Lavigerie, a Saint ?

Today we celebrated Cardinal’s Day, remembering the day when our Founder died. Father Ian Buckmaster gave a very interesting homily during mass, which I asked him to reproduce here.

Today, at about one o’clock in the morning 1892, Charles Martial Allemand Cardinal Lavigerie, Archbishop of Carthage and Algiers,  Apostolic Prefect of Ghardaia and Primate of Africa, died. He had been ill for some time during 1892. But on the 24th November, his health suddenly grew worse. he became paralysed, the following day he received the sacrament of the sick and, as they say, began his final agony. Those present included the Coadjutor  Archbishop of Algiers Prosper Dusserre, Bishop Livinhac, Mother Salome, Frs Delattre and Michel. His sister to whom he was very attached arrived in time for the funeral with two nephews. His last letter, written on the 23rd November, was to do with liberation of slaves and their care after being released. We commend the great apostle to the mercy of God, and we give thanks for his great missionary endeavour in proclaiming the Gospel to the african nations.

In 1992, the Irish Province organised a seminar on Racism: a growing challenge to Christians, in the context of Maynooth Mission Day. There were a number of quite radical contributions. However I would like to draw attention to the opening address by Cardinal Cahal Daly, who was the Archbishop of Armagh at the time. He knew the White Fathers because we had a house for mission and vocation work in his Diocese. He also allowed four of his priests to come to Chipata Diocese in 1981 and it was there he met the White Fathers on the ground, so to speak. When the province decided to organise and host this seminar, it was natural that we should think of him to deliver the opening address. He inviuted me to give him some information on the man himself, which I was happy to do. When he asked me if we were going to start a canonisation process, I more or less told him “not in your life”. This was 1992. Nobody at the time thought of Lavigerie as a great spiritual master until Dominique Nothomb wrote a book called “Cardinal Lavigerie: a spiritual master” in 1998. Here are a few extracts from Cardinal Daly and you can see what he thoughts of my comments.

I am glad to have this opportunity to pay tribute to Cardinal Lavigerie and his work for God‘s Kingdom and to the White Fathers and White Sisters. Cardinal Lavigerie died one hundred years ago this year. While his spiritual sons and daughters, the Missionaries of Africa, modestly admit that he was no candidate for canonization, no saint, nevertheless, I am not convinced that candidates for canonization or sainthood have to be perfectly faultless or even sinless. that they must be totally devoid of human frailty or psychological defect. I suggest that the list of saints would be reduced to vanishing point if that were the case. I think or I hope that the heroic virtue demanded by the canonization process is not perfection, but rather the struggle against imperfection. It is not sinlessness but rather repentance from sin and a daily struggle for conversion. And it seems to me that, while de facto Lavigerie may not be put forward for canonization, nothing in his life or character, even warts and all, would in principle exclude canonization. He certainly was a man of God and a formidable human being, un homme formidable, in every sense of the term.

But I place the plan of God first, for it was his desire to give his whole self to God that motivated him to mobilise his immense energies and talents, to master his pride, his temper, his mood swings, even what has been called his ruthlessness and dedicate himself entirely to the glory of God and his kingdom. And if, as St Irenaeus said, the glory of God is man and woman fully alive, then Lavigerie was in his person as well as in his lifework a manifestation of God‘s glory. He lived his life to the full.


Lavigerie was to become a missionary giant. Something of his character is revealed in words which he wrote at the time to his fellow bishops in France: “It would no doubt be easier to live in Lyon but it would be easier to die in Algiers, even and especially if there is much to be suffered, as I suppose there is.”


Lavigerie may or may not have been a saint, but he certainlu put sainthood before his missionary family as their primary aim and task: as the centre of their formation and life. He would have agreed with John Paul that the true missionary is the saint. Redemptoris Missio declared: “The renewed impulse towards the mission ad gentes demands holy missionaries. It is not enough to update pastoral techniques, to organise and coordinate ecclesial resources and to delve more deeply even into biblical and theological foundations. What is needed is encouragement of a new order for holiness among missionaries and the christian community, especially those who work more closely with them”.

I found the White Fathers and Sisters I met in Zambia to be men and women of prayer. I found them also to be men and women of joy. With the White Fathers and Sisters today in this commemoration of Cardinal Lavigerie, we gather in hope and prayer for the dawning of a new missionary age. We do so symbolically in the upper room together with Mary the Mother of Jesus in order, in Pope John Paul’s words, to pray for the spirit and to gain strength and courage to carry out the missionary mandate. Lavigerie’s work must go on. The Kingdom of God has overtaken us. We must not let it pass us by.

(Cardinal Cahal Daly, Opening address of Maynooth Seminar on Racism, in Racism: a growing challenge to Christians, edited by Chris O’Doherty M.Afr. 1992)

Happy Cardinal’s Day!

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