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Pierre Claverie – witness to the gospel in a violent world

Sunday, July 08, 2018
Pierre Claverie – witness to the gospel in a violent world

Fr Jean Jacques Pérennès OP, Director of the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, reflects on the life and significance of Bishop Pierre Claverie, who is soon to be beatified.

Pope Francis has publicly given the go-ahead for the beatification of our Dominican brother, Pierre Claverie, Bishop of Oran, who was assassinated in Algeria on August 1st 1996. He will be beatified with eighteen other martyrs, among them the seven monks from Tibhirine, whose violent deaths shocked many across the world. This beatification is richly significant for several reasons.

First, this was a brother whom many of us knew. Some of us were privileged to live with him. It is not so often that you see a contemporary declared to be 'beatus', a man 'with whom we ate and drank', as the Lord's disciples put it, and whose life has a very contemporary relevance for us. He was first and foremost our brother, even if he was called to make the supreme act of witness in giving up his life.

He is equally close to us as someone who himself had to undergo a journey of conversion. Born in 1938 in French Algeria, where his family had lived for five generations, his entire youth was spent in what he later called a ‘colonial bubble’, a separate world where the other, Arab and Islamic world was ignored: 'We weren't racists, just indifferent, ignor­ing the great majority of the coun­try's inhabitants. They were part of the countryside we saw on outings, the background scenery to our meetings and to our lives. They were never fellow players.' One day that closed world erupted in crisis. Pierre opened his eyes to the reality of the situation. The crisis brought him to religious life and the Dominicans.

It was Pierre’s desire to meet and engage with the Islamic world that led to his adult life also being spent in Algeria, where his first move was to learn Arabic really well and to build up around him a strong network of Algerian friends. On the day he was made a bishop, he said of them: 'In learning Arabic with you, I learnt above all to speak and understand the language of the heart, the language of fraternal friendship in which the different races and religions can talk to one another. Here, too, I am so foolish as to believe this friendship will stand the test of time, distance, and separation. For I believe that this friendship comes from God and leads us to God.' One of the challenges facing the Algerian Church in a postcolonial context is to articulate what it means for it to be present in this Islamic setting. The Church isn’t there to convert a few Muslims - it is a cultural impossibility. Nor does the tiny number of Christians justify the dioceses and other ecclesiastical structures which seem out of all proportion to what’s needed. The meaning of its presence must be found elsewhere. Pierre Claverie’s solid theological formation allowed him to be one of the few theologians who seek to articulate what it means 'to be a Church for a Muslim population', as his friend and companion, Mgr Henri Teissier, the future archbishop of Algiers, has written: a presence where the Gospel is manifested by those whose lives give witness to it.

Very early on, from his initial formation as a friar onwards, Pierre Claverie was also notable for his real maturity as a human being and for the depth of his spiritual life. That would enable him to stand in solidarity alongside those committed members of the Church, be they lay men and women or consecrated religious, who have to live out their vocation in what is a quite special context. He would lead many lively sessions on formation, preach many retreats for religious sisters, who had to survive one deprivation after another. Serving others may be pleasant enough when we are in control of our 'good deeds'. It’s a lot more demanding when that control is taken away from us, as happened in socialist Algeria under a somewhat volatile nationalist regime. Many of these retreat talks have since been published (Je ne savais pas mon nom. Mémoires d’un religieux anonyme (Cerf, 2006). They are well worth re-reading, especially where they touch on religious life.

After being named a bishop in 1981, Pierre Claverie developed a somewhat original approach to Christian-Islamic dialogue. As is well known, this had experienced a rather euphoric phase after Vatican II, which seemed to open up new avenues for engagement with non-Christian religions. Pierre was never a great fan of 'formal dialogue', of these big meetings which were limited to fulsome declarations of intent but which kept silent about the mundane difficulties. Rather, he loved to underline that there was no true encounter unless the otherness of the other, its difference, was fully acknowledged. Nor could there be a fruitful dialogue if the weight of past history and old injuries had not been taken into account. ‘As long as we have not measured the length, width, height, depth, the whole extent of the gulf that separates us, we are not yet ready to recognise each other, get to know each other, love one another.’ He preferred a genuine dialogue based on friendship, the shared attempts to deal with the common challenges thrown up all too often in post-colonial Algeria where there was so much to do in the areas of education, the advancement of women, and concern for the very young.

When the violence of Islamic extremism hit Algeria at the start of the 1990s, Pierre was one of the really solid supports for the Christian community and for Muslim Algerian friends who themselves also rejected religious fanaticism. A few months before his death, when many were recommending caution, he stressed instead that the Church’s place was to be present 'on the fault lines which crucify humanity, its flesh and blood, and its unity.' 'This is properly our place', he added, 'because only here can the light of the resurrection be glimpsed and with it the hope for our world's renewal.'

Following on from the Trappist monks and eleven other religious men and women, Pierre was assassinated on August 1st 1996 alongside a young Muslim friend, Mohamed Bouchikhi, who had chosen to stay close to him, despite the risks. This witness speaks powerfully to our own time, so troubled by the intercultural and interreligious challenges.

Fr Jean Jacques Pérennès OP lived for many years in the Islamic world, where he often met Bishop Claverie. He has devoted a biography to his memory: A Life Poured out: Bishop Claverie of Algeria (Orbis books, New York, 2007). After fifteen years in Egypt at the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies (IDEO), he is now Director of the French Biblical and Archaeological School in Jerusalem.


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