Martyrs in Algeria

On March 27, 1996, Muslim extremists kidnapped seven Trappist monks from their monastery in the Atlas Mountains near Algiers. After two months, the Groupe Islamique Arme (GIA) announced that the monks’ throats had been cut. The bodies were never recovered; the severed heads were buried at the monastery in Tibhirine. There they await the restoration of the monastery, in a calmer time.

The martyr-monks of Tibhirine came to world attention when the last testament of their prior, Father Christian de Cherge, was released by his family in France. Father Christian closed his letter by addressing the murderer he expected would kill him one day: “And you also, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing. Yes, for you also I wish this ‘thank you’ — and this adieu — to commend you to the God whose face I see in yours…may we find each other, happy ‘good thieves,’ in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen.” I remember writing at the time that this last testament would make a fine second lesson in the Office of Readings for the feast of Father Christian de Cherge and Companions, Martyrs.

John Kiser, a former international technology broker with an interest in world religions, found the story of Father Christian, his fellow Trappists, and their Algerian Muslim friends and enemies irresistible. His search for the truth about this drama, a powerful metaphor for our times, is now available in The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria (St. Martin’s Press). It’s a fine read which does justice to the martyrs without turning them into plastic saints.

Kiser’s evocation of the friendships that grew between the monks and their Muslim neighbors is particularly poignant. One of the Tibhirine Trappists was a physician, and the local villagers came to depend on him for basic health care. Other Muslims did odd jobs around the monastery, which maintained a classically Trappist, no-frills rhythm of prayer and work. It was a way of life that fit well with the poverty of the people with whom the monks lived.

The Trappists did not proselytize. Rather, they hoped that, by living Christian charity with integrity, they would demonstrate that their faith was no threat to the dominant Islamic culture of Algeria. Genuine religious freedom in the Islamic world may be an impossibility, given current Muslim self-understandings and resentments. But perhaps tolerance is a possibility. That, at any rate, is what the monks of Tibhirine tried to embody by being themselves — consecrated Catholic religious — while living respectfully among Muslim neighbors.

Kiser also does a good job of describing the kind of extremists who murdered the monks — unemployed, ill-educated young men, full of unfocused angers, easy prey for the Islamist rabble-rousing of politically ambitious (and similarly ill-educated) clerics. One wonders just how many hundreds of thousands of such young men exist throughout the Arab Islamic world. At the same time, Kiser argues that the murder of the monks, which was condemned by many Islamic leaders and seems to have been deeply resented by a majority of pious Algerians, was a turning point in that strife-torn country. I hope he’s right, but I tend to doubt it; forty people were killed in one recent month by a still-active GIA.

If there is one disconcerting thing about this otherwise ennobling book, it’s John Kiser’s suggestion that the Trappists and those Muslims who became their friends learned to appreciate each other on the common ground of a general religiosity, mediated through charity and fellow-feeling. It seems very unlikely. Christian de Cherge seems to have been a theologically adventurous soul. At the same time, his “testament” is thoroughly and unmistakably Christian. A man who wrote the way Father Christian did about his possible assassin was not a man affirming generic pieties; he was a man with thick, deep roots in a particular tradition, Christianity, and specifically Catholic monastic Christianity. The Muslims who became the monks’ friends were similarly rooted in a specific, thick religious tradition.

All of which reminds us that genuine interreligious dialogue means taking differences seriously, not looking for some mythical “neutral” position at which differences disappear.

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”