Interview with the retired archbishop of Algiers, Henri Tessier from the February 3 issue of Le Progrès (Lyon). Translated by William Skudlarek.
Henri Teissier was born in Lyon in 1927 and was archbishop of Algiers until 2008. He now lives in Tlemcen, Algeria, but often returns to the Departments of Rhône and Ain, where he has relatives and many friends. This great man of the Church, who, despite the danger involved, visited the monks of Tibhirine every week, granted us an interview by phone. Eleven years ago he initiated the process of beatification for the 19 martyrs of Algeria. He now wishes to explain the meaning of the Vatican’s decision to recognize these Christians as “blessed.”
How did you feel when you heard on Saturday [January 27, 2018] the news of the beatification of 19 Christians in Algeria, including the seven monks of Tibhirine, killed during the “black decade” (the 1990s)?
“I heard the news from the Bishops of Algeria and various friends who sent me emails minutes after the decision was announced. That shows how much their heritage of brotherhood unites us. We knew that the Vatican decision was imminent—but to answer your question, how I felt when I heard the news is of little importance. My main concern is that we make every effort to insure that this beatification is well understood. It is not a question of shining a spotlight on the Christian victims of this violence, but of placing them in communion with all the Algerians who suffered from it [Editors note: The civil war caused at least 200,000 deaths in Algeria during the 1990s]. Our martyred brothers and sisters were and must remain a sign of fidelity. Their beatification must not be used to suggest that they were somehow opposed to the Algerian people! Quite the contrary. They remained in Algeria because of their solidarity with the Algerians. In a way, we can say that these “blessed” were attacked in their neighborhoods or their villages precisely because they were close to those with whom they worked, without engaging in any proselytism.”
In 2007, you, as archbishop of Algiers, officially opened this process of beatification. Why did you think it was necessary to begin this procedure?
“We made this decision in May 2000 in Rome. Pope John Paul II had invited us to celebrate the martyrs of the twentieth century at the Colosseum. In his speech, he spoke the names of Christian de Chergé and his brothers at the monastery of Tibhirine [Editor’s note: the seven monks who were kidnapped and killed in the spring of 1996]. We felt a certain “responsibility” for this message, not simply with regard to the Church of Algeria, but also with regard to the universal Church. Representatives of the religious congregations and of the families of the monks were present with us that day, and we began a long consultation with them before officially starting the process in 2007.” Some Catholics would have preferred that the 19 not be made “martyrs of the faith,” but rather “martyrs of charity,” insisting that this would have been much more in line with the kind of life they lived. “In fact, that’s what we were hoping for as well, because, as I already mentioned, it was their loyalty to the Algerians that brought about their death. In fact, it is possible to recognize someone as a “martyr of charity.” Maximilian Kolbe is a case in point ([Editor’s note: The Polish Franciscan friar who offered to die at Auschwitz in place of a prisoner who was the father of a family].”
So why not them?
“That was not possible when we presented the dossier to the Vatican. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints has not yet fully integrated this way of classifying martyrs. We can hope that the beatification of the 19 will advance the cause! (1).”
Pierre Laurent, the nephew of Brother Luc, told us, “The idea of being recognized as ‘blessed’ would probably have seemed absurd to Brother Luc; he would have just shrugged his shoulders.” Nonetheless, Pierre said he was happy because this beatification “will offer us the example of those who followed the Gospel with fidelity, practicing love and respect for the other with constancy and discretion, in spite of the violence that surrounded them.” Is not it paradoxical to beatify women and men who were at opposite poles from any kind of heroism?
“Yes, it may seem paradoxical at first glance. But we need to understand the profound meaning of their beatification. All of them lived humbly and discretely, cultivating ordinary and respectful relationships with their neighbors. There is no question of making them “heroes.” Rather, the intent is to highlight their daily work with their Algerian friends [Editor’s note: for example, the garden of the monastery of Tibhirine, whose fruits were shared]. Their beatification is not meant to give Catholics something to brag about, but rather to provide them with an example of how to put into practice the simplicity of life and respect for others to which the Gospel calls them.”
You visited them right up until the last weeks. Could you give a example of how the monks of Tibhirine remained faithful, in spite of the imminent danger?
“A good example would be the Ribat el-Salam (the bond of peace). In March 1996, after a hiatus of three years, the monks decided to resume holding this spiritual meeting of Christians and Sufi Muslims at the monastery. It was during the night before this meeting was to take place [Editor’s note: the night of March 26 to 26, 1996] that the seven monks were abducted. Their search for spiritual solidarity with Muslims and their desire to deepen this relationship always prevailed over the fear of danger.”
The Algerians, too, have always been faithful to them. I am sure you could cite many examples of their solidarity with you.
“There wasn’t a day when our Algerian friends didn’t tell us, ‘Be careful!’ or ‘Your presence is important to us.’ This deep friendship is something we constantly experience here. Over this past week, several people have come up to me at a restaurant or at a meeting to tell me, ‘We thank you again for your loyalty during those difficult years.’ One of them, a fifteen-year-old, thanked me for the solidarity of our Church. He said, ‘It allowed me to be reconciled with my country, Algeria.’ His testimony is all the stronger because this young man did not live through “black decade”.
The 19 are now “blessed”, which allows Catholics to ask for their intercession in their prayers. Do you think it would be desirable to launch a canonization procedure that would make them “saints”?
“We do not ask ourselves that kind of question at all. At this moment, our concern is to do our best to prepare the beatification ceremony (2), and to make sure that the meaning of it is well understood by our Algerian friends. “
(1) According to our sources, a miracle was also needed if the 19 from Algeria were to be recognized as “martyrs of charity,” and that would have required much more time. The dossier presented by the postulator, Fr. Thomas Georgeon OCSO, was prepared on the basis of a request in recognition of “martyrs of the faith.”
(2) It is likely that the beatification ceremony will take place in Oran, Algeria. It was in this city that Pierre Claverie, bishop of the diocese, was killed in 1996. His driver, Mohamed Bouchikhi, was murdered with him. The date of the ceremony has not yet been set, but it could take place in the next few months