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Actual experience of our Brothers

09/05/2009: Algeria

Two Brothers from the General Council in Rome (Brs. Peter Rodney and Emili Turu) visited our two communities in Oran and Mostaghanem. Their report echoes the actual experience of our Brothers at present, but between their lines, I have rediscovered the course extolled here 20 years ago by the late Henri Vergès. Even alone at Sour-el-Ghoslane- he felt himself the representative, better still, the envoy of the Marists of France; he declared that he had not departed for Algeria of his own will, but that it was the will of the Superiors which had sent him and kept him there. He was on Marist Mission among these people and their youth.
Prophet of the new times, he considered Algeria as a frontier between the North (economically developed) and the South (developing), between the West (Christian) and the Middle East (Moslem), between the western and the Arab-Moslem cultures; between modernity and tradition.
How to act faced with these conditions, these constraints, these obstacles? Where was the place of a Little Brother of Mary? To act zealously? To proselytize? Certainly not… To catechize? To baptize? not these things either. So what was the good of being there? His response: «To live in the manner of Mary, humble, hidden so as to reveal to those who are looking for It the presence of the Totally-Other. As the Little Brothers and Sisters of Charles de Foucauld are doing so well already. To be near, neighbours – not above but beside – but at the service humbly of those who receive us, respecting them, serving them right up to the moment when they ask the question :But why are they doing this for us? What is it that guides them, drives them, or rather Who drives them to give their life thus for the Algerian people? The response was strongly felt when the Church decided to stay in place when the country was passing through a grave crisis, the civil war of 1992 to 2004. Why stay, to give your lives if this people is not your own? Many Algerians have taken the message to heart. The lives given by Brother Henri Vergès, Sister Paul-Hélène and the 17 other Christian martyrs are and will remain a powerful witness of dedication and fidelity, of service to this people loved even to the supreme sacrifice. The Church of Algeria finds in them its letters of nobility: whence the respect owed to them and which is shown to them by the vast majority.

We reread the report of the visit of the two Councillors and we rediscover there, if not the actual words of Henri Vergès, his life made present again by those who continue his work in the same Christian and Marist spirit of humble and disinterested service in the name of Jesus Christ.

oOo

We must tell you that we left Algeria convinced not only of the fact that there is a place for the Marist mission in that country, but also that that place is of very great topicality, given the circumstances in which it is developing. Through your presence in Algeria, the Institute is situated at a frontier place. A geographical frontier between sub-Saharan Africa and Europe, but also a frontier between different races, cultures and religions. In pondering the reality which is yours, the image proposed by Jon Sobrino with regard to the displacement of religious life seems to us very appropriate: displacement to the desert, to the periphery and to the frontier. To the desert: from what is superficial to what is deeper; to the periphery: from the centres of power to the places of powerlessness; to the frontier: from the security of the known to the vulnerability of the storm-tossed. You recognize yourselves in these images, don’t you ?

Your community projects reveal your manner of understanding the « missionary identity of the community »: a discrete ecclesial presence, open, hospitable, offering friendship and dialogue. It seems to us that in your two communities, which daily confront the internal challenges of differences of culture, formation, age, etc., one can perceive the care of each to surmount these differences, thanks to the effort to understand the other and to accept him unconditionally. As for us, we are also convinced that community by itself is a silent witness of evangelical life. Your option for a simple life style, with a balanced rhythm of life allowing space for prayer, reading, fraternal sharing… this seems to us an eloquent sign of brotherhood. As for apostolic work, taking into account the possibilities of the milieu, it seems to us very reasonable. What was barely a project at the time of the last General Council visit is in process of becoming a fine reality. In line with the mission of the Institute, it is evident that the two communities are in contact with young people: whether indirectly in the foreign language courses, or through the libraries or chaplaincy work among young Christians of the sub-Sahara.
The care for these latter appears to us to be a wonderful service to the Church. A young girl told us that the house of the brothers was the only place where she felt really comfortable and at home. Your friendly welcome and your pastoral care will leave a mark, without a doubt, on these young people, at such an important time in their lives. The service offered through the libraries, the study rooms, and the computer, you consider as what it really is, a disinterested service in a country lacking in resources. We could say as much of the classes in foreign languages, which provide the possibility of informal contact, even a contact of friendship and trust. All these possibilities are also lived as platforms of encounter, where prejudices are destroyed and where all come away enriched: they and you.
The man who was bishop of your diocese, Mgr Claverie, understood this as well: «We know, because we experience it each day, that personal relations are established and that friendships exist which have defied and still defy all the rascist provocations and political and religious anathemas. At this level, coexistence is possible and real because people have been able to come out of their ghettos and out of their ‘bubbles’ and they have encountered other people.» The accompaniment of children who suffer from psychological handicaps is also directly connected with our mission, from the fact that these boys and girls are among the most vulnerable and least protected.
In the traces of the path left by Br.Henri Vergès and in line with the recommendation of Pope John-Paul II in «Vita consecrata», you wish to promote « the opening of major dialogues », among them, inter-religious dialogue. You underline the importance of the dialogue of life as an essential preliminary step: to create bonds of friendship with the Moslems, to share with them times of joy and suffering, to live together while accepting the differences… The way already begun with the Moslems of «Zaouia Alaouïa» shows us that it is possible to pray together and that starting with mysticism one can arrive at establishing bonds of profound communion much more easily than starting with theology.
After all, it seems to us that you have to regard the circumstances which are yours not as irritating disturbances which you would not find in your home country, but as a permanent opportunity for going to the essentials of the Marist mission: to evangelize starting with oneself. Frequently, this is something which seems to us to proceed by itself in our Christian context, but which remains forgotten or obscured because of an activism taken as normal. Your presence reminds us that it is not necessary to « preach » to evangelize, and that a continuing discernment is necessary in order to remain faithful to the calls of the Gospel.
During our meeting with the present Bishop of Oran, Mgr Alphonse Georger, one aspect appeared to us very clear: the value attached by the diocese to the Marist presence because of the vitality it contributes, as well as the help offered, whether it is in the diocesan organizations or in accepting concrete reponsibilities such as the archives. It is wonderful to find proof of the spirit of communion, of collaboration and of solidarity among the various religious families and with the local Church, all in an excellent spirit, very simple and fraternal.


The Marists are firmly in their place in Algeria and bravo to the present actors; we hope that others will follow and bring relief so that the kingdom of the Saviour and his Mother advances.
Venerated Brother Henri Vergès, our pioneer and model, continue to intercede for us and for all Algeria in pursuit of peace, solidarity, brotherhood and the discovery of the Other.
«God is great»
Written at Mulhouse, for 8 May 2009, Brother Michel Voute, fms.

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