Our Lady of Africa, Mother of Hope

Our Lady of Africa basilica, Algeria

In the litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we invoke Mary, Mother of Hope. As we go about our daily lives, with its ups and downs, joys and sorrows, happiness and unhappiness, kindness and violence, laughter and suffering, life can quickly lose its taste and meaning without hope. Then, we are lost and desperate. If we don’t want to lose hope, we need to remain rooted in the one who is the source of life, the source of hope.

“We were saved, but it was in hope”, writes Saint Paul to the Romans (8:24); he is saying this to us, too. “Redemption was offered to us in the sense that we received hope, a reliable hope, by which we can face our present” (cf. Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 2007). Our present, however painful, includes distressing situations of loss of life, of suffering in wars, conflicts and tensions like those we are experiencing or seeing in Gaza, eastern Congo (DRC), Ukraine, Somalia, Burma (Myanmar), Sudan, the Sahel region, Yemen and the Red Sea region, to mention just a few current cases.

Faced with all these unpleasant situations (especially when we can do nothing about them alone), only hope can keep us going. Just like mothers, who often instil hope in their children, Mary, Our Lady of Africa and mother of us all, never ceases to intercede for us during these uncertain times.

Our world today is tormented by an absence of authentic leadership, which, instead of doing everything possible to stop wars, violence, tensions and conflicts of all kinds, stirs them up, notwithstanding the technological breakthroughs that ought to make us better, not worse, human beings. Our faith experience shows us that Mary “shines like a light that attracts all nations to God” (cf. the readings for the Solemnity of Our Lady of Africa, 30 April); these nations, walking in the light of the Lord under the protection of Mother Mary, are illuminated by Him.

Madame-Afrique’s experience in Algiers

The Basilica of Notre Dame d’Afrique is located on a promontory 124 m above sea level in the commune of Bologhine to the west of Algiers. It is a captivating sight! This imposing architectural edifice, built over 14 years, is nicknamed “Madame Afrique” or “Lalla Myriem” by the locals. It’s often easier and more understandable to the locals if you ask them how to get there when you say “Madame Afrique”. The main construction work on this historic basilica was carried out under the episcopate of Mgr Pavy between 1858 and 1866. Cardinal Lavigerie completed the job in 1872 and entrusted it to the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers).

Back in the 1930s, pilgrims from almost all over Algeria and the surrounding area climbed the hill barefoot, reciting the rosary aloud to seek consolation, protection or healing or to make or fulfil a vow. Fishermen would have their nets blessed; people went there to offer gifts after a good harvest, to renew their baptismal promises, and to have young children blessed. Candles or bunches of flowers were often provided to young Catholic, sometimes Jewish, or even Muslim couples, invoking Lalla Myriem and relying on her intercession in all circumstances (cf. Homily by Father Patient Bahati, 30 April 2020, in Rome).

As in the past, hundreds of people visit the Basilica of Notre-Dame d’Afrique daily in Algeria. Among them are barren women, pregnant women, schoolchildren wanting to pass their BAC exams or other competitive examinations, people suffering in body or soul, or simply on courtesy/curiosity visits; these people come to light a candle and pray quietly, invoking Mary in silent recollection. Although the majority of these people are from Algeria, a good number come from elsewhere and entrust themselves to the intercession of the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Africa, a source of joy and mother of hope for all.

The many testimonies of answered prayers and graces obtained are expressed through the ex-votos covering the walls of this lively and prayerful basilica, a symbol of inter-religious dialogue which has now instituted an annual Marian Day. The stone plaques engraved on these walls, in every language and from every era, bear witness to the fact that God never forgets the pleas of sincere and just souls: he always grants his countless graces.

Beyond the graces obtained through physical visits to Our Lady, countless graces are also obtained by all those who invoke her intercession far beyond the land of Algeria, where the basilica is located. In other words, Mary intercedes for Africa and the whole world. She wants the well-being of all her children without exception. This is confirmed by her various apparitions in many places around the world: at Lourdes in France, at Guadalupe in Mexico, at Kibeho in Rwanda, at Fatima in Portugal, at Zeitoun in Egypt, at Akita in Japan, etc.).

François Varillion reminds us in his book Humility of God that “God is pure gratuitousness”: he communicates his grace to us freely without calculation, often through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, who makes no differences or prejudices between her children.

Mary, star of hope, intercedes for us

Mary, mother of God, mother of the Church and mother of humanity, never ceases to intercede for a starry hope. The best illustration of Mother Mary as a star of hope can be found in Pope Benedict XVI’s Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi (Hope Saves Us). Mary is evoked in the following terms towards the end of this beautiful exhortation: “For over a thousand years, the Church has greeted Mary, Mother of God, as “Star of the Sea” in a hymn dating from the seventh to the ninth centuries: Ave Maris Stella. Our life is a journey. Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often obscure and stormy, like the one we see these days, a voyage on which we look to the stars to show us the way, like the Magi. The true stars in our lives are those who have followed the stars of righteousness, love and truth, justice and peace, and reconciliation, to mention only these Christian and human values. True stars are beacons of hope. Jesus Christ is the TRUE light that enlightens the world, even if the world sometimes prefers darkness to the light of Christ. Jesus is not only the true light but also the sun that rises over all the darkness of history. However, we also need the little lights of others to reach him. And who more than Mary could be the star of hope for us all – she who by her ‘yes’ opened the door of our world to God himself; she who became the living Ark of the Covenant, in which God became flesh, became one of us, and pitched his tent among us (cf. Jn 1:14)?” (Spe Salvi, 2007, no. 49).

In conclusion, our humanity on pilgrimage to this earth, our common home, should be inspired by the wisdom of the words of the fourth Eucharistic prayer for special circumstances, entitled “Jesus went about doing good”. This profound prayer calls upon God to ensure that the Church is “a living witness to truth and freedom, to justice and peace, so that all humanity may rise to a new hope”. May we allow ourselves to be challenged and inspired by the depth of this prayer through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Africa, mother of hope.

By: Vincent Kyererezi, M.Afr.