Throughout the dramatic events in Algeria, I have often been asked, “What are you doing there? Why do you stay? Shake off the dust from your sandals! Come back home!” Home… Where are we at home? … We are there for the sake of the crucified Messiah. We’re not there for any other reason, or for any other person! We have no interests to protect, no influence to maintain. We are not driven by any sort of masochistic perversion. We have no power, but are there as at the bedside of a friend, of a sick brother, silently holding his hand and wiping his brow. We are there for the sake of Jesus, because he is the one suffering there amid violence that spares no one, crucified again and again in the flesh of thousands of innocents. Like his mother Mary and Saint John, we are there at the foot of the cross where Jesus died abandoned by his followers and strangely mocked by the crowd. Isn’t it essential for Christians to be present in desolate and abandoned places? …
What would be the place of the church of Jesus Christ, which is the Body of Christ, if it were not above all present there? I believe that the church dies in not being close enough to the cross of its Lord. As paradoxical as it might seem, Saint Paul clearly demonstrates that the power, vitality, Christian hope, and fecundity of the church come from this. Not from anywhere else, nor in any other way. The church deceives itself and the world when it positions itself as a power among all the rest, as a humanitarian organization, or as a flashy evangelical movement. In this condition it can glitter on the outside – but it cannot burn with the fire of God’s love, which is “as strong as death,” as the Song of Songs puts it. It is truly a question of love, of love above all and of love alone. It is a passion for which Jesus has given us a longing, and to which he has marked out the way. “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Bishop Pierre Claverie of Algeria, quoted in Jean-Jacques Pérennès, A Life Poured Out: Pierre Claverie of Algeria, trans. Phyllis Jestice and Matthew Sherry (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2007) 243-244.
In case anyone wondered about the paucity of my posting recently, I have been trying to meet a deadline for a book review of this book. By strange coincidence I came to writing it in the same week that I had been preparing a class on another great North African bishop, Saint Cyprian of Carthage, and in which I attended the congress on him which I mentioned before (and on which I’ll post again if I can manage to write something that doesn’t turn into a rant). Sunday was the 1750th anniversary of Cyprian’s death, and today happens to be his feast.
Anyway, given this coincidence, I could not help but notice the commonalities between him and Pierre Claverie, the Dominican bishop of Oran, who was killed in 1996 in the violence that engulfed Algeria. They were both secure figures and natural leaders. They were both intellectuals whose primary concern was the pastoral care of their Church communities in difficult and dangerous circumstances and whose theology was rooted in the concrete events of life. They were both faithful witnesses to the Cross of Christ, and this witness would result in their own martyrdoms. Despite the more than 1700 years separating Pierre Claverie from Cyprian, and the different historical circumstances, this book left me with the impression of having encountered one of the great pastoral theologians of the early Church.
If anyone is interested in more on Pierre Claverie, the author of this very good book has an article here.