forced by government officials to keep quiet about what had happened. People were afraid to talk about it. Because of that, Fr. Les said, "They couldn't process what had happened to them. When you bury a trauma as deep and cutting as genocide, it doesn't go away by itself. It festers, like an infection."
Consequently, Fr. Les says the genocide "is still a very big problem in Rwanda. Sometimes, to those who aren't there and who don't live there to witness the daily effect of this horrible event, it's easy to imagine that since it took place so long ago, it's over, a part of history but nothing more. It is not so easy, though, to move on from a situation so devastating. It's difficult to imagine the pain and suffering the genocide produced. That is why the message of God's mercy is so important, now more than ever."
An Object Lesson in Living Mercy
Mercy, he says, "allows people to open up. Mercy drains and cleans the infected wound, and from there, it is possible to forgive." Father Les says that while Immaculee is a well-known example of that, there are many others who receive no publicity who have followed her example.
"That's what Immaculee represents to me," Fr. Les said. "She is living proof that it is possible to forgive even the most grievous wrongdoing. I think we are presently in a phase where more people are beginning to realize that they should, for their own good health, witness to what happened to them."
Such a step forward, though, comes only with great difficulty.
"It's not easy," Fr. Les said. "Some of them become traumatized all over again. You can't imagine the depth of the traumatization. It is not hopeless, however. Fortunately, there are many good witnesses to the power of love and mercy as a means to achieve reconciliation through forgiveness."
Anniversary of Kibeho Apparition Nov. 28
Father Les mentioned the apparition of the Blessed Mother in Kibeho, which on Nov. 28 will celebrate the 16th year of Mary's appearance. Kibeho remains the only official Church-approved apparition site of Mary on the African continent.
"The apparition have been enormously helpful in leading people to reconciliation," he said. "People come to the apparition site [located about a mile from the Marian mission in Kibeho] to experience healing. To the extent they can be open to and honest with their pain, many find [healing]. Some of these pilgrims then take the short trip to visit the Marian missionary. This is good for us, for we, too, can help them move on through God's grace."
Claiming Kin to the Crucified Christ
Father Les practices what he preaches, not just by leading the Marian mission in Kibeho but also by offering up prayers. He relayed how the situation has affected his prayer life:
"My main prayer is for forgiveness. 'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.' That's what Immaculee did," he said. "She had a hard time praying these words of the 'Our Father' because she had so much hatred for her prosecutors. She couldn't grasp how she could forgive such evil. So when she was locked in that tiny bathroom, she prayed the Rosary, and that brought her to the crucified Jesus, who on the cross was able to say, 'Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.' She realized then, through Mary's intercession, the gift of uniting her suffering with that of the suffering Christ."
Asked what the message is here and how a film producer would pitch this story to a studio or to investors, Fr. Les said, "The message here is a message of love. Love can change the world. Good is more powerful than evil. For me, Rwanda needs to resemble more the aspect of Jesus on the cross. In suffering, though it is unpleasant, there is a door to the goodness of God."
Dan Valenti writes for numerous publications of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, both in print and online. He is the author of "Dan Valenti's Journal" on thedivinemercy.org.