One evening, during my retreat at an old Jesuit novitiate, I read an unforgettable letter in L’Osservatore Romano, English, June 12, 1996. In it, Dom Bernardo Olivera, the Abbot-General of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, or Trappists, writes about the brutal, wholly arbitrary murder of seven Trappist monks in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria by the Muslim Groupe Islamique Arme faction.
Dom Bernardo recalls that 1998 will mark the nine hundredth anniversary of the founding of Citeaux. He mentions the many monks of his order killed in this century, especially those seven Monks murdered in Algeria, plus the other Catholics, brothers, and nuns, slaughtered there and elsewhere for the same reason. He mentions John Paul II’s reminder in Tertio Millennio Adveniente about the witness of martyrdom in the Church. “This is a witness not to be forgotten,” Dom Bernardo stressed.
The immediate history of these seven monks, evidently very good and humble men, is recounted. They understood that they were in a dangerous area. The apostolic delegate, the archbishop, and one local Muslim official offered protection for them if they would move to more secure quarters. But the Trappists have a vow of stability. For several years they had considered their options, but each time decided to stay.
On December 29, 1993, one of the Trappists, Father Christopher, wrote a letter to the chief of the GIA cadre who had come threateningly to the monastery on Christmas Eve:
Brother, allow me to address you like this, man to man, believer to believer…. In the present conflict … it seems to us impossible to take sides. The fact that we are foreigners forbids it. Our state as MONKS binds us to the choice of God for us, which is prayer and the simple life, manual work, hospitality and sharing with everyone, especially the poor…. These reasons for our life are a free choice for each one of us. They bind us until death. I do not think it is the will of God that this death should come to us through you.
Earlier this year, in March 1996, under a new GIA head, the monks were taken prisoner. They were accused of evangelizing. No First Amendment here. The emir stated, “monks who live among the working classes can be legitimately killed.” Once taken prisoner, the seven monks were in a new legal position: It was now licit to apply to them what applies to lifelong unbelievers, when they are prisoners of war: murder, slavery, or exchange for Muslim prisoners.
The French had a prisoner that the emir wanted exchanged. He sent warnings to the French Foreign Office that, without the exchange, the monks would be executed. Next, the emir rationalized, “The choice is yours. If you liberate, we shall liberate; if you refuse, we will cut their throats. Praise be God.”
In the end, the French president decided not to deal with such terrorists. The result was that on or around May 21 this spring, the monks were murdered in the gruesome manner indicated.
Dom Bernardo’s letter, from which this account is taken, leaves little to the imagination. Yet something almost mystical is in this letter. We cannot help but think also of the unexpected passage on martyrdom in John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor. Here we have faithful, peaceful men butchered for a legal subtlety, for the “praise of God,” so the murderers claimed.
When we finish this account, it reads like classic tragedy, or more like the death of St. Thomas More, whose murder, I believe, was shared by a few other monks and only one bishop.
The oldest of the murdered monks was Brother Luc, who was eighty during the monastic retreat of January 1994. Dom Bernardo had recalled a nun in Angola who, for her first vows, had chosen the reading for her Mass the passage about forgiveness of enemies. This meaning of receiving and forgiving seemed to explain these lives.
During the dinner ending the retreat, Brother Luc had played a cassette tape that he had been saving for his funeral. The song that he played was, incredibly, Edith Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien.”
I find something more than a little poignant about an elderly Trappist brother murdered by a member of the Groupe Islamique Arme. By observing his law, the heartless believer slit the throat of a kindly old man, who, on his eightieth birthday, in his refectory, had listened to Edith Piaff sing the song that he wanted played for his funeral.
I have this tape of Edith Piaff singing “Je ne regrette rien.” On listening to it now, I pray for these seven Trappist monks and the Muslims who slew them.