This Thanksgiving week, Rwanda native Immaculee Ilibagiza has much to be thankful for. She is no longer hiding in a bathroom crouched down without saying a word for 12 weeks to avoid being killed by during rampant genocide in her homeland. Though she lost her parents and many other relatives during that horror, she now counts her blessings. These include her husband, her two children, her successful career as a lecturer and author, and her faith.Ilibagiza took time to talk to The Leader when she was in the Philadelphia area recently. She was one of the four recipients of the prestigious "Awards for Outstanding

Catholic Leadership" given by the Catholic

Leadership Institute (CLI). The other honorees were popular television host the Rev. Albert Cutie, Holy Family University president Sister Francesca Onley, and finance industry executive Robert J. Sims.

The event drew some 600 people, including a table filled with members of the St. Raymond of Penafort parish in Mount Airy. Cardinal John D. Foley, who was highlighted in The Leader when he visited Bishop McDevitt High School earlier this year, flew in from Rome for the event. Ilibagiza, who was carrying around an advance copy of her new book to be released this week, was excited that so many came out to support the CLI event.


"I am just thrilled that so many want to hear my story of faith," said Ilibagiza. "I live my life thanking God for all He's done for me. My craving is to help others to know God. My greatest lesson is that of forgiveness. We can't hold on to our hurts. Who would think that such a small country like Rwanda would have experienced genocide, or that those who are the leaders would do something to people in their own country? Yet I cannot hold anger in my heart, because if I do I would be hurting myself. It's really hard to forgive, but this is what God calls us to do."

Ilibagiza is currently living in New York City. She shared that often when she leaves her Manhattan apartment she will bump into Jehovah's Witnesses and other religious groups handing out tracts or speaking about the Bible. She readily admitted that before surviving genocide in 1994 she would have just passed them by, now she respectfully listens. "I realize now that the important thing is that we all believe in God," she said.

In fact, when Ilibagiza has a chance to speak before the United Nations, her message is still the same. She is quick to point out that believing in God, especially sharing a Christian faith is paramount. She said that if people would look for their comparability's, rather than their differences, there would be more peace and understanding globally.

"We are all called to love each other and come to an understanding," said Ilibagiza. "That's why it's a waste of time to envy others. We all have been blessed with different gifts. If you have a gift, you should be able to express it. There's no need to compare your gift with someone else's gift. There should be no competition.

You should be happy that someone else has found their gift and is expressing it. You should work on expressing your gifts as well."

These are the many lessons Ilibagiza said that she learned during her "three months of silence" when she hid in a bathroom. At first, she said, she did react as "a spoiled child." She was angry about what happened to her, and thought about how her parents and others were going to get revenge on those who were causing the genocide. As time progressed, however, she realized that she had to rely more on God and surrender. It was at that time she began to earnestly pray using her rosary beads.

It was during this time she became more reflective and contemplative. She remembered the apparitions of the Virgin Mary she had seen in Rwanda. She is quick to note these are the only sightings of the Our Lady of Kibeho, from 1981 to 1988, are the only ones on the African continent officially recognized by the Vatican. She recalled the message of love and grace.

"What I tell others now is that I am not unique," said Ilibagiza. "I am someone who is more spiritual, purer or stronger than anyone else. I am just someone who has learned to trust God. It is something that we all can do. There are others who went through what I went through. God has used what happened to me in Rwanda to bless me. Now I am wiser and more confident in God. I'm now living a whole new blessed life that I would have never imagined."

Ilibagiza is the author of the acclaimed, "Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust." The book has been translated into 15 languages, and has been read by millions worldwide. As a result of the book, she has become a recognized speaker of faith, peace, and forgiveness. She is the recipient of numerous awards including the CLI accolade.

"This is an award that was started to honor outstanding Catholics from around the nation and world," said Melissa Squarcia, CLI Communications Coordinator. "We have chosen those who have consistently demonstrated their faith through the work they have done in the Catholic community. This year we have chosen four outstanding individuals who have shown leadership in the family, in their church, and in their respective communities. I think this is a particularly unique group of leaders."

Over the past few years the group has honored many in the Catholic community. Among them has been Dr. Theresa Burke, Rev. William Byron, The Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters (Pink Sisters), Curtis Martin, Raymond

Arroyo, Peggie O'Neil, Sr. Mary Scullion, RSM, and Robert Sptizer, SJ. In addition, Pat Ciarrochi, Matthew Pinto, Sr., Constance Marie Toyey IHM, and Cardinal Rigali have also been honored.

CLI was founded in 1991. It is an organization of lay Catholics whose mission is to build Catholic leaders for today and tomorrow. To date, it has helped over 9,000 priests, seminarians, lay and religious leaders, young adult leaders, and campus leaders to discover their mission in life and to fulfill their God-given potential. CLI combines the very best in leadership and personal development programs from academia and the corporate world with the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church.

"CLI developed the Awards for Outstanding Catholic Leadership in 2000," said Timothy C. Flanagan, founder and chairman of CLI. "It recognizes people in the Catholic Church whose exemplary leadership in the family, the workplace, the community and the Church has been inspired by their Catholic faith. The lay, clergy and religious men and women named this year have inspired and led others, serving as role models for future Church and lay leaders."

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