La Marsa (Tunis), 13th December 2018. This is the second day of our pilgrimage to the source. Technically, it’s the first day because yesterday we arrived from all over the world. We are about 45, White Fathers and White Sisters, and also some sisters from the MSOLA family and a former Polish White Father candidate who came to report on the 150th anniversary for a Polish Catholic magazine. The organization is excellent: the two leaders are Fr. Markos and Sr. Spesioza for logistics, but many will provide various animation services, among others.
An excellent little booklet was distributed to us, which includes the programs, schedules, common prayers, and especially historical and even spiritual contents following the circuit of our pilgrimage. The confreres and sisters who prepared everything did not cheat us. I will make this booklet available to you as soon as I get a PDF copy, so you can follow the same pilgrimage, minus maybe the local colours, the smells and the Tunisian kindness.
“This first itinerary is intended to be both a discovery and a spiritual journey in the footsteps of the ancient Church of Africa, Lavigerie and the White Fathers and White Sisters in Tunisia.” This introduction describes well what we will do throughout the day.
As some of us live in La Marsa, about thirty kilometres from the City Centre of Tunis, and the others live in the Diocesan House in the city, we met at around 9am. We “registered” and chose one of the four badge colours available. We were then invited to meet by colour, now part of this “sharing team” defined by the chosen colour. Everyone could express their prayers of expectation for this pilgrimage. Already, hearts were opening to a grace that would be abundant.
We boarded a large bus that will take us from one place to another in the suburbs of La Marsa and Carthage where we have seen and sometimes visited places rich in culture, the history of Christian martyrs from antiquity and the modern establishment of a Church… which will not succeed in convincing a Muslim world very proud of its culture. All of this was imbued with the strong and radical words of “Lavigerie”, our founding Father who, with Mother Salome, realized many of his visions, many of which were often very audacious.
We start by discovering the places where we live: the Chapel Lavigerie, Villa Odo, first residence acquired by the Cardinal, which has now become the Charles de Foucault monastery, and the first building built by the Cardinal, which will quickly become a junior seminary and has now become the property of the diocese, which rents the first floor to a local primary school.
The bus will stop several times to show us the Perret Institute, the many archaeological discoveries of Bishop Delattre, including the remains of the Majorum Basilica, as well as the amphitheatre of Carthage where the saints Perpetua and Felicity and their companions were martyred. It is in a cave in the amphitheatre, where the prisoners were probably waiting for their “entrance on stage”, that we meditate on the story of their passion. We discover to what extent Bishop Delattre was instrumental in uncovering the Christian remains, now Tunisia’s heritage. We criss-cross Carthage, stopping at the Chapel of Saint Louis and the Basilica of the same name. We will visit it on Saturday. We arrive at the former high school of the White Sisters where, for the first time, it seems, the headmaster of the state school comes to meet us and invites us to enter, taking us directly to the old chapel which has been converted into a library. Some quotes in English on the walls impress us (see photos). A second school will open its doors to us, the former Franciscan Sisters’ school, where we were also invited to enter the old chapel, converted into a conference room, but where the original stained glass windows are intact, a sign of Tunisia’s great respect for its cultural heritage, will later tell us our confrere-bishop, John McWilliam. We meet many high school students, very friendly and smiling, not hesitating to chat with one or the other of the “elders” or even to pose with Josef de Becker whose Burkinabe hat obviously impresses! We will pass through many other places and end with a visit to our well-preserved “cemetery” where many white fathers and sisters rest in peace. We find, among others, our famous archaeologist Bishop Delattre. We each place a small lit tea light on a few tombs and recite a decade of rosary.
We return to La Marsa where we exchange, in our sharing teams, the feelings that inhabit us. This sharing will be followed by the Eucharist presided over by Fr. Francis Barnes, General Assistant of the Missionaries of Africa. He will note the many open doors we had during the day and the obvious spiritual fruits gathered by the participants in this pilgrimage day. This will make him say that, truly, everything is grace.
You will take interest in read the PDF of the booklet as soon as I put it on this site. It is a very well done work by Sister Cécile Dillé, I think.
Philippe Docq, M.Afr.