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Martyrs are not a thing of the past

The book world is a merciless place where special books fight a losing battle with raw commerce. Amid the bestsellers being huckstered and hyped at your local megastore, you are not likely to find How Far to Follow: The Martyrs of Atlas, by Bernardo Olivera (St. Bede’s Publications, PO Box 545, Petersham, MA 01366-0545).

It’s a modest book, shreds and patches of letters written by Olivera, abbot general of the Trappists, to members of the order. It’s a sad book that cries out what is best and worst about us. It’s the story of the murder of seven Trappist priests and brothers in Algeria in 1996.

Their capture by the Armed Islamic Group, GIA, made headlines around the world. I remember wanting to write something about it in these pages -- another glib call to the world’s conscience -- but the moment passed. The reports said they were seven Frenchmen but that was just a statistic. Now, on the page before me, I see their snapshots, and they become a little more human. Olivera brings them further to life.

Fr. Christian de Chergé. Three weeks before being kidnapped, he preached: “Thou shalt not kill: not kill yourself, not kill time (which belongs to God), not kill trust, not kill death itself (by trivializing it), not kill the country, the other person or the church.”

Br. Luke Dochier. He gave over half a century of his one and only life to Algeria. At 80 he told his brothers: “When I am dying, if it is not a violent death, I would ask that you read me the parable of the prodigal son and say the Jesus Prayer. Then give me a glass of champagne, if there is any, so that I can say goodbye to this world.”

Fr. Christopher Lebreton. He played the guitar, was “always on the side of the poor and outcast.”

Br. Michael Fleury. A quiet man, death came on his 52nd birthday.

Fr. Bruno Lemarchand. At his monastic profession he scarcely sounded like the right stuff for the rugged road ahead: “Here I am before you, my God ... rich in misery and poverty, full of unspeakable cowardice.”

Fr. Celestine Ringeard. He was the community’s organist and cantor.

Br. Paul Favre Miville. He had written: “How far can you go to save yourself without running the risk of losing true life?” In the end he went out of his way not to save himself: Despite the danger, he returned from a trip to France only a few hours before the kidnapping.

The Trappists had founded the abbey of Atlas in 1934. They were well acquainted with Algeria’s troubled history. On the other hand was their vow of stability. “It binds us until death to our community,” writes Olivera. In the early 1990s, as the struggle intensified between the army-dominated state and Islamic fundamentalists, some daunting choices had to be made.

The Islamic extremists, thwarted at the ballot box, began a chain of killings that included many missionaries. This created an urgent demand for “discernment” by the Trappists and others, most immediate being the choice to stay or go. Most opted to stay. They began to be visited by the terrorists, just threats at first. Then the killings multiplied. Fr. Christian wrote that they were “completely aware that from now on their presence must logically include the possibility of a violent death.”

Impending martyrdom spread across the troubled countryside. When two nuns were killed, the secretary of the Congregation for Religious attended the funeral. Writes Christian: “He confirmed us in our present situation in relation to the history of the church, God’s plan in our lives and our religious vocation, all of which include the possibility of martyrdom. He pointed out how we need to be available for that particular form of personal fidelity.” Then he hightailed it back to Rome.

Individually as well as communally they looked death in the face, fought to come to terms with it. Christian left the most ample testimony, for example: “I should like, when the time comes ... to forgive with all my heart the one who will strike me down.” Elsewhere he contemplates his assassin as his “last-minute friend.” Christian’s photo shows him a mild, unimposing man. The others look equally ordinary.

Yet their lives and deaths, late in this cynical century, are wonders of the world. There are few of us, probably none of us, who have not wondered how we would measure up should similar circumstances arise. Could we muster the huge courage necessary? To get killed without choice is one thing; whether to go meet it or run away from it is the ultimate unenviable option, and if we are honest we probably fret that we might not rise to the occasion.

There is an urge to sacrifice built into nature. Some birds and animals give their lives for their young or other causes. Humans have given their lives for a multitude of reasons, most often religious, call it love of God, fear of hell or whatever.

When we of the human race stumble, as we seem to do all the time, this ounce of nobility on the part of some of us must redeem the rest of us, keep the race’s psychological and spiritual entropy at bay.

What would you die for? Surely the question aims at the very heart of who we are.

The seven Trappists were kidnapped March 27, 1996. The world, including me, did not cry out in protest. They were beheaded May 21, 1996.

Two years before, Br. Michael had written: “The word martyr is so ambiguous in our context. ... If something happens to us, although I do not wish it to, we want to live it here in solidarity with all the Algerians, men and women, who have already paid with their lives, and in union with all unknown innocent victims.”

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, October 17, 1997