Algeria martyrs a paradigm of path to holiness

Algeria martyrs a paradigm of path to holiness Seven of the 19 Trappist monks who were martyred at Tibhirine monastery in Algeria.
Luca Attanasio

Five years have passed since the historic beatification of the 19 martyrs of Algeria celebrated at the shrine of Notre-Dame of Santa Cruz in Oran, Algeria. On the occasion of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, on 8 December 2018, in a church packed with people including many Muslim believers and religious leaders, the first beatification of Christians in Islamic lands was officiated, a sign of deep rootedness and a desire for peaceful coexistence beyond the horrors of war. Significant, in this sense, was the choice to include in the beatification icon unveiled on 8 December 2018 in Oran, in addition to the 19 Christian martyrs, the figure of the 21-year-old Muslim Mohamed Bouchiki, driver and friend of Monsignor Claverie, Bishop of Oran, who was killed, along with the bishop himself, on 1 August 1996 following an explosion at the entrance to the bishopric.

Five years after that symbolic event, and almost 30 years after the outbreak of the civil conflict that left more than 200,000 dead in Algeria and swept away the 19 religious together with ninety-nine imams between 1994 and 1996, the postulator of the cause for beatification, Trappist Father Thomas Georgeon, explains to The Irish Catholic the meaning of a journey and the permanent value of a testimony that is still very much felt in the country, in the world, and in the Church.

Five years after the beatification, how is the postulation proceeding?

The postulation is attentive to the graces received through the intercession of the 19 martyrs. Of course, we hope that one day a miracle obtained through their intercession will enable us to move towards canonisation, but we must be patient and cautious! The current work of the postulation consists more of keeping abreast of the many initiatives that have been taken and supporting them: the publication of nine volumes of the writings of the monks of Tibhirine, the creation of a university chair for the 19 Blessed of Algeria, the resonance of their message with the poor, particularly in South America, through the theatrical work Pierre et Mohamed, the university research work underway in many countries, the organisation of colloquia in different linguistic spheres with publication of the proceedings, etc. Finally, we should be aware of the reputation for holiness of these brothers and sisters, a reputation that has spread far beyond the Church, to the peripheries so dear to Pope Francis.

Just a few days ago, the conference ‘Hospitality and Holiness Next Door’ dedicated to the martyrs of Algeria took place in Madrid, can this form of Christianity experienced by the martyrs be considered the future challenge of the Church? Although at different times, can their testimony say something to today’s Church on the way to the synod of synodality?

The Madrid symposium was a rich experience of the universality of the message of the 19 martyrs, with the presence of Cardinal Cristobal Lopez of Rabat in Morocco, Archbishop Vesco of Algiers and people from around twenty different countries, including two Algerians. The lives of these martyrs open up a beautiful and very contemporary ecclesial challenge: to live by the gift of encounter, which is hospitality and fraternity, in order to be in tune with the vulnerability and fragility of our common humanity. Today, in certain parts of the world, the Church is experiencing greater poverty and fragility, and the witness of the 19 Blessed tells us that fraternity and poverty are a path, that they are an emergency and that they are a daring thing to do. The 19 martyrs of Algeria are, for the Church, an example of holiness incarnated in a profound community hospitality: first they were strangers welcomed in a strange land… then they were those who welcomed everyone. Holiness is a journey that can only be made if it is supported by four essential elements: courage, hope, grace and conversion. The discernment experienced in the 90s by the religious congregations to which they belonged also tells us something about synodality: In religious communities, we know that communion is the ultimate criterion for discernment and verification of the synodal journey.

Going into the specifics of your seven Trappist brethren of Tibhirine (on the night of 26–27 March 1996, seven Trappist monks from the Our Lady of the Atlas Abbey of Tibhirine, Algeria, were kidnapped and found beheaded after two months. They have been wonderfully portrayed in the film Of Gods and Men, ndr), the Pope in Gaudete et exultate speaks of them as an example of intense common life. Does their example of deep fraternity, of harmonious living among themselves and with the surrounding community, speak to the world today more than martyrdom?

Pope Francis presents the martyrs of Tibhirine as the paradigm of a community path to holiness. Since the death of the brothers, there has been a real interest in their spirituality (that of giving, that of hospitality, that of dialogue…) and this interest has gradually increased worldwide, which clearly expresses two things: the evangelical and Christian richness of their lives and the profound spiritual and theological content of their writings. In this witness of a fraternal community that prepared together for martyrdom, we find the greatest understanding of the Gospel, which makes it possible to live universal fraternity without conflict, with an unarmed heart and empty hands, with no other protection than the love of God.

The Middle East is once again bloodied, new war fronts are opening in Europe, in Africa. The 19 martyrs did not respond to violence with violence, but  by tracing a path to overcome hatred and ‘an eye for an eye’ concept, they died in the hope of bringing peace: how is their wonderful experiment – which unfortunately also included martyrdom – of bringing peace to their contexts and to the world proceeding in your opinion? Does it continue to be a reference for concrete peace?

Unfortunately, current events show us that man’s heart is sick, spiritually and humanly sick. The world is bloodied by thousands of victims of war and tribal strife, born of hatred and intolerance. In their earthly lives, these martyrs had no protection other than love; they did not consider their own interests or their own survival as greater values than the Gospel. These men and women, following in the footsteps of Christ, have shown that forgiveness and love are stronger than hatred and death; with their sacrifice, they tell us that the Lord always conquers evil. Without their witness, the world would be poorer and drier, and it would be even harder to hope. Let us remember the prayer of Blessed Christian de Chergé (Prior of Tibhirine): “Lord, disarm me, disarm us, disarm them.

What has become of the monastery of Tibhirine?

Today, the monastery continues its mission thanks to the Chemin-Neuf Community. The brothers and sisters present at Tibhirine live a simple fraternity with the neighbours and inhabitants of the village, continuing together a life of daily prayer, welcoming the many visitors (the vast majority of whom are Algerian Muslims), working in the orchard and vegetable garden, and maintaining the buildings. It is a grace for our Order and for the dioceses of Algeria that they have accepted the challenge of continuing the life of the monks.