It was a scene out of a Graham Greene novel: Africans, Catholics, priests and whisky.
I'd been looking forward to meeting the White Fathers in Ghardaia for some time. The Peres Blancs have been ministering to African communities for a long time now, and maintain a library of books about the cultural, religious and natural history of the Sahara. In Algeria, the Fathers serve a very small community of Christians but focus most of their efforts on establishing dialogue between Christians and Muslims. It seems like a very contemporary goal, one that became suddenly important in the last decade, but the White Fathers have been commited to this work for over a hundred years.
I arrived in time for Easter mass and was greeted at the gate by an English priest, Father John. The opportunity to speak easy English was delicious; I've been struggling with French and have not had a real conversation with anyone for weeks. The church service, though, was mainly in French. It was ministered by a priest from Tanzania and there were prayers sung in Swahili, the readings were translated into Polish, and the Lord's Prayer was sung in Arabic.
It was a beautiful service, even for this retired Catholic. For all my abandonment of my religious belief, religious ritual still inspires me. To quote Tom Robbins, "To practise a religion can be very beautiful. But to actually believe in one can be deadly."
(My mother won't like that last quote, but she was happy to hear I made it to church on Easter.)
The Fathers invited me to join them for lunch, and almost immediately bottles of gin and scotch appeared. I drank a dram with the priests, then some watery wine from northern Algeria. We talked about my writing and their work among the Algerians, and enjoyed a wonderful meal. One priest spent a few years in Montreal and the White Sisters that were present came from places like Burkina Faso, the Congo and Rwanda. When I left hermitage Father John shook my hand and said he was happy to make me feel a little at home.
I returned to the next day to use their library and to meet the Bishop of the Sahara who was passing though Ghardaia on his way to Algiers. The Bishop represents the second largest diocese in the world (Siberia is the largest) but ministers to the smallest congregation. Unfortunately, the Bishop had very little time to spare with me, but I hope to return to Ghardaia and write a story about the Bishop and the White Fathers.