The Church has always been persecuted; we know this. It is constantly persecuted all around the world. Yet in recent months, the waves of this persecution have been lapping ever closer to our western world for the first time in hundreds of years. In the West, we are not used to the concept of martyrdom in our own immediate society. It is frightening.
With the martyrdom of Fr Jacques Hamel, it is beginning to feel ever more real. We are beginning to experience something of the reality that many other countries are all too sadly familiar with. The media has begun to ask our Catholic Churches how we intend to make our churches more secure and safer. What will we do to ensure that no stranger can walk in and commit violence on our congregations?
The short, simple solution would be to retreat with our fear behind the safety of barricades both mental and physical. But we know that is not what the Christian is called to do. With these thoughts in mind, I remembered again the Testament of Fr Christian de Chergé, a monk and the superior of the Atlas Martyrs who were kidnapped and killed during the Algerian Civil War in 1996. Their deaths were claimed by an Islamic fundamentalist group. (The film Of Gods and Men, tells the story).
Knowing for many months that their martyrdoms could be very probable, Fr Christian wrote a final testament to be read should he die. It is this testament that we would like to share with you today. I think it is important at this time to revisit what he is saying in it because there are many deep things to be taken from it and many things apply to our situation now. It is a reminder that we are all, in different ways, called to martyrdom, whether that be the day to day persecution of our faith, or for some, the literal laying down of our own lives. Despite the fear and turmoil he must have been living in and could have been tempted to succumb to, Christian de Cherge wrote with love and beauty that goes beyond the fear of death. His words are a reminder that we should pray for the moment of our own deaths, whatever circumstances it might happen under. Finally, despite the fear we may feel over the world today, we should always remember to have reconciliation in our hearts. This can mean something as simple as praying for our own deeper conversion, praying for our enemies and praying for the conversion of others.
When you read this Testament, whether you’ve read it before or you are reading it for the first time, we invite you to ask yourself what God is saying to you directly through it.
If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. I ask them to accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering? I ask them to be able to associate such a death with the many other deaths that were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and anonymity.
My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a clear space which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of all my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.
I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if this people I love were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder. It would be to pay too dearly for what will, perhaps, be called “the grace of martyrdom,” to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be, especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam. I know the scorn with which Algerians as a whole can be regarded. I know also the caricature of Islam which a certain kind of Islamism encourages. It is too easy to give oneself a good conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of the extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam are something different; they are a body and a soul. I have proclaimed this often enough, I believe, in the sure knowledge of what I have received in Algeria, in the respect of believing Muslims—finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel I learned at my mother’s knee, my very first Church.
My death, clearly, will appear to justify those who hastily judged me naive or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he thinks of it!” But these people must realize that my most avid curiosity will then be satisfied. This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills—immerse my gaze in that of the Father, to contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of his Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, delighting in the differences.
For this life given up, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have wished it entirely for the sake of that joy in everything and in spite of everything. In this “thank you,” which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you my friends of this place, along with my mother and father, my brothers and sisters and their families—the hundredfold granted as was promised!
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.
And may we find each other, happy “good thieves,” in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen.
Translated by the Monks of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey, Leicester, England.
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