Meeting the Muslims: the contribution of the White Fathers

Meeting the Muslims: the contribution of the White Fathers

The Society of Missionaries of Africa has promoted a renewal of the Christian approach to Islam

 Rémi Caucanas

Rémi Caucanas est chercheur associé à l’Institut de Recherches et d’Études sur le Monde Arabo-Musulman (IREMAM, Aix-en-Provence) et au Pontificio Istituto di Studi Arabi e d’Islamistica (PISAI, Rome). Il enseigne également au Tangaza University College (TUC, Nairobi). Ancien directeur de l’Institut Catholique de la Méditerranée (ICM, Marseille), Rémi Caucanas a un doctorat en Histoire.

The journeys of Pope Francis to Abu Dhabi (February 2019) and Rabat (March 2019) cannot but challenge us on the historical depth of the relationship between the Catholic Church and Islam. Now if the Argentinean pope inscribed his journey in the footsteps of Saint Francis, commemorating the 800th anniversary of his meeting with Sultan Ayyûbide in Damietta in 1219, another anniversary deserves our attention: the 150th anniversary of the foundation of the Society of Missionaries of Africa, whose work and history have contributed to a complete renewal of the Christian approach to Islam and Muslims.

Founded one hundred and fifty years ago by the Archbishop of Algiers, Mgr Charles Lavigerie (1825-1892), created Cardinal in 1882 and “Primate of Africa” in 1884, the Society has been one of the great cogs of modern evangelisation of the African continent. If the destiny of this missionary work thus extends beyond the Maghreb alone, the relationship with Islam and the Muslims of North Africa has nevertheless remained one of its foundations since its creation in 1868-9 and remains the focal point of our subject, namely the relationship of the White Fathers to Islam (1).

Read the full article IN FRENCH on the website of Fondazione OASIS or continue reading here below an unofficial translation of the article.

In case of doubt concerning the translation, please refer to the French original on the website of Fondazione OASIS. As for the notes, they will not be translated and are available in French on the same website.

Over a century and a half of history, the relationship with Islam has been evolutionary, diverse and contrasted. It is therefore necessary first of all to question the legacy left by the founder, Cardinal Lavigerie. This legacy is not unambiguous, and the choice of dialogue was in fact made only in the first part of the twentieth century. With the end of colonisation and from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) onwards, the White Fathers appeared more and more as guarantors of the dialogue between the Church and Islam.

An ambiguous legacy

The figure of Lavigerie asserted himself in the difficult context of French colonization and the creation of a new Catholic context in the Maghreb. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, indigenous Christian communities were non-existent there and missionary orders concentrated mainly on Christian prisoners. [2] With the conquest of Algeria, however, a new Catholic spirit arrived from the French coast, and the Bishop of Marseilles welcomed the Bourbon initiative. In 1830, certain accents of Crusade were heard in the circles close to Charles X, who sought in the conquest of the Regency of Algiers an escape from the social disaster that his reign was undergoing. And if, in his draft surrender agreement that he addressed to the Bey of Algiers in 1830, the commander-in-chief of the French expeditionary force indicated that he wanted to respect the free exercise of the Muslim religion, he had a Te Deum celebrated and declared to his troops:



“you have just reopened with us the door of Christianity in Africa”[4]

Very quickly, mosques are transformed into churches. In 1835, as cholera spread, “nuns arrived (…) and distinguished themselves to the natives by their devotion. Three years later, a bishop was appointed in Algiers. [5] The monastery of Notre-Dame de Staouëli was founded in 1843; in 1854, Abbot Dom François Régis (1808-1881) was immortalized by the orientalist painter Horace Vernet (1789-1863) celebrating mass before the French imperial army in Kabylia. [6] However, it was a bishop of Algiers, Mgr Antoine-Adolphe Dupuch (1800-1856)[7] who, following the constant desire to convert him to the Christian faith, established a dialogue and friendly relations[8] with the Emir Abd el-Kader through the intermediary of Abbé Suchet [9]. During the Second Empire (in its first part at least), religious congregations were encouraged to settle in Algeria to alleviate the need for education. But, in the face of a slow, difficult conquest, to the point of being called into question, the political power and the army also showed a certain timidity, and even, according to some Freemasons’ reflexes, expressed a categorical rejection of Christian missions. In fact, as under Bugeaud’s General Government (1840-1847), French ruling circles also feared that ostentatious proselytism would lead to a massive rejection of the French by the indigenous Muslims. A period of tension followed with Bishop Lavigerie (1825-1892) who founded the Society of Missionaries of Africa in 1868, the “last notable episode in the apostolic mission to the Muslims before the interwar period” [10].

Archbishop of Algiers from 1867 to 1892, Mgr Lavigerie was created Cardinal in 1882. From the time of his enthronement, he showed a particular concern for the Muslims. [11] Bishop Lavigerie had some knowledge of the Muslim religion before arriving in Algeria, which led Joseph Cuoq to say that “of all the French bishops, Lavigerie was certainly the best prepared to occupy the See of Algiers”. [12] In 1851, he was appointed director of the Œuvre des Écoles d’Orient and it was in Syria that he forged his first links with Muslims, including the Emir Abd el-Kader, who arrived in Damascus in 1855. From this first experience Bishop Lavigerie drew the following lesson: there can be no forced conversion of Muslims who are too rooted in their faith – even if he noticed on his arrival in Algiers that Algerian Islam was appreciably different from that practised in Syria. Should we nevertheless deduce from this that Archbishop Lavigerie had abandoned all proselytizing? In fact, there remains a certain ambiguity. For during the famines or epidemics, which are regular at this time in Algeria, the orphans who are taken in are also baptized. Two Catholic villages were even created in the vicinity of Orléansville: Saint-Cyprien des Attafs and Sainte-Monique [13]. Does the charitable enterprise then hide the missionary and proselytizing activity? For the colonial administration, which feared that proselytizing might cause unrest among the Muslim populations, the answer was clearly positive. And, like Emilie de Vialar a few decades earlier, Bishop Lavigerie was obliged to defend himself in the face of criticism from the Arab Bureaus. He declared thus:

“Instead of confining the natives, out of fear of a largely imaginary fanaticism in barbarism and in their Koran, which keeps them separated from us by an impassable abyss, we should assimilate them: children, through French schools; adults, through discreet preaching, prepared by a wide diffusion of the benefits of charity” [14].

The Archbishop of Algiers also places the struggle on the level of the freedom of the Church: “That of the colonists to undertake, that of the Church to practice charity towards the poorest, as she had done from the beginning” [15]. It was in this spirit that he founded the Society of Missionaries of Africa in 1868. This society brought together the White Fathers and the Missionary Sisters of Notre-Dame d’Afrique and was destined to send out on mission not only to North Africa but also beyond the Sahara which, having now been conquered, enabled France to link the Mediterranean to Black Africa, and Bishop Lavigerie to become Primate of Africa.

Close to the Muslim populations, the White Fathers were both respected for their health and teaching activities and objects of mistrust because they were suspected of wanting to baptize the weakest and most isolated. Yet the founder’s prescriptions were clear. As regards, for example, the apostolate to the Kabyles, Bishop Lavigerie forbade crucifixes in the classrooms, prayers and signs of the cross at the beginning and end of lessons: recommendations too difficult to follow for the Jesuits who were replaced in Kabylia by the White Fathers in the summer of 1873. Archbishop Lavigerie invited the White Fathers to “avoid all proselytism; never speak of religion to the Kabyle people, except for the dogmas they admitted and their ancient Christian traditions; limit themselves to caring for the sick and educating the children”, “win hearts”, practice the “historical method” as a catechism, and above all to “adapt”. The duty to adapt to the environment is clearly put forward by the founder of the Society of Missionaries of Africa as being “a true apostolic asceticism”. The duty to study languages, respect for the original cultures and the African identity in all its diversity, in short, a new attitude to adopt towards the colonized populations and in relation to the dominant current of assimilation towards which Western civilization, dominant and in full expansion, was then pushing.

There was no shortage of major continuators: Bishop Livinhac and Father Voillard in Black Africa, for example. But the orientations initiated by the founder were beginning to be practiced in rather varied, not to say contradictory, ways. That is what prompted the 1912 Chapter to recall the principles of the founder [16]. During this meeting, Henri Marchal was elected as assistant to the Superior General. However, because he was re-elected to this same function until 1947, it is not wrong to say that it was especially thanks to the directives and the work of this other French missionary that the White Fathers made the choice of dialogue with the Muslims.

The development of the dialogue

In a position of authority and responsibility within the Society of Missionaries of Africa, Henri Marchal found himself compelled to “translate into practical directives the main orientations given by the Founder to his Missionary Society for the apostolate in Africa in general and for its implications in the Muslim world in particular” [17]. In fact, while the Catholic Church was beginning to realize the deadlock in which the missionary project found itself, Marchal developed a real “technique of apostolate among Muslims” [18]. If the triumphalism of Western Christianity was affirmed with great pomp and circumstance in 1930 during the Eucharistic Congress of Carthage and on the occasion of the centenary of the colonisation of Algeria, an alternative model of mission gradually emerged in the light of the often solitary stars: Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916) at the crossroads of contemplation, Louis Massignon (1883-1962) on the roads of Orientalism, and Jules Monchanin (1895-1957) outside the Islamic world.

For Henri Marchal, times of crisis are also good times. That is why he thought it opportune to recover Cardinal Lavigerie’s intuitions [19]. In the Broad Lines of the Apostolate of the White Fathers in North Africa published in 1938, he insisted, like Lavigerie before him, on the adaptation of the apostolate to the public targeted by the policy of conversion and especially on the importance of prudence to be preserved for the missionaries with regard to the French authorities and the Muslims (“beware of all proselytism”). For Henri Marchal, the heart of the apostolate lies in the essential truths to be observed much more than in the sacrament of Baptism: the most important and necessary remains “conversion to God”, conversion to Christianity is less so. [20] According to his work “Les rayons” (1936), mission is also carried out by “radiance”. The first objective remains “defanatization” not only through spiritual works but also through secular activities. The missionary must show by his example that he is a “man of God”, which, on the one hand, will distinguish him from the colonists and the colonial authorities and, on the other hand, will attract many Muslims to the Christian faith. In this scheme, the school remains a central element of the missionary machinery so as to dispose minds to accept the Christian message, even if the teaching of the Christian mysteries only comes very late in the process of conversion. Henri Marchal therefore developed a method following the “preaching of Christ”: it is a question first and foremost of the missionary being accepted by the Muslim populations “in the logic of the Incarnation”, and only then embarking on the path of conversion, giving priority to the surrender of one’s life and person to God, thus putting into practice a dogma common to Islam and Christianity. Finally, conversion to Christianity as a religious system is almost abandoned in the short term.

Gradually, guided by Henri Marchal, the White Fathers were thus led to think of their presence in North Africa alongside Muslims, as “a relationship of accompaniment”, whose objective was not “to convert Muslims, but to help them to live an open, ‘Christianised’ Islam” [21]. The spread of the Marchalian method was first observed on the occasion of the 1926 Chapter of the Society when it succeeded in gaining acceptance for the project of an Arab studies centre for the linguistic and cultural formation of religious men and women who went to live on Islamic soil. Created on November 18, 1926 in Tunis, this “House of Unity and Effort” directs students towards the knowledge of literary and dialectal Arabic. The first shelves of a library are devoted to matters relating to Tunisian life, the Muslim religion and Arabic literature[22]. The aim, however, remains the encounter with the other more than a scholarly knowledge that will rather be the prerogative of the Dominicans in Cairo. However, recalling the doubts raised by certain positions of Cardinal Lavigerie on the question of conversions, the project carried out by Henri Marchal met with the reticence of a certain number of his confreres. Indeed, if the new Tunisian creation was to be a means of winning the sympathy of the local population, the White Fathers Roberto Focà and Joseph Sallam, who were mainly responsible for it, “deliberately provoked apologetic polemics to show the Tunisians the weaknesses of their faith. “This approach to intellectual disputes was not shared by all the pupils, especially the young André Demeerseman (1901-1993). The organization of the Eucharistic Congress of Carthage in 1930 further accentuated the disagreements within the team. In January 1931, Henri Marchal succeeded in imposing the young André Demeerseman at the head of what became the Institut des Belles Lettres Arabes (IBLA): a research centre that enabled the White Fathers living in Tunisia to embark on a rich history of scholarly cooperation [23] with Tunisian universities, including the Zeituna, and a history of Islamic-Christian friendships that extended into the national struggle [24]. In short, if he did not speak of it explicitly because he also remained a man of his time, that of colonization, Henri Marchal clearly committed the Society of Missionaries of Africa to the path of dialogue with the Muslims.

The guarantee of dialogue

Since the late 1950s and the time of decolonization, the role of the White Fathers could be portrayed as that of “guarantor” of the dialogical relationship with Islam. However, decolonization meant painful choices for the Society of Missionaries of Africa, foremost among which was the move of the Mother House from Algiers to Rome, in other words, the questioning of the fundamental re-creation of a Christian North Africa. But this Roman relocation is also an opportunity for fruitful cross-fertilization with other missionary families committed to the relationship with Islam, not only in Africa but also in the Middle East, South Asia and Europe. The meetings of the “Journées Romaines” organized at the Mother House since 1956, in fact, allowed the White Fathers to open themselves to the vast and plural dimensions of the Islamic world. Even within the Society of Missionaries of Africa, it must be said that two traditions, two spheres coexist and often ignore each other: North Africa on the one hand and sub-Saharan Africa on the other. It was not until the 1950s and 1960s and the improvement of the means of communication that knowledge and experiences were really enriched. In charge of an information office on Islam within the Society, Father Jacques Lanfry made four important trips to collect information on African Islam.

The recentralization in Rome was also a great opportunity for the White Fathers to place themselves at the helm of the Islamic-Christian dialogue at a time when the Catholic Church was engaged in a new relationship with the world and with other religions[25]. Like the Dominicans in Cairo and the advocates of an open Thomism, White Fathers like Jacques Lanfry and Joseph Cuoq fought both against the excesses of a dialogue more passionate than reasoned on the one hand, and against the dangerous absurdities of an anti-Muslim Catholic fundamentalism[26]. In short, from one pole to the other of Christian Islamology, the White Fathers from the IBLA and the new Pontifical Institute of Arab Studies (IEPA today PISAI) contributed in the 1950s and 1960s to the definition of a new Catholic orientation towards Islam. White Father Robert Caspar, for example, participated in the drafting of the third paragraph of the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate on Muslims, in which the Catholic Church affirms that it looks “with esteem” upon Muslims; White Father Joseph Cuoq became head of the Islam Section in the new Pontifical Secretariat for Non-Christians. Because he has often been coupled since the Second Vatican Council with important pastoral if not pontifical duties, the “passion for dialogue”[27] of White Fathers such as Jacques Lanfry, Michael Fitzgerald and Etienne Renaud has been authoritative.

On his return to France in 1977, Jacques Lanfry published extraordinary works on the Berber language [28] and followed the activities of the Service for Relations with Islam of the French Episcopal Conference, a service which had been founded by another White Father of IBLA, Michel Lelong. Now a Cardinal, Michael L. Fitzgerald (born 1937) was appointed Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in 1987, and then became its President in 2002. We should of course also mention Maurice Borrmans, who died in December 2017, but the career of Étienne Renaud (1936-2013) is even more remarkable, for several reasons. First of all, he lived in very varied Muslim contexts: Algeria, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen, Tanzania, Sudan. Second, he experienced Muslim hospitality, especially in Yemen, where he was welcomed for eight years by a Yemeni family. He was also Superior of the Society of Missionaries of Africa from 1986 to 1992. Finally, at various times in his life, he assumed the leadership of both IBLA and PISAI. His personal experience can therefore shed light on our understanding of the relationship that the White Fathers have had in recent times with Islam.

Étienne Renaud never hid his contempt for a naive Christian position; witness his “Letter” of 1987 in which he insists on the necessary alliance between a knowledge of Islam and “the demands of the Gospel”[29]. However, since the 1970s, the now numerous presence of Muslims in Western Europe has made religious pluralism a massive and challenging fact. [30] As Étienne Renaud points out in several interventions, this new religious landscape sends the Church “back to itself” and constitutes a real challenge. [31] Similarly, he does not hesitate to express his unease not only in the face of the noisy and mediatized Islamism that was particularly evident during the attacks of September 11, 2001, but also in the face of the weak calls for moderation on the part of the Muslim masses. Leading him to believe that “frontal theological dialogue with Islam leads to a dead end”[32], he continues to seek contact with popular Islam: on the island of Pemba (off the coast of Tanzania) where he lived for several months in 2001, in Khartoum in the footsteps of Mahmud Taha, in the northern districts of Marseilles at the end of his life. The good watercolorist that he was, attentive to the humanity of the people he met and rooted in the Christian faith of his parents, followed the nuanced curves of the human encounter, against intransigence and amalgamation, in the service of dialogue and understanding between Christians and Muslims.

In summary, at the forefront of the Christian mission in the land of Islam (in North Africa in particular), the White Fathers have over time become an authority, a reference point within the Catholic Church in the joint field of Muslim studies and Muslim-Christian dialogue. Guarantors today of a certain nuance in the relationship with Islam, several of them continue to cultivate a benevolent critique in various places. Today they represent one of the few links between the Catholic Church and Islam which are necessary to grasp with greater serenity and audacity the challenge posed for Christians today by the encounter with Islam.

Over the 150 years of the Society’s existence, these different ways of relating to Islam have gradually drawn a portrait of the White Fathers as a link, second on the scene in history, but indispensable for moving towards better mutual understanding. For example, the White Fathers mentioned in this article have very rarely been prominent theologians. But their experience of human encounter has nourished theological insights of rare intensity. As men of their time, they were marked by the tragedy of their times, often as direct witnesses or even victims of History: like Cardinal Lavigerie, who was overwhelmed by the massacres in Damascus in 1860, these White Fathers sought to understand Islam and maintained the course of dialogue in the midst of the world wars, the wars of decolonization and the post-colonial crises. Moreover, their action was conducted in the light of an authentic Christian spiritual experience. They have been “men of God” convinced “that one can only respond to one’s vocation if one is profoundly a spiritual person attentive to the grace of God who acts in hearts and solicits them to the best of their ability”[33]. In the image of Christ Incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth living with the men of his time, taking into account the human thickness is also the essential condition for an “enlightened zeal” towards the Muslims, according to Cardinal Lavigerie’s expression. The conviviality lived with Muslims in the Sahara, in Kabylia, in East Africa or elsewhere, helps to temper the fulgurances that always risk slipping into ideology, whether angelic or apologetic. Finally, the relationship of the White Fathers to Islam can only be understood with the fundamental complement lived by the White Sisters and which recalls the centrality of Cardinal Lavigerie’s project: to place his missionary work under the gaze of Our Lady of Africa.

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