June 20th , 1999 -- 12th Sunday "A"
Jer 20,10-13; Rom 5,12-15; Mat. 10:26-33
H O M I L Y
In the Gospel of Matthew, this short text is part of what is called the "apostolic discourse". Jesus sends his disciples as missionaries, giving them authority over unclean spirits and power to cure all kinds of diseases and sickness. He warns them that he is sending them like sheep among wolves and that they will be received by some and rejected by others. The disciple is not superior to his master, he says. What they have done to the master, they will do to him. "Have no fear of men, therefore..." and then comes the recommendation that we just heard.
It is amazing how often, in the Gospel, we find this recommendation: "Have no fear -- do not be afraid", especially in the apparition of the Lord after the Resurrection, but also before, as in today's text. To be afraid of danger is a normal reaction. We are living beings, and therefore it is normal to be afraid of death, especially when one is in full health. What can, therefore, be the ground for not being afraid?
It is simply that we are in the hands of God and that whatever happens to us has a meaning and a purpose in God's loving plans. Whoever confesses me in the presence of men, says Jesus, I will confess him or her in the presence of my Father in heaven.
Martyrdom is a way of life before being a manner of death. To be a martyr is to be a witness; and one is a witness first of all through the way one lives. We usually call martyrs in the Church those who were so faithful in living the Gospel that they lived it to the point of accepting death out of that fidelity. Their witness and their martyrdom was in the way they lived before being in the way they died.
To this we are all called. From time to time God gives us some examples in the lives of persons whose ordinary daily fidelity to their call was proved authentic by a freely accepted violent death. That was the case of our seven brothers of O.L. of Atlas in Algeria. They were not and they did not try to be heroes. They were ordinary monks and they lived a very ordinary monastic life, and remained faithful to it, even when the situation became an extraordinary one.
Their community was founded at a time when there was a large Christian population in Algeria. When that population was reduced to almost nothing, after the war of independence and the departure of almost all the French population, the monks continued to be a Christian contemplative presence in an almost entirely Muslim context. They established, over the years, a relationship of friendship, brotherhood and mutual respect with the local population, their Muslim brothers and friends; and they remained faithful to that friendship when the country was thrown into a whirlwind of violence. And now they are buried in the land they loved, among the people they loved, in the cemetery of the community they loved... faithful to the end to all these loves.
Martyrdom is, in the end, nothing extraordinary, but fidelity to the basic commitments, even when situations are radically changed. They wrote it themselves, in their last chronicle to their families and friends, in November 1995: "Our choice to stay in Algeria is simply in the line of the various forms of renunciation we have already made: renunciation of family, of country, of first community, etc. The violent death of one of us or of all of us together would simply be the consequence of that first renunciation."
When they left their monastery during the night of March 27th, 1996, to everyone who might have seen them, they were following a group of heavily armed terrorists. In reality they were following Christ.
Most probably, no one of us will be called to this type of situation. But we are called to the same fidelity, whatever happens, big or small. And to all of us, our brothers of Atlas, like so many others -- lay and religious, Christians and Muslims -- of Algeria, are an example and a challenge.