The horrific genocide in Rwanda in 1994 was sadly distant from the Roman Catholic Church's finest hour. As many as a million people were brutally slaughtered in a spectacular outburst of tribal bloodletting. Church officials were not only complicit, but in some cases directly responsible for specific acts of violence.
Last year, Rwanda's Catholic bishops apologized for this on behalf of the local church.
In March, Pope Francis followed suit, apologizing in the name of the global church.
April 7 is the anniversary of the day in 1994 when the Rwandan genocide began. In Rwanda, it's the start of a three-month period that the government has dedicated to memorializing the dead -- as well as to try and ensure that the nation never again experiences a similar depravity.
Naturally, that sparks an annual mini-boom of stories by international media about Rwandan efforts at national reconciliation. The New York Times entry this year was this piece on one such effort run by evangelical Christians.
I'll return to the Times piece below. But first let's take a closer look at current and past Catholic involvement in Rwanda because of the church's great relevancy to the Central African nation, and because it's entirely overlooked in this Times news feature.
The top of this Catholic News Service (CNS) story on the pope's apology sets the stage nicely. This is long, but important:
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Meeting Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Pope Francis asked God's forgiveness for the failures of the Catholic Church during the 1994 Rwanda genocide and for the hatred and violence perpetrated by some priests and religious.
"He implored anew God's forgiveness for the sins and failings of the church and its members, among whom priests and religious men and women who succumbed to hatred and violence, betraying their own evangelical mission," said a Vatican statement released March 20 after the meeting of the pope and president.
Some 800,000, and perhaps as many as 1 million people -- most of whom belonged to the Tutsi ethnic group -- died in the ferocious bloodshed carried out from April to July 1994.
"In light of the recent Holy Year of Mercy and of the statement published by the Rwandan Bishops at its conclusion" in November, the Vatican said, "the pope also expressed the desire that this humble recognition of the failings of that period, which, unfortunately, disfigured the face of the church, may contribute to a 'purification of memory' and may promote, in hope and renewed trust, a future of peace, witnessing to the concrete possibility of living and working together once the dignity of the human person and the common good are put at the center."
Pope Francis "conveyed his profound sadness, and that of the Holy See and of the church, for the genocide against the Tutsi," the Vatican said. "He expressed his solidarity with the victims and with those who continue to suffer the consequences of those tragic events."
Should you want more detail about the situation in Rwanda -- and the church's involvement -- this piece from National Geographic should satisfy. Now back to the Times article..
The piece detailed an effort by Prison Fellowship Rwanda to foster reconciliation between members of the Hutu tribe (who perpetuated the massacre) and members of the Tutsi tribe (the vast majority of the victims). PFR is connected to the late Charles Colson's Prison Fellowship International.
The piece is fine in so far as it goes. The problem is, it doesn't go very far. It's so narrowly focused on PFR to the extent that Catholic responsibilities and reconciliation efforts are totally ignored.
That's a big hole given the church's outsized role in Rwanda, the pope's recent apology and the work Catholics are also engaged in to heal the genocide's massive societal disruption.
I understand that the Times has probably included the Catholic angle in previous Rwanda reconciliation stories over the years. That's no excuse for it's omission this time, however, because Catholic involvement in Rwanda's past and present is so essential to the story's completeness.
So why not so much as a passing reference? It's not as if it's difficult to find examples to at least cite.
Here's one recent effort I found via Google produced by CNS andpublished by the online Catholic publication Crux.
Another interesting religion angle warranting mention also was overlooked.
Rwanda is overwhelmingly Christian, and both Hutus and Tutsis are Catholics and Protestants. But where once Catholicism was the dominant faith, various Protestant expressions have grown as a result of disillusionment with the Catholic Church because of its moral failure in 1994.
Christianity Today covered this aspect of the Rwanda story in 2011, so it's not as if this is uncharted territory. Here's part of that piece.
Before the genocide, Rwanda was considered the most Roman Catholic country in Africa. It was 63 percent Catholic with a population of 8 million in the mid-1990s, according to Anne Kubai, former head of religious studies at the Kigali Institute of Education.
In the ... years since the genocide, the overwhelmingly Catholic demographic shifted quickly and enormously toward Protestant and independent churches. Dramatic population growth has fueled the shift. Rwanda's post-genocide population dipped to 5.4 million; now experts project that it will exceed 11.5 million by the end of 2012. Of 19 sub-Saharan countries surveyed, Rwanda has seen the most significant rise in Protestant faith, according to a new Pew Foundation report.
The country is now 38 percent Protestant, [as of 2011] and of those Protestants, Pentecostals are the most sizable group.
That's important demographic information and key to understanding Rwanda's current situation, and perhaps even PFR's very existence there.
For me, it also underscores the importance of the actions taken by religious leaders even when no determinative religious component is the cause of cataclysmic societal change. And, also, just how human they are, no matter their garb or title.