It so happens that, through the mystery of history, I have come to know almost all the members of the Church of Algeria whose memory we celebrate today. Some I have known more, others less.
On several occasions I was able to work with Bishop Pierre in the Episcopal Conference, and he came several times to the Diocese of the Sahara when I was Vicar General. He was a passionate and exciting man. His regular letters during the “black decade” soon made him a potential target for armed Islamists and security forces. He knew the risks he was taking.
I was also quite close to Christian Chessel, Jean Chevillard, Alain Dieulangard and a little less Charlie Deckers.
Well known also in Ribât, the Link of Peace, Brother Henri Vergès (one of the first victims), less Sister Paule Hélène who worked with him.
Sr Odette came regularly to the same spiritual sharing group. I would sometimes go to celebrate the Eucharist at their little fraternity in a working class setting.
Since the beginning of the 1970s, I had been attending the monastery of Tibhirine and had developed a rather strong bond with Bro Christian, the future Prior. Brother Luc, a colourful doctor, had treated me on several occasions.
Srs. Angèle-Marie and Bibiane were almost unknown to me.
Once or twice I had met Sr. Esther who was treating a friend of mine in a hospital in Algiers where she worked. And a little did I know her sister from the Caridad community.
I am not going to retrace their journey, but I will rather tell you how I was able to witness their journey towards beatification.
From the beginning, when Archbishop Henri Teissier had the investigations for a possible beatification made, I was among several “resistants” to this procedure. I was then provincial of the Maghreb. At the time when our companions from Tizi were murdered at the end of December 94, some other confreres White Fathers, especially in Central Africa, had paid with their lives for their attachment to Christ and to the country in which they had chosen to stay. In fact they had suffered the same fate. So why could our Brothers in Tizi Ouzou have been distinguished from them?
Besides… I had known them well enough to realise that they were not heroes! Their community life was not a great river of peace. And then, in itself, the personality of each one was not really extraordinary in terms of character and behaviour. Pierre Claverie, brilliant as he was, had his temper tantrums, Brother Christian de Chergé his contractions, our confreres in Tizi Ouzou their personal and community problems… like you and me! And sometimes the monks even more… ! There, I have played the devil’s advocate!
As the investigation progressed, we could see that, deep down, it was not their “exemplarity” that was at stake but the meaning of a Church committed in the midst of a People.
This was reflected in the gift of their lives in connection with Muslim men and women who had given the gift of theirs out of fidelity to God and fidelity to their people. The members of the Church of Algeria had given theirs in the line of the same fidelity.
Once the survey was completed, the risk was that each Congregation would present its “candidates” for Beatification in separate ranks. The White Fathers were reluctant to do so. And little by little the vision of a united Church emerged, recognising itself in these given lives and desiring to see them “beatified” not within this or that religious family but as part of the Church, the Body of Christ, which had decided to remain within this suffering people, out of solidarity with them.
“It is not because my wife has lost her mind that I am going to leave her! “replied a Little Brother of Jesus to a journalist.
And little by little the “cause” was advancing. The signing of the Beatification by the Pope was imminent. Where could it take place? We could not see how it could be anywhere else but Algeria! So we bishops met in the office of the Minister of Religious Affairs.
We wanted to involve the many victims of this civil war, starting with the 113 Imams who gave their lives in the name of their faith in God who refuses violence. And it was possible to do so, they were recognized as the spiritual heritage of the humanity of this people.
These reflections have taught me a lot about holiness.
Those we celebrate are blessed neither because of their heroism nor because of their perfection. Heroism is of the human order, and perfection belongs to God alone.
Holiness is of another order, it is a gift of the Holy God. It is a gift that God gives to all of us, and it is up to us whether we accept it or not. It takes place within our hearts.
Those who are declared holy or blessed are declared as a foretaste of what we can be… with God’s grace.
To be officially declared “blessed” or “holy” by the Church is an appreciation that comes from her. We know that on this point she can be mistaken…
These men and women have finished their race. They were like us human beings. In the name of Love they risked to go to the end of this Love.
It is within our reach, as it is within the reach of anyone.
The Love of the Father accompanied them to the end of their journey, He was faithful to them. Dressed in white robes, they mysteriously let themselves be attracted by this Love of God that has no limits.
They gave their lives for those they loved as did many other anonymous people, known only to God.
Basically, the essential thing is to let oneself be attracted by this Love. And this is within the reach of all of us. To be inscribed on the list of the Blessed belongs to men. To be inscribed in the Book of Life belongs only to God. But we must wish it to each other.
+Claude Rault. M.Afr.