“A Church in the manger”: in Algeria, testimony of a Church in childbirth

A Church in the manger. Testimony of a bishop from Algeria

by Paul Desfarges

Preface by Cardinal Jean-Marc Aveline

Médiaspaul, 180 pages, €18

The book is modest in size. But don’t stop there. It is a weighty book, in which the Archbishop Emeritus of Algiers, a usually discreet man, testifies in simple and strong words to his itinerary and his hope for the small Church of Algeria, “a Church in the manger”. An institution which, despite its long history dating back to the first centuries (…), (is) at this moment still in a period of childbirth. It is as fragile as the nativity scene in Bethlehem”.

Paul Desfarges begins by recounting the genesis of his story with Algeria. Born in Saint-Étienne in 1944, he arrived in Ghardaïa in Algeria at the age of 21, where he spent two years as a cooperator in a college run by the White Fathers, being himself a diocesan seminarian. At the end of this stay, he made the choice to the Society of Jesus. Ordained a priest in 1975, he was sent to Algeria the following year, this time to Constantine. Surprisingly for a Catholic priest, he was quickly recruited by the university of this city to teach psychology there.

The spirituality of the cup of coffee

These years allow him to deepen his affection for the Algerian people and to better know his breeding ground: Islam. He even acquired Algerian nationality in 1982. He then crossed the famous black decade of the 1990sduring which more than 100,000 people living in Algeria died – including nineteen Catholics, the very people who were beatified in 2018 and whom he knew well. He became vicar general of Mgr Gabriel Piroird, who was bishop of Constantine and Hippo for a quarter of a century. On his death, he was ordained bishop on February 12, 2009 to succeed him. He was transferred to Algiers in 2015, first as diocesan administrator then as archbishop, until the end of 2021, when his successor, another Frenchman, the Dominican Jean-Paul Vesco, was appointed.

Paul Desfarges then develops a theme that is dear to him: Islam and dialogue between Muslims and Christians. Follower of “the spirituality of the cup of coffee or (of) the sanctity of ordinary life (…) or next door”he advocates “two attitudes, welcoming and listening”. “This dialogue of life, which can become spiritual dialogue or theological dialogue, does not seek to conquer. He tries to get to know the other better in order to love and serve him better. Even in the case of the refusal of the other, love continues to love and to want the good and the salvation of the one who closes itself off. Love despairs of no one. The presence of the Church is not a conquering presence. She wants to be a humble servant of the relationship that God, in Jesus, wants to live with all his children. emphasizes the Archbishop Emeritus.

The seed of the Church of the future

In the last part of his book, Paul Desfarges evokes the question of Algerians who, after quite diverse itineraries, come to ask for baptism. He perceives there the promise, the germ, of the Church of the future in Algeria, without however idealizing the situation. Those who take the step towards baptism “quickly discover that the Church is not the Umma. In the Church, national, social and religious identity are not linked (…). This is also why, having become disciples of Jesus, the children of the country must find or create among themselves relationships that respond to the call of Christ: “It is to the love that you will have for one another that the ‘you will be recognized as my disciples’ (Jn 13,35). This path is not easy. You have to learn to trust each other in a different way, which was not expected, at least not in the same way, in previous relationships,” he observes.

Each page of this booklet testifies to a peaceful but deeply rooted spirituality, A book to “savor” – in the words of Cardinal Jean-Marc Aveline in the preface – capable of restoring hope to French Catholics on the other side of the Mediterranean.

“A Church in the manger”: in Algeria, testimony of a Church in childbirth