Pierre Dongier and Yvonne Umurungi of the Christian Life Community (CLC) in Rwanda – some members are pictured above – pay tribute to Fr Jean Claude Michel SJ.
Fr Jean Claude spent more than 60 years in Africa. He was a tireless teacher and builder in Congo, where he first went in 1953, later in Burundi and finally in Rwanda. But for us, members of the Christian Life Community (CLC) in Rwanda, the greatest of his achievements was the consolidation of our community. He inspired us with his genius of listening, discernment and spiritual conversation.
We feel the sadness of Fr Jean Claude’s departure but we will not be left orphans because the Holy Spirit, whose gifts he prompted us to discover, will strengthen us in our mission to spread the Kingdom of Jesus Christ around us, so that his will may be done on our earth as it is in heaven.
The mission among people living with HIV
For the past 10 years, Fr Jean Claude led CLC Rwanda in its shared mission: offering spiritual accompaniment to people living with HIV and restoring their zest for life. From this shared mission, the Ireme Centre was born in Kigali, where members of CLC welcome and accompany around 100 people who are infected and affected by HIV and AIDS. Through this experience, Fr Jean Claude taught us how to live concretely the apostolic mission of CLC.
A difficult beginning
It was around the end of 1999, early 2000, that Fr Jean Claude was appointed national Ecclesiastical Assistant of CLC. Going by what he said, he came without knowing CLC too well, but with enough love to help build the community. He truly loved the CLC and was the breath that gave life to the community in Rwanda.
Fr Jean Claude built, structured and gave life to our community. After the genocide of the Tutsi in 1994, there were two CLC communities in Rwanda that were somehow trying to move on in this difficult time: a community in Kigali with less than 10 members and another in Butare with five or six.
Inspired by the documents of the international CLC and his knowledge of Ignatian spirituality, Fr Jean Claude established the first formation program of CLC in Rwanda, one that was reviewed and improved over the years to its current form. The first members, thus strengthened, accompanied new members in their turn. From a dozen members at the start, today we are more than 250.
He taught us to love God
It is thanks to Fr Jean Claude and what he sowed in us that we are the community we are today. Fr Jean Claude built the CLC up spiritually – both individuals and community. He taught us to love God, to talk to him, to listen to him and to serve him. He taught us to create a relationship with God, to be close to God as one would be to a friend. He made us love the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius.
Each member of CLC came with aspirations, thirst, questions, illusions and disillusions, especially in the post-genocide context where Christian churches in general and the Catholic Church in particular were reproached for having failed and for not having lived up to the standard set by their own teachings. Fr Jean Claude knew how to show to each one the presence of God in his or her life.
What did you see? What did you hear?
Alphonse, a veteran member of CLC, recalls Fr Jean Claude thus: “I always saw a slim, light and mobile silhouette, a serene smile full of encouragement, open arms to welcome any visitor who came to him; a man of brilliant assessment who could see the bigger picture; a believer immersed in prayer and meditation, in a position of humility and submission; a priest welcoming Jesus in the Eucharist, convinced of his gesture accomplished with faith and piety. In the first homily of his that I heard, in the little oratory of Kimironko, I listened to the ardent appeal of Christ. Later I would hear, in all his homilies, the exhortation of Christ to convert and to believe in the Good News. I understood that Christ wanted me to recover and renew myself after many years of drought and that Fr Jean Claude Michel had been placed in my path to rescue me from spiritual chaos and restore order in my life.”
Another member of CLC said: “Fr Jean Claude, our gratitude consists in telling you that your tireless work to see us grow and mature in ‘service and tasting the Word of God’ was not in vain. Like the rain that falls and does not return to heaven before having watered the earth, the seed you have sown will not die, the flag you hoisted will not be lowered, the flame you lit will not be extinguished. With the grace of the Holy Spirit, we will go forth to bear fruit.”
See also the tribute by Fr Marcel Uwineza SJ