On Forgiving My Attackers: 14 Questions for Rosario Rodriguez

Rosario Rodriguez is a Los Angeles-based Catholic speaker and survivor of two violent crimes who has spent most of her life working in the US, Canada, Mexico and the UK. Her work has included inner-city youth, campus ministry, pro-life work, CCD/RCIA, and outreach to the poor and the homeless. In Los Angeles she has worked in Hollywood at Act One, an organization training Christian writers and producers to work in the mainstream entertainment industry.

Ms. Rodriguez shares her story of survival and forgiveness with various audiences, including gang members (through the LAPD’s Operation Cease Fire) and victim awareness programs in various prisons.

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On May 12, I interviewed Ms. Rodriguez by telephone about her faith and work. The following transcript has been edited for content and length.

You’ve survived two violent attacks. What happened the first time you were attacked?

At the age of 14, I was abducted on my way to the bus stop and attacked by a man who had unknowingly stalked me for three months. He attempted to rape me as I was screaming the Hail Mary at the top of my lungs. No one—no earthly person—could hear me as he attempted to silence my desperate prayer for help by pressing his hand over my mouth. He suddenly looked up above my head in sheer terror, jumped up and ran away. I was alone when I stood up and turned to look at who or what he had seen.

According to my description, though he wasn’t apprehended, the police identified the suspect as a serial rapist and killer who had been attacking young girls from area schools. The investigators informed me that I was the only young girl he attacked that he didn’t rape and didn’t kill. I truly believe that I was saved by miraculous intervention—a divine defender.

What happened the second time you got attacked?

I was living in Los Angeles nearly 17 years after the first attack. I was walking to a friend’s apartment when a young woman ran toward me from behind. I felt my body being whirled around and found myself face to face with my second life-threatening attacker. She had my purse strap in one hand and a gun in her other hand. She screamed at me and demanded, “give me your purse or I’ll shoot.” I looked into her eyes and pleaded, “Please don’t shoot me. I’m a missionary and have no money.” She pulled the purse off my shoulder and simultaneously pulled the trigger of the nine millimeter semi-automatic pistol. The bullet entered the left side of my body and crossed my chest only to miss my aorta by one centimeter. The fragments from the bullet collapsed both lungs and tore my esophagus.

In recovery, the surgeon told me that I should have dropped dead the moment the bullet hit me. He also said it looked as though a hand had guided the bullet around all my vital organs. He told my parents, “God smiled on your daughter that day.” Once again, I truly believe that I miraculously survived by means of divine intervention.

What did it feel like to be attacked?

Each attack was different. Following the first attack, I was incredibly grateful to be alive, though I also felt disposable and was consumed by shame and a very dark sense of worthlessness. I became very angry at this man for what he did to me and I refused to forgive him. As years passed I became anxious, bitter, severely depressed and suicidal. I hated and feared most men outside of my own family.

The investigation following the second attack revealed that I was shot in the commission of an act of gang initiation. I lived in constant fear that other associated gang members were looking for me. Even today, nearly six years after the shooting, I’m easily startled and I jump at loud noises. I’m especially fearful when someone comes running up behind me.

What helped you find healing and forgiveness after these traumatic events?

About five years after the first attack, I admitted to my mom that I was severely depressed and suicidal. She suggested I talk with our parish priest. He listened with the love of Christ and he told me that there were there three things he wanted me to do.

First, he wanted me to forgive this man for what he did to me. Growing up Catholic, I heard a lot about forgiveness, but I also had a lot of misconceptions about what forgiveness means. I thought that if I forgave this man it would mean that I was condoning his actions. Father explained that when you forgive someone it doesn’t justify his or her wrong behavior.

He said, “Not forgiving someone is like drinking a bottle of poison and expecting the other person to die.” He told me that every morning after I woke up, I should say the words, “I forgive this man for what he did to me.” He told me I probably wouldn’t feel like it, and I might not even believe the words, but that it was important to say them anyway.

Second, he asked me to pray for my attacker. I thought that he was asking way too much of me, but he encouraged me to pray for him anyway, even if it was a very simple prayer.

Third, he asked me to seek help from a professional therapist. I did as Father suggested. It was a difficult journey, but after several years I was able to experience the healing and forgiveness which led to peace and joy in my life again!

After the second attack, my sister asked me if I could ever forgive the young woman who shot me. Without hesitation I said that I could. I knew I wanted to forgive her because I knew how unbearably heavy the cross of unforgiveness can become. I also realized that it takes a lot of energy to withhold forgiveness. Not forgiving would be so counterproductive to my healing and I didn’t even have the physical strength to hold my jaw up on my own. During my recovery I met with another therapist, a Franciscan nun, who helped me to work through the emotional trauma I had experienced.

What is your goal in speaking publicly about your experiences today?

My main goal is to encourage people who have been hurt to seek healing and strive to live lives of forgiveness, rather than lives of bitterness and anger. For people who have experienced extreme trauma, and even for those who haven’t, I want them to experience the joy and peace that comes from healing and forgiveness.

Confession is an extraordinary sacrament that victims of trauma so often avoid. It’s taken me awhile to get over my fear of sacramental confession, but now I see it as a sacrament of love and healing. I’m excited about the upcoming Year of Mercy because I believe it will draw people back to the sacrament of confession.

What message do you hope people will take away from your talks?

In my talks I urge Catholics to seek professional help in a Catholic setting if they’ve been traumatized, but also to run to the sacraments. There’s so much grace and love in every sacrament, especially the Eucharist. Spending time before the Blessed Sacrament (in adoration or mass) can be incredibly healing by being in the real presence of God.

Do you have any regrets about the past?

Of course! Who doesn’t? I can’t undo the past, but I ask God every day for the grace to forgive myself. I’m incredibly grateful for the sacrament of confession! Confessing my sins to Christ via the priest is a wonderful way to heal from the pain of my past as well as any regrets that may attempt to haunt me.

Do you have any hopes for the future?

Yes, I have many hopes for my future! I’m engaged to be married in October, the month of Our Lady of the Rosary. Our hope and desire for our marriage is to be a living sacrament to the world of Christ’s love for his bride, the Church. We hope and pray to have a family and raise our children to love Christ and his Church in her sacraments, teachings and people.

In what ways has Catholicism helped you in life?

It’s helped me in every way. I can’t imagine going through life without the graces that come from the sacraments, the comfort of scripture and having a heavenly mother to run to when life is hard.

How do you pray?

The most important thing for me is having a conversation with God like he’s my best friend. It’s very important for me to tell him everything that’s on my heart. The rosary is a beautiful opportunity to contemplate his life and the life of his divine mother. I also love the chaplet of Divine Mercy and praying novenas. As Catholics, we have the amazing ability to tap into a treasure of countless wonderful devotions.

Even just sitting in adoration to “be still and know God” can be powerful. Sometimes in life, words fail and you just need to let God do what he needs to do. At one point after I had surgery, I was in so much pain that I couldn’t form words. I was just lying in bed struggling to breathe. That struggle to breathe became a prayer for me.

Who are your role models in the Catholic faith, either living or dead?

There are many saints I admire greatly. I love St. Therese of Liseux and chose her as my confirmation saint because I felt like I could learn a lot from her “Little Way” and she could balance my personality. I also love St. Joan of Arc, a beautiful, devoted, feminine leader who led an army of men. I greatly admire Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta for the incredible work she did with the sick and the poor. I love St. Francis Xavier and not just because I was born on his feast day. He was known for his preaching and had an evangelistic heart.

I recently found out about St. Vibiana. The former cathedral in Los Angeles was named after her. Now her tomb is in the crypt of Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral. Nobody knows anything about her except that she was a virgin and martyr. I find this unknown, nearly forgotten saint in a city of celebrities important and profound.

I’m a huge fan of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II. I particularly admire JPII’s Theology of the Body and his artistic works.

Many friends and family have also been big influences. My mom inspires me because she’s a mother of six and has always wanted to run. She ran her first marathon one month after her 60th birthday. She would never call herself a great runner, but seeing her train and follow her dream later in life is incredibly inspiring. My aunt Sylvia is someone I admire greatly for her hospitality and her beautiful prayer life.

Where do you find Jesus in your life?

I find him everywhere. I find him in the sacraments, in scripture, and I strive to find him in every person. Last year I had the privilege of speaking at a state prison. I shared my experiences of suffering and forgiveness with about 300 convicted males whose sentences ranged from 90 days to 150 years. I witnessed their brokenness and vulnerability as they listened to my testimony. Some lowered their heads and cried while others were clinging to the concept of God’s unfathomable mercy for the very first time. I was reminded that even though these men have committed heinous crimes, they too were created in the image and likeness of God. I was reminded of Jesus’ words to St. Faustina: “The greater the sinner, the greater the right he has to my mercy”(Diary 723).Both as a victim and as a Catholic, this was a very powerful experience for me.

I also see Christ in the homeless. I’m part of an organization that hands out burritos to the homeless on skid row once a month. While handing out burritos it’s tempting for me to get angry when I see a pimp with one of his girls who won’t even accept food or look me in the eye unless he gives her permission. The last thing in the world I want to do at that moment is smile and hand him a burrito, but I work really hard to see Christ in him as well. It’s definitely not easy.

What is your favorite scripture passage and why?

One of them is Proverbs 31:30, which says “charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” It’s so easy to get caught up in image, fashion, and the latest trends. And while I find fashion and cosmetics a lot of fun, this verse reminds me that what’s most important is honoring and loving God.

Any final thoughts?

I’m very excited to announce my first-ever audio recording of my story! This summer, together with my dear friend, singer-songwriter and recording artist Amanda Vernon, I’m releasing a CD entitled, “Justice for All.”  The project will be a combination of my story with new, original recordings of Amanda’s soulful music. We’re promoting the virtue of justice as a shield of love. Readers can pre-purchase the album online until June 18th. Any funds we receive will help offset the costs of production, empowering Amanda and me to share this messageto audiences both in and outside of the Church.We hope to reach out to those who are wounded but not necessarily embracing the faith that can be a lifeline under such difficult circumstances. I know a lot of Catholics with family members who don’t go to church; yet those same family members would be open to listening to an inspirational CD with moving music. “Justice for All” is a powerful and practical resource that appeals to the truth without being overtly religious. Hopefully this new offering will touch the hearts of all people, but especially those who feel far from God.

Sean Salai, S.J., serves as contributing writer at America.

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