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Thoughts on our Algerian Martyrs

16/12/2008: General House

Just before midnight on August 1, 1996, a bomb positioned at the entrance to the bishop’s residence in Oran killed Bishop Pierre Claverie and the young Mohammed. The attack brought to a close a sequence of assassinations against the Catholic community of Algeria, a series that had begun on May 8, l994 when Brother Henri and Sister Paul Hélène met their violent deaths.

The twin deaths of Pierre, the Christian, and Mohammed, the Muslim, bespeak eloquently the deep suffering that the Church and the Algerian people experienced: the same period of tragic disturbances, the same deaths mourned together, the same grief poured out in common. Such shared experiences are a constant feature of the 110 evidential reports collected by the diocesan tribunal. Eloquent too is the testimony brought by a woman on behalf of Sister Bibiane and Sister Angèle Marie: “Great sadness came upon me when I heard that some of my Algerian brothers were responsible for the death of my two sisters who belong to the Christian community.” True bonds of love united those belonging to the two communities.

Such bonds of love for the Algerian people and their culture was a determining factor for many members of the Catholic community to stay in the country, to not relinquish their love when the Algerians were counting up the deaths, sometimes of people of great moral prominence whose sense of justice had led to their deaths. The times were one of unity in peril, in tears and in grief. Our martyrs were all people who showed respect for others, people of dialogue, committed to the advancement of others and to accepting the values held by others. In today’s world, such as it is, with its coming together of cultures and religions, our martyrs surely serve to model for us a way of being in relationship daily with our society. What a shame, if we were to allow them to be quietly forgotten.

The entire Church in Algeria maintained the stance of sharing with others: to stay for the sake of love; to stay because another person was threatened or was killed; to stay because the other person is myself. The Church accepted the fact that the threat to the Algerian people lay also upon itself. Bishop Henri Teissier stated openly, “We were all in the same situation. We would leave our homes in the morning, not sure that we would return in the evening!” The Church had attained an extraordinary degree of communal holiness, living it as a quotidian reality. In the Church such as described, only nineteen of its members were killed.

What difference has the violence made in the lives of those who remain in Algeria, there to continue the work with the same dedication and the same love? God is the One who judges holiness and rewards it. At the same time, however, the Church has never failed to preserve the memory of her martyrs. Under Nero, were all the Christians executed? Under Hitler, did all meet death in the camps? Did Stalin banish to the goulags only the holiest Christians? And yet, the Church preserves the memory.

It is true too that our martyrs lived out their lives within the at-times, very evident limits of their characters. Fidelity is a gift of the Spirit. Martyrdom, also a gift of the Spirit, is fidelity shown in its most striking fashion. The Church has always honored her martyrs as a way of giving thanks for this gift of the Holy Spirit.

But is it essential to remember the martyrs? To the question, one witness replied, “It the forgetfulness of those who are living that causes the death of those who have died!” An Algiers journalist gave us his view of the matter: “History is first of all memory! You must absolutely preserve the memory of your martyrs!” But to do so - is that not to single them out from the large number of victims amongst the Algerians? While being silent about all of the victims is surely pointless, is not the remembrance of one group a way of remembering all?

Preserving the memory of our martyrs is also a way of remembering all the victims of the convulsive period which the Algerian people experienced. Our nineteen martyrs are but the iceberg tip of memory in which are found all the others. Bringing back to life a historical context – an obligatory task in the canonization process - casts light upon all those who perished violently in the period. Remembering some provides the occasion of remembering all. The same is true for all those who perished in the Shoah. In honoring our martyrs we have the chance to remember the victims of the barbaric times of Nazism; and not merely to remember them for today when the events are still recent, but also for the distant future.

When the Church preserves a memory, she has other purposes in mind as well: first, that of thanking God for those who have borne witness to the shedding of their blood, a witness that the Church accepts as pure gift of the Spirit; secondly, to extend to the universal Church something that was given to a local Church. The latter has the duty of sharing the gifts it has received, offering them to the entire People of God not only for the present, but also for other times and for other places. Our martyrs, Brother Henri, Bishop Pierre Claverie and the others, belong to all Christians who may lay claim to the example which has been given. This is a far cry from a kind of legion of honor medal that the Church might pin upon the martyrs at the time of a beatification. The Church responds rather to the duty of giving thanks, and to her responsibility before the Christian people

Surely our martyrs had their limitations, some of them possessing a type of character neither perfect nor pleasant. Nevertheless, reading the depositions collected by the diocesan tribunal, one comes upon marvelous workings of the Spirit, such as to support our own fidelity.

When Algerian citizens testify at the diocesan tribunal one feels real enthusiasm on their part. Quite freely they give their reports, sometimes with poetic turns of phrase. Not inhibited by thoughts of objections which might arise to what they were saying, they are in their words freer than we Church people who, curiously, are sometimes impeded in what we say.

Someone has spoken of our martyrs as « simple political victims.” The political dimension is almost always a factor in cases of martyrdom. Martyrdom in a pure state is simply a fantasy. If one reads the account of Christ’s passion, political reasons appear as the strongest ones leading up to his being condemned to death: “Are you a king? . . . So then you are a king? . . . He has made himself a king. . . . Would you condemn your king to death? . . . We have no king but Caesar . . . .” The reason for the death penalty was inscribed and nailed to the cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”

Almost in every case, political authorities or political intrigue produces the killing of wit-nesses: the Roman emperors, or closer to our own times, Hitler, Stalin, the Cultural Revolution …. Let us not look at whether our martyrs were killed because of hatred of the faith, when all the time we are certain that they went to their deaths because of fidelity to their faith. Let us not ask whether one bullet suffices to make a martyr, when in fact the martyr has made a total of self.

It is love that creates the desire to remember the martyrs who loved much.

During the difficult days through which the Algerian nation was passing, Bishop Pierre Claverie, Bishop of Oran, used to pray in the following way, “Lord, bring an end to all the violence. Yet, if deaths there must be, may it be mine, and let it be the last one!” The prayer appears to have been heard. You see, for twelve years now the Church has not had other victims, while Algeria has entered upon a path of greater social integration.

_______________________
Brother Giovanni Maria Bigotto, Postulator
The above is a personal reflection that does not represent the official position of any group.

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