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Marist Bulletin - Number 140

 

HENRI VERGÉS
06/05/2004

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On 10 years after his death
BROTHER HENRI VERGÉS

A LIFE INTINERARY

Birth
Henri was born on 15 July 1930 at Matemale (Eastern Pyrenees), a small Capcir village on the high Aude valley, at 1500 metres of altitude.
He was the first of six children of Joseph Vergès and Mathilde Bournet, modest peasants. His father was elected the mayor of his village. His mother, already busy in her home found time to help the neighbouring poor. From his human roots, he learned the meaning of work, of simple work, honesty, endurance and sharing.

Separation
At twelve, he left his family to start his training in the Marist life. His first years were spent at Espira de l’Agly, near Perpignan; then he moved to Saint Paul Trois Châteaux. He made his first religious profession in 1946. He spent one year to prepare himself for the elementary teaching diploma examination at Notre Dame de l’Hermitage, near Saint Chamond, in the house built by Marcellin Champagnat, the founder of the Marist Brothers.
Henri began his teaching apostolate in October 1947 at Saint Geniez-D’olt in the Aveyron. His health could not cope with intensive work and frugal food. He celebrated his twentieth birthday at Osseja, a sanatorium near his birth place. That was an enriching time for his religious life.

Maturing
Henri pronounced his perpetual vows as a Marist Brother on 26 August 1952. He resumed his teaching in various schools in the Ardèche, at Cheylard and at Aubenas. From 1958 to 1966, he worked as the deputy master of novices at Notre Dame de Lacabane, in Corrèze. With a peasant tenacity, he kept studying until he obtained his Masters in Philosophy. After the 1967-68 general chapter where he had been a capitulant, the superior general asked him to go and work in Algeria. Henri accepted wholeheartedly: for a long time he had wanted to become a missionary. He resolutely undertook to learn the Arabic language during a holiday with his family. He reached Algiers on 6 August 1969, feast of the Transfiguration.

Blossoming
His presence in Algeria during twenty-five years can be divided into three main stages:
· 1969-1976: Direction of the Saint Bonaventure School at Algiers for six years until the establishment was nationalised.
· 1976-1988: He was a Mathematics teacher at Sour-E.-Ghozlane.
· 1988-1994: He is in charge of a library at Algiers on Ben Cheneb Street. This library is used by thousands of secondary school children. He was assassinated in his working office on 8 May 1994. Sister Paul-Hélène was murdered on the same day and in the same library.


Influence
“Our dear brother Henri has been an authentic witness of Christ’s love, of fidelity to the Church and of faithfulness to the Algerian people.”
(Cardinal Duval’s words, during the funerals at Notre Dame d’Afrique, on 12 May 1994, feast of the Ascension of the Lord)


EXCERPTS FROM HENRI’S WRITINGS

At the request of Brother Basilio Rueda, the then Superior General of the Marist Brothers, Henri wrote his autobiography dated 1st Sunday of Advent 1978. Here is its conclusion:

“Love story
May God and the Virgin Mary be praised for my call, for giving me this grace of fidelity. Thank you to my brothers who helped me by their own fidelity to better answer God’s call. Thank you to my parents, my family, so many friends – specially the priests and religious among them who guided me on this way of Love. A Love Story that carries on: May our faithful God keep us faithful. FIAT! MAGNIFICAT!”

Ten years later, Henri agreed to narrate his spiritual journey “in the Islam house”. He ends his description in this way:
“In short, it was my Marist commitment that allowed me, in spite of my limits to insert myself harmoniously into this Muslim milieu, and my life in this milieu in turn became more Marist and more Christian. May God be praised!” (Algiers, Christmas 1989)

Henri’s reflections on the occasion of the centenary of the Marist Brothers’ arrival in Algeria:
“This year, a new stage: Bab-el-Oued, la Casbah….discreetly lost in the heart of the multitude, here we are with you, Mary, with the poor, with the youth, a humble presence that wants to be constantly available, to spread your Son’s love… Already VISITATION meetings. Magnificat.

The library: these thousand young ones we welcome, these ten thousand people that surround us. A multitude still full of faith but that fears its future. The distraught youth of this country – Help us, our Mother to light up hope in these young hearts.

The RIBAT, the Peace centre, that group that welcomes us, eager for a more spiritual approach to Islam and the Muslims, in their daily living. You journey with us, Mary, sometimes in the joy of the marvels that happen, a prophetic sign, in the spirit of the Assisi fraternity to which your Son’s Church opens itself.”

A few notes that explain Henri’s spiritual journey in his last stage :
“I must care for God’s gift that makes me discern what God wants at any moment: to be simply true, in Love, in his Presence. With Mary’s help to strengthen myself with the Eucharist.” (Tibhirine, 17 Dec. 1983)

“Three apostolic criteria for the Institute,
our turning to the poor
marial education
the Church’s calls.” (3 April 1984)

“Fix your heart on God with Mary.”

“Lord Jesus, I surrender myself to You to be lost in You and with You, completely to the Father in the Holy Spirit’s love. That my will may be the Father’s will for me and that his will be done day by day, up till the end.” (Varennes-sur-Allier, July 1985)

1986 : intensive year of Arabic inculturation – Clarisses-Algiers, 22 March 1986
“I want to allow Christ’s peace to invade my being more and more intimately.
Patience, kindness towards myself, patience, kindness towards all, specially the young ones that God entrusts to me. Virgin Mary, make me a channel of peace to the world.”

“A particular effort, this year, for more special attention to the most destitute pupils of mine. From the start, to know each one by his name. To better adapt my teaching to the distressed ones as I wrote to Father Champagnat.” (N.D. de l’Hermitage, July 1987)
Lent 1988
“With God’s grace, accompanied by the Virgin Mary:

o Calm, peace in the presence of the Lord (specially at prayer time)
o Kind rapport with the pupils
o Fast: specially no dessert at night;
o A daily decrease of my ‘possessions’.”

“My presence in such a place, in such a time is necessary only in as much as God wants it for me and my brothers. Like Jesus, I must be totally available to the Father’s will. I wish to be the little flower that blossoms where God planted it on hearth and irrigates it with the Spirit’s living water. In everything, to always say YES through and in Jesus’ YES, like the Virgin Mary.” (Written at Sour-El-Ghozlane, between 1986 and 1988)

“I want the message of the Gospel to be seen through my actions. To be a seed buried in the ground through which the Gospel’s leaven will raise up. May I be renewed by the Gospel a little more every day by the living Word of the Gospel: not to allow its edge to become blunt by routine, distraction or comfort. That the Word of the Gospel may spring up a new man in me. To become more and more the word of the Gospel.” (idem)

“The word I live is truer than the word I say. To aspire to radiate from my being at its best.”

“Patience, calm and tranquil perseverance. Like the sower that entrusts the soil with his seeds and allows God time to do His work: essential attitude for an educator – considering that I don’t know how these young people will develop. God simply sent me to sow in fields chosen by himself. I will then sow in peace and rely on God for the growth. I must not fear the presence of the cross.” (Idem)

“The prayer week (with Jean-Marie) was an opportunity for my personal conversion. My deductions: if the heart desires God, that means that the prayer has been good. To have this desire at the bottom of my heart and to try to increase this desire. We must shine with the presence of Jesus Christ within us. The fifth gospel that everyone can read is our life.”
(Meeting No 12 du Ribat, 31 October 1984)

At Sour-El-Ghozlane, Henri questions himself:
“Why here?
- Because God sent me here
- Because God has a mysterious plan for the Muslim people, a temple of his presence where he invites me to enter, there is a reciprocal opening to favour a dialogue between believers. Our journeying towards God cannot help but to converge…
- Because my Marist vocation is particularly adapted to this buried presence, to this humble service, to the anchoring of the foundations on which the future will rest in this young country – we who are at the service of youth – with Mary, also present at Islam’s heart.”


A FEW TESTIMONIES

On 5 July 1994, Father Christian-Marie de Chergé, the Tibhirine’s Prior wrote to his Abbot General, “I was personally very attached to Henri. His death appears so natural to me, so aligned to a whole life consecrated to God. He belongs to the category of people I call ‘The Hope Martyrs’, those we never speak of because they give their whole being as witnesses in their daily patience.” (Quotation from Dom Bernard Oliveira, general abbot of the Trappists, in a letter sent to all the Cistersian communities on 27 May 1996, after the death of seven monks of Notre Dame of the Atlas among them, Christian-Marie de Chergé)

Brother Michel Voute, Henri’s friend, Ben Cheneb Street at Algiers
“Everything was luminous and light in him, starting with his writings so limpid in form and style. Everything was a reason to magnify the Creator. A real Francis of Assisi: praise and thanksgiving were his chosen ways of praying. However, when at the beginning of a meal, if he thought that his prayer (a simple sign of the cross) could shock a visitor, a Muslim Algerian friend, he opted to express his thanksgiving with a Koranic formula. What a courtesy without any religious mawkishness! But straightforward, respectful actions flowed from his heart that listened to the Other and the other persons. Yes, Henri was a just man.”

Brother André Thizy, Henri’s provincial superior (Letter to the Brothers, 17 May 1994)
“Henri was very ready to go and meet his Lord. On the Sunday preceding his death, he and Brother Michel had gone to the Tibhirine Monastery, for a last confession (Brother Christian’s testimony, prior). His last will is dated, 22 April 1994! He died on the closing day of the African Synod on which he had put so much hope…
Living alone in Algeria for several years, Henri was still in a deep communion with his brothers, tied to his province more than any other brother. Who was not struck by his extreme simplicity? A true ascetic, the minimum was enough for him either at table or as regards his personal objects. Entering his room, we were surprised by its bareness; only the presence of a radio and a Koran book made it different from Father Champagnat’s room! ‘To gradually be free of my possessions’ (one of his retreat resolutions)

Many among you might have thought that Henri was in Algeria because he wanted to be there. No, he had been asked to go and work in that difficult set up. His availability was total. During my last visit, in March, in spite of the current events, he thought that his presence was more important than ever. But he left it to me to decide on my way to abide by God’s will.” ‘My new spiritual accompagnateur’s advice: don’t ask for anything, refuse nothing, accept everything’. (One of his retreat’s resolutions)

D.B., from Sour-el-Ghozlane – one of Henri’s friends wrote on 9 May 1994,
“Brother Henri left a great vacuum. This religious man whom I had known since 1978 was animated with a sincere faith; through his actions, he incorporated the values and the morality of a convinced Christian. Anyone who knew this man can’t help but appreciate his austere life, his dedication and his compassion for the poor, the destitute and the marginalised people. He did not spare any effort to help those people, to comfort them in their sufferings.”

From Father Jean François Berjonneau (National Service of the pastoral work for the emigrants) had met Henri on 25 March 1994,

“I had perceived how he passionately loved his work in the library: a strong desire to meet people, a passion at the service of the young ones, a passion that tied him strongly to this people. He went all the way to the end of this Passion.”

Following the publishing of the book “From Capcir to the Casbah, a life given, a blood poured” that narrated Henri’s experience readers reacted:

Sister Marie Nicole, of Little Sisters of Jesus at Bab el Oued. Her letter dated, 15 July 1996, Brother Henri’ birthday:
“We will remember Henri as a man of faith and kindness. This is what struck all those who lived with him. I feel that this book will be like a treasure from which we will find life and strength for the road.”

Claude Rault, White Father, 22 April 1996 letter:
“I opened the book this morning with great emotion and I will be happy to re-read the story of this man of the Gospel. We often met! He will remain the witness to universal love for many Algerians.”

Brother Alessandro di Pietro, a former Marist general Postulator – Rome, 14 April 1996:
“Brother Henri’s life style was the best way for him to become a Muslim with the Muslims up to some limits that only the evangelical courtesy allowed him to cross thanks to his love of Christ and of his brother.”

Father Bonaventure, Trappist, Aiguebelle, 23 February 1996:
“The martyr speaks louder than the living person. And he will speak for a long time.”
Father Bonaventure had known Henri since his Marist youth.

Father Bruno, Trappist, Rome, 8 August 1996:
“What I admire most in Brother Henri is his application or his opening to a permanent formation. Thus, he continually ‘grew up’ at the professional, human and Christian levels and as a Marist Brother.”

An Algerian friend, to Jean Benoît Fanjaud who was Henri’s companion at Ben Cheneb - 22 September 2000:
“I am very moved by the reading of certain pages. A holy life in the light of contemplation and service. All the testimonies I read in this book confirm what I have always thought of Brother Henri: he was discreet, humble, dedicated and he was endowed with such an endearing kindness and tact. I suppose he could still forgive as Christ did.”

Brother François Chavanes, Dominican at Oran-el-Maggari (Algeria) on 4 November 2002. He wrote to ask for a copy of the book “Du Capcir à la Casbah.”
“I knew Brother Henri when he was the director of Saint Bonaventure School at Algiers and when he set up house himself on Ben Cheneb Street. I saw him again in 1987 at the Focolare of Tlemcen, where he had come with a group of youngsters. I was struck by the peaceful and simple joy that he showed. After his departure, I happily said, ‘I spent the day with a saint’.”


PRAYER

God our Father
Brother Henri Vergès gave his life, like Jesus,
By patiently bearing with each daily drudgery
And by being available to your will.

In the midst of the young ones,
He was a man of faith and kindness,
The servant of the poorest,
An authentic witness to Christ’s love.

Like him, make us
Men and women of dialogue
With our Muslim brothers and sisters,
Discreetly and respectfully.

May the peaceful and simple joy that he showed
Fruit of his simple life
And of his nearness to Mary,
Inhabit us and attract to your Church
Whoever we meet on our journey with you.

We ask you this through Jesus, your Son,
Our Lord and our brother. Amen.

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