Fr Marcel Uwineza SJ, Jesuit Regional House, Kigali, Rwanda
Fr Jean Claude Michel SJ went about his work in Kigali conscientiously until 14 June 2015, when he felt very weak. The following day, the elderly Jesuit was hospitalized. In the evening he asked the members of his Jesuit community to visit him. Together they celebrated the sacraments of Confession, Anointing of the Sick, and the Eucharist. Fr Jean Claude asked them to sing his two most-loved songs: Tu es là au coeur de nos vies, et c’est toi qui nous fait vivre (you are there in the heart of our lives)… and Rendez grace au Seigneur car Il est bon (Give thanks to the Lord for He is good)… This was his last song here on earth.
Given his advanced age, doctors said it was difficult to do anything for Fr Jean Claude and that his chances of survival were close to none. After the doctors briefed the Jesuit Regional Superior of Rwanda-Burundi, Jean Baptiste Ganza, he explained to Jean Claude what was happening. The elderly man told Fr Ganza that he was in a lot of pain. Fr Ganza held him in his arms and helped him to lie on the hospital bed. At 1.50pm, 17 June, in Fr Ganza’s arms, Fr Jean Claude left us to meet the Father of Life.
The burial ceremony took place on 19 June. The Eucharistic celebration was held at Regina Pacis Parish in Remera, Kigali. The Bishop of Butare, Mgr Philip Rukamba, 50 priests, members of the Christian Life Community (CLC) whom he formed and who loved him so much… close to 2,000 people gathered to surround Fr Jean Claude in an atmosphere of thanksgiving for a life well lived and spent for Africa. In his homily, Fr Ganza passionately invited us to contemplate, to see and hear what Fr Jean Claude has to teach us with his truly dedicated life to God and the service of his people as a missionary to our land.
Fr Jean Claude was born on 25 January 1929 in a village near Tournai in Belgium. Seventeen years later, he entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus at Arlon and was ordained to the priesthood on 10 August 1959.
Fr Jean Claude returned to Congo, where he had first gone as a regent. In what is today’s Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), he held positions of distinction from 1963 to 1991: Vice-President of the Bureau de l’Enseignement Catholique, an office that organized and oversaw Catholic teaching in the entire country; Jesuit Regional Superior in the Diocese of Kikwit, which had 21 parishes and many schools run by the Jesuits; and Provincial Delegate for Jesuit colleges in Congo, Burundi and Rwanda. He worked tirelessly for the establishment of three Jesuit schools in Rwanda: Inyemeramihigo High School in Gisenyi and St Ignatius primary and high schools in Kibagabaga, Kigali.
From 1991 to 1997, Fr Jean Claude served as superior of the Jesuit community and director of the Kiriri spiritual centre in Bujumbura, Burundi. In 2000, in Rwanda, he was appointed Assistant (Socius) to the Jesuit Regional Superior of Rwanda-Burundi. Until his death, he would be the closest adviser of three superiors. Another position he held until the end was that of Ecclesiastical Assistant of the Christian Life Community (CLC). They loved him dearly. At his funeral, the President of CLC in Rwanda, Yvonne Umurungi, said: “He built, structured and gave life to our community.”
Many compliments for Fr Jean Claude have poured in. For me, the best one that summed him up came from the students of St Ignatius School. Whenever they saw him passing, they would tell their teachers: “We have seen Jesus passing …” And the teachers would ask: “Where is He?” And the students would reply: “There He is … and He is in Jean Claude Michel!”
Jean Claude Michel, as you join the land of our ancestors, may it be favourable to you! Now that we believe that you are with God, pray for the growth of our Region with its limited human resources and earnestly ask that we join you someday!