Great missionaries: Cardinal Lavigerie, a man of strong convictions

Charles Martial Allemand Lavigerie, Cardinal Archbishop of Algiers and Carthage, missionary founder and anti-slavery campaigner, was born near Bayonne in the Basque region of southern France. After his schooling, he studied theology at Saint Sulpice in Paris.

In 1854, after priestly ordination and further studies, he was appointed professor of church history in the university of the Sorbonne, Paris. In 1860, as director of the work for oriental schools, he travelled to Lebanon and Syria to administer relief to Christians there, following the massacre by the Druses.

During this journey he met the exiled Algerian leader, Abd el Kader, and was impressed by his humanity and Islamic culture. He also developed an interest in churches of the eastern rites and became aware of the twin threats to their existence of Muslim pressure and Catholic latinization. On his return, he joined the staff of the Vatican as an auditor of the Roman Rota. At this time, he also made the acquaintance of Daniel Comboni.

In 1863 he was appointed Bishop of Nancy, France and was placed in line for the important archiepiscopal see of Lyons. However, he declined this prestigious appointment, and asked instead for the colonial see of Algiers, to which he was appointed archbishop in 1867.

Algeria had become a French colony in 1830, and under Napoleon III was designated an “Arab Kingdom.” Lavigerie made it clear that he had come to serve the whole population of Algeria.

To this end he founded the Society of Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers) in 1868 and the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa (White Sisters) in 1869. After difficult beginnings, these international missionary societies attracted large numbers of recruits in France, Belgium, Holland, Germany and Canada. Lavigerie established orphanages and schools for the child victims of successive famines in Algeria.

In 1868 he was appointed apostolic delegate to the Sahara and Sudan by Pope Pius IX and ten years later was entrusted by Pope Leo XIII with the evangelization of sub-Saharan Africa. In 1878 he started a seminary in Jerusalem for Catholic students of the Greek Melchite rite, but his ambition to halt Latinization by himself becoming Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem was not realized.

From 1878 his missionaries established themselves in the Great Lakes region of Eastern Africa and, after his death, in the French territories of West Africa. Created a Cardinal in 1882, Lavigerie revived the ancient see of Carthage, with the title Primate of Africa, when the French annexed Tunisia. Throughout 1888 Lavigerie conducted a personal campaign against slavery in the capitals of Europe. In this campaign he made known the heart-rending experiences of slavery witnessed by his missionaries in equatorial Africa.

The campaign resulted in the anti-slavery conferences of Brussels and Paris. At the request of Pope Leo XIII, Lavigerie pronounced the celebrated “Toast of Algiers” in 1890 in order to rally support for the French republican government. In doing this he forfeited the considerable support he was receiving from traditional French Catholics.

The Missionaries of Africa are currently 1,200 and come from 36 different nationalities and cultures – European, American, Asian, and African. They announce the Gospel in 22 African countries with 215 international and intercultural communities.

(Aylward Shorter M.Afr.)

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