At a time when the vulnerability of Christians in Afghanistan is to the forefront of our minds, the book, The Certainty of being Loved, by Martin McGee OSB, has a particular pertinence. It is an account of the spiritual journey of Pierre Claverie OP, born in Bab el Oued, Algiers on 8 May 1938; assassinated by a fundamentalist Islamic group in Oran on 1 August 1996.
Along with eighteen other martyrs of Algeria, Pierre Claverie was beatified on 8 December 2018. More than 100 Muslim leaders, civil and religious, attended the ceremony and were thunderously applauded by the congregation. Their presence was a testimony and a tribute to a man who never abandoned his struggle for peace and reconciliation between Christians and Muslims, while remaining courageously faithful to his Christian principles.
In the final years of his life, Pierre still believed as strongly as ever in the need for dialogue and honest communication between two groups who many regard as being fundamentally and irreconcilably opposed.
Pierre recognised that there was indeed a great chasm between them, and this book explores that unflinchingly. Part 3 Understanding Islam gives a very enlightening account of the differences, and to a lesser extent the similarities, between the two religions. This is particularly helpful to any of us who may know little about Islam
There are many moments when the reader wonders if it is all really worth it in the face of setback after setback and truly terrible events perpetuated by Islamic terrorists.
The point of course is, that Pierre was convinced, and was prepared to forfeit his life for this belief.
Background to Vocation
Pierre’s journey began when he was born into a family who had lived for five generations in French Algiers. His entire youth was spent in what he later called ‘a colonial bubble’, a separate world where the other, Arab and Islam world was ignored. It was a story of segregation and discrimination which would eventually erupt into violence and the devastating and truly terrible War of Independence 1954-1962.
Pierre’s failure to notice his Arab neighbours came to haunt him and radically change his life. On 14 February 1965, Pierre in a letter to his family wrote: “The background to my vocation [Dominican] is the shock of the Algerian War with the ensuing turmoil it provoked in the Christian conscience. “
It was his 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. These included sheiks of the Muslim confraternity who had remained faithful to the more open and tolerant form of Islam which had been the norm in Algeria until the 1970s.
In the nineteenth century Colonialism was viewed as a civilising mission designed to bring the benefits of a Christian and Western world to the Muslim world. The negative side to all this was that Algerians saw the Christians as the colonisers, the French occupier, under whose rule they experienced poverty and inequality.
Unfortunately, in order to survive Colonialism dominates and creates conditions for dehumanisation which in turn leads to ideological justification for terrible deeds, carried out by some when the colonists are overthrown. A colonial past sows the seeds of suspicion and brings a desire on the part of the colonised to shake off the language and culture of its former rulers. In December 1971 Pierre writes that for the first time since independence all outward signs of Christmas have been abolished.
In returning to an independent Algeria Pierre was bearing a counter-witness of openness to difference and the value of diversity. Ultimately his vocation was a call to break down barriers. Even as it became increasingly more dangerous to remain, Pierre maintained that if you took flight, you denied the love of neighbour which is central to Christianity.
A Martyr for Love
Fr McGee makes Pierre known to the reader through his letters, his writings for radio and other outlets, the memories of his only sister Anne-Marie and the recollections of friends in the Dominican and Muslim communities, and outside.
He has given us a compelling picture of a modern martyr whose life was built on love, experienced in his family and through his knowledge and encounters with God in his spiritual life. Indeed, the nature of revelation was a recurrent theme in his writings. All this richness enabled him to initiate communion with others. He realised that for the Christian relationship is absolute; the words are “our Father”, not “My Father”.
The touching Epilogue is devoted to Mohamed Bouchiki, the young Muslim who was by Pierre’s side in the car which exploded just as they were crossing the threshold of the Bishop’s House. Mohamed who was only twenty-one, had been helping out over the summer while the regular caretaker was on holiday.
It is fitting that these two should have shed their blood together, friends to the last. They are an example of the fact that Christians and Muslims can overcome their differences and live together in mutual co-operation and respect. They were prevented from continuing to live thus by violent and savage extremists, whose actions Mohamed realised as representative of a brand of Islam, which was a horrible perversion of the Islam to which he throughout his short life had adhered.
In Pierre Claverie he saw a man who loved the Algerian people and who truly reflected the God of love. It was for Mohmmed and people like him that Pierre never deserted Algeria, and for whom he laid down his life as a ransom for peace and reconciliation between Christians and Muslims.
Martin McGee OSB is a writer and a Benedictine Monk based at Worth Abbey in Sussex. His book The Certainty of Being Loved is an account of the life of the Algerian Dominican, Blessed Pierre Claverie, Bishop of Oran, who was murdered by an extremist Islamic group in 1996. Pierre’s life was devoted to bringing about dialogue and understanding between Christians and Muslims, and it was a cause for which he paid the ultimate price. In a country haunted by a hated colonial past, he immersed himself in Islamic language and culture and made many friends, who saw in him a true reflection of the love of Jesus. Fr McGee has given us an absorbing and fascinating insight into the life of a modern-day martyr who never gave up, despite endless setbacks, threats and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It is an inspirational work which clarifies much about Islam, while at the same time challenging us as Christians to look more deeply at what it really means to live life loving our neighbour, whoever they might be.
By Marie – Therese Cryan
The Certainty of Being Loved is Published by Dominican Publications (www.dominicanpublications.com) and is available to buy through their website by clicking here or call on 01 8721611 (or 00353 1 8721611 from outside Ireland)
Book Review: The Certainty of Being Loved – Pierre Claverie OP : 1938-1996 By Martin McGee OSB
(Published and Available to Buy from by Dominican Publications)