Martyrs in Algeria

George Weigel

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: Archbishop: In this time of need, join me for a Rosary Crusade

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

When God chose to enter the world to save us, he chose Mary, whose deep faith provided the way for Jesus to come among us. She believed in the words of the angel, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk 1: 37). As she expressed her deep confidence in the promises of God, the Word became flesh. In our current time of crisis, our Church, world and our country need faith in God and the protection and intercession of Mary. And so, beginning on August 15, I am launching a Rosary Crusade to ask Mary to urgently bring our needs to Jesus.

The last several months of the coronavirus epidemic, the civil unrest that has broken out in different parts of the archdiocese and our nation, and the challenges the Church is facing have made the need for Mary’s intercession abundantly clear. Mary is our Mother and desires only our good like the Father.

In her appearance to Juan Diego, Our Lady reminded him and reminds us today, “Listen and let it penetrate your heart…do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain.  Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?”

Saint Padre Pio, who was known for his devotion to the Rosary offers us this advice: “In times of darkness, holding the Rosary is like holding our Blessed Mother’s hand.”

We turn to Mary in our difficulty because she is our spiritual mother, who with her “yes” to the Lord embraced the mysterious ways of God’s almighty power. She is “the supreme model of this faith, for she believed that ‘nothing will be impossible with God,’ and was able to magnify the Lord: ‘For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #273).

We know, too, from history that Mary has answered prayers brought to her through the Rosary and that she has personally asked people to pray it for the most serious needs, especially for the conversion of souls.

Pope Pius V famously asked all Christians to pray the Rosary in 1571 to prevent Christianity from being overrun by the invading Ottoman Turks, and the Christian naval forces were subsequently victorious in the Battle of Lepanto. In the apparitions at Fatima, Mary identified herself as “The Lady of the Rosary” and asked the shepherd children to whom she appeared to pray a daily Rosary for world peace and the end of World War I.

During his pontificate, Saint John Paul II spoke of the Rosary as his favorite prayer. In his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, he added, “The Rosary has accompanied me in moments of joy and in moments of difficulty. To it I have entrusted any number of concerns; in it I have always found comfort” (RVM, 2).

This past May, Pope Francis encouraged praying the Rosary, saying, “Dear brothers and sisters, contemplating the face of Christ with the heart of Mary our Mother will make us even more united as a spiritual family and will help us overcome this time of trial.”

During this time of trial, we need to hear the words of Jesus spoken often in the Gospel, words spoken to Mary by the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, “Be not afraid.” We need to pray especially for a deeper trust and hear the words of Elizabeth spoken to Mary in our own hearts. “…blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk 1:45). The Lord is with us in this time as he has promised! Praying the rosary helps us, with the aid of our Mother, to relive in our own lives the mysteries of Christ’s life.

I personally invite all Catholics in the Archdiocese of Denver to pray the Rosary every day between the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, August 15, through the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, September 15. I would be remiss if I did not thank Bishop Carl Kemme of Wichita for inspiring this Rosary Crusade by launching one in his diocese at the beginning of August.

As we unite in asking Mary for her intercession and protection, please pray for the following intentions:

* For a growth in faith, hope and charity in the heart and soul of every human being, and most especially in our own that we may seek only the will of the Father

* For a recognition of the dignity of life from the moment of conception until natural death and that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God

* A quick end to the coronavirus pandemic

* For all who are suffering from COVID-19, for their caregivers, and for those who have died from the virus

* In reparation for the sins of abortion, euthanasia, and racism

* In reparation for the sins and failings of our spiritual leaders and for our personal sins

* For healing and justice for all those who have been discriminated against because of their race

* For the conversion of the world and the salvation of souls

* For all those who are persecuted throughout the world for the Faith

* For the conversion of those who carry out acts of desecration against our churches, statues and religious symbols

* In reparation for these acts of desecration, especially against Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament

* For our civic leaders and those who keep us safe to experience a deeper conversion, to govern justly, and to seek the common good

* That we may learn how to love and forgive from the example of Jesus

* For all marriages and families, neighborhoods, churches and cities to be strengthened

* For an increase in vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and religious life

Thank you for joining me in this prayer on behalf of our world, country and our Church. I am confident that many of the faithful will respond in turning to the Blessed Mother who “shine[s] on our journey as a sign of salvation and hope” (Pope Francis’ Letter to the Faithful for the Month of May 2020). May you always know the protection of Mary as she leads you to her Son!