THE CERTAINTY OF BEING LOVED: Pierre Claverie OP (1938-1996)
Martin McGee
Dominican Publications

Many are familiar with the story of the Trappists of Tibhirine, Algeria, thanks to the celebrated film Des hommes et des dieux (Of Gods and Men), which won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2010. However, far fewer know about another Algerian Catholic priest, Pierre Claverie, who was also killed by extremists in the very same year (1996). Claverie and the Tibhirine monks were beatified together on the same day, December 8, 2018, in the Algerian city of Oran. The ceremony also acknowledged the Muslims who were killed during the war and was attended by both Christians and Muslims.
So who was Pierre Claverie? He was a Dominican priest who had been born in Algiers in 1938, the fourth generation of French settlers known as pieds-noirs. The picture of Claverie offered by Martin McGee in his book, The Certainty of Being Loved, is balanced and honest; McGee neither reveres him as a saint nor condemns him as a colonizer. Rather, he highlights the complexity of Claverie and his evolution from a closed-off resident in the “colonial bubble” to an open friend of local Muslims.
The book is divided into three parts: 1. Escaping from the Colonial Bubble, 2. The Presence of Someone, 3. Understanding Islam.
“Colonial bubble” is Claverie’s term, and it is noteworthy that a book that could have easily turned hagiographical begins instead with a long critique of colonialism and Claverie’s participation in it. Too many biographies of French clergy and religious involved in interreligious dialogue with Muslims minimize or completely ignore this crucially important element. But Section One (which comprises fully half of the book) does not shy away from questioning the racism of French settlers in Algeria, including young Claverie and his family: Did they refuse to recognize their own racism? Was their racism “merely” unconscious or “benignly” paternalistic and therefore less serious? McGee critiques both the settlers who were indifferent to local Arabs as well as those who believed Algerians were “not their equals” and thus were legitimate targets of their “civilizing mission.”
It was only by going away to France from 1957-67 that Claverie was able to see the colonial bubble for what it was. While attending college there, he joined the Dominicans, and went to study at Le Saulchoir with great theologians like Marie-Dominique Chenu and Yves Congar. It was at Le Saulchoir during the years of the Second Vatican Council that Claverie began to reckon with his identity as a pied-noir and reject his participation in a “culture of exclusion.” As his thinking about Algeria changed, so too did his view of his vocation. Claverie wrote that he desired to “be a man of relationship,” someone who could “break down walls, open frontiers, never again close one’s eyes . . . but on the contrary, know the other, move towards the other, and move out of one’s bubble.” He began to learn Arabic, study Islam, and work among Muslims as soon as he returned to Algeria.
Section Two, “The Presence of Someone,” discusses Claverie’s new ministry and evolving spiritual vision in Algeria. Rejecting the “colonial bubble,” he worked to establish relationships with local Muslims and to create a new, more culturally sensitive church presence in the country, post-independence. The Algerian church’s new mission, he said, was not proselytization, but reconciliation with the Muslim world, ministry to the diminishing numbers of local Christians, solidarity with the excluded, and interreligious dialogue. When Claverie was named Bishop of Oran in 1981, he stated these new goals clearly. The church would not be an aggressor or an agent of neo-colonialism. Rather, the Algerian church would be a “Church of Encounter” through a ministry of presence. It is striking that Claverie uses the language of encounter as early as the 1980s, for this is the very same idea Francis highlights in his 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti, which explicitly calls for the building of a “culture of encounter.”  Section Two also outlines Claverie’s theology of living among Muslims, which he articulated in the 1996 book of the North African bishops, Le Livre de la Foi, for which he was the main author.
Section Three, “Understanding Islam,” begins with a brief introduction to Islam, which at first seems to be out of place in a biography of Claverie. It’s only by examining the footnotes that the reader learns that the views of Islam presented here come from Claverie’s own book, Petite introduction à l’Islam.  It would have been helpful if this crucial piece of information had been stated in the text proper. The remaining parts of Section Three are clearer, as they explicitly name articles written by Claverie that relate to his work with Algerian Muslims. Topics discussed here include how Christians should approach the Qur’an, theological differences with Islam, and dialogue with Muslims.
The Epilogue describes the murder of Pierre along with his friend and chauffeur, Mohamed Bouchikh. The author ends the book by noting, “it was fitting that Pierre should die with a Muslim friend. Their blood, mingled in death, gives lie to those who claim Christians and Muslims are doomed to live in enmity.” Instead, Pierre and Mohamed showed the reality of Christian-Muslim friendship. With this kind of death, there was no question that Claverie had finally removed himself from the colonial bubble. He had become a true neighbor to the Muslims, who called him “our bishop too.”
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