At the end of January Pope Francis issued a decree which recognizes the martyrdom of 19 priests, monks and nuns who were killed in Algeria between 1994 and 1996, in the midst of the bloody civil war that ravaged the country until 2002.
Among the fallen were the bishop of Oran, the Dominican Pierre-Lucien Claverie, and seven Trappist Monks from Tibhirine. The monks from Notre Dame de l'Atlas, who are now on the path to beatification by the Church, were taken from their monastery in what are still unclear circumstances. Their bodies were discovered two months later.
In 2010 a film about the monks, Of Gods and Men, won critical and popular acclaim. The following review, written at the time by Henri Teissier for the Oasis Centre, reminds us of a magnificent film about heroic fidelity.
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As is well known, Of Gods and Men, the film about the seven Tibhirine monks, the victims of armed groups in 1996 at the time of the Algerian crisis of the years between 1990 and 2000, won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. It also earned the prize of the [French] Ministry of Education and the Ecumenical Jury. But above all it is winning favour with the public, which for many weeks has acclaimed its extraordinary success. Many people are asking themselves about the reasons for this success at a time when French society does not give much space to religious issues. And it is to this question that I intend to give some answers.
First of all, it must be stressed that this film, produced by professionals like Xavier Beauvois, director, and Étienne Comar, scriptwriter, is a quality product at the level of cinematographic technique: shots, narrative rhythm, good acting, beauty of landscapes … It was not commissioned by a church institution. The decision to make it was taken by professionals who considered that the dramatic story of the life and death of the monks could be presented to the public at large, and they have won their bet. It is a work of cinematography and not an instrument of propaganda or proselytism.
But apart from the technical quality, where does the public enthusiasm come from? Let us first of all remember that the kidnapping and then the death of the seven monks were followed by French public opinion with great concern in 1996. This interest turned into admiration when the spiritual will of father Christian, the prior of the monastery, was published. It is a message that represents one of the fundamental texts of the twenty-first century. It moved John Paul II to such an extent that the Pontiff expressed the desire for Christian de Chergé’s face to be on the fresco of the new martyrs painted in his chapel in the Vatican.
With the cinema production that message has taken on a particularly strong meaning, in juxtaposition with the entire community facing a terrible decision: can the monks stay where they are, while the armed groups in the neighbourhood are on the rampage, increasing their murderous attacks, like the one in which twelve Croatian workers were killed on 14 December 1993 on their building site just three kilometres from the monastery as the crow flies? The answer to that question is at the centre of the tragedy evoked in the film. In the end the monks decide together to stay and face the danger so as not to fall short in their solidarity with their Muslim neighbours, among whom the community had carried on its monastic life for sixty years.
This decision thus becomes a strong sign of the links that a Christian community can establish with the Muslim peasants living in the village nearby. To the dramatic intensity of the decision to be taken collectively is added the very topical question of the possibility of authentic relations between Christians and Muslims.
Besides the truthful representation of life in a Cistercian monastery against the magnificent landscape of the Moroccan Atlas mountains, what is presented is a problem of conscience that makes sense to any man, whoever he may be.
Can one be faithful to one’s vocation to the point of dying for it? Can one risk one’s own life for neighbours of another religious confession? Can everyone make this choice personally, and at the same time choose as a community, without oppressing individual freedom?
In an age in which the consumer society imposes its choices and rhythms, the public has demonstrated that it is still sensitive to questions of a completely different dimension. This is very much to its credit. And it is a message for this time of ours.