Play - The Fifth Gospel

  • Barbara Kentish

The Fifth Gospel, Notre Dame de France, Leicester Square, London

'The fifth gospel, which everyone can read, is our life', wrote Henri Vergès, a Marist brother who was assassinated in Algeria. While many of us have heard of twentieth century martyrs like St Oscar Romero or Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, and even the monks of Thibirine, via the film Of Gods and Men, it was the first time I had heard of Blessed Henri Vergès. So the monologue play by Adrien Candiard, OP, performed at the French parish in London was an eye-opener.

A Marist brother, a headmaster and finally a Maths teacher, Henri had an enormous influence on those who knew him, despite the obscure life he lived for many years in the rural hills of Algeria. The play, by Dominican writer Adrien Candiard, presents the exchange of letters between Blessed Henri and Ahmed, one of his former students at the school in Sour el-Ghozlane in the Algerian mountains, who became a diplomat in Damascus. The monologue/dialogue - 2 characters played by one actor - traced the life of the teacher, showing his joy in the little things of life, gardening and constant service to others., known for his trademark work apron. His key contribution to life in Algeria was to Christian Muslim dialogue. The message of the play was not only one of steadfast commitment to his life of loving and witness to the Gospel in his chosen country but his quiet courage despite the violence and overt threats to his life. His life was indeed a fifth gospel.

Born in France in 1930, he worked in Algeria from 1969 until his death in 1994, first as a teacher, and then as a librarian. In addition to his ministry to young people, he was a very active member of Ribât al-Salaam, an Algerian organization that promotes dialogue and reconciliation between Christians and Muslims. Vergès ran a library in Algiers from 1988 to 1994, along with Sr. Paul Hélène, a French nun of the Little Sisters of the Assumption.

In 1991, the Algerian Civil War broke out, in which roughly fifty thousand people were killed over the course of ten years. During this time, Br Henri's library was filled with children and young people everyday, for whom the library was a safe place and a refuge from the chaos in the country.

Despite the violence, Br Henri and Sr Paul Hélène chose to stay in Algiers to continue their ministry. On May 8, 1994 they were both gunned down in the library by the GIA, a militant Islamist group. He was beatified on December 8, 2018 in Rome. The ceremony declared him as "blessed," the final step before sainthood.

Playwright Adrien Candiard is a Dominican academic whose first play, Peter and Mohammed, portrays the life and death of Bishop Peter Claverie, Dominican bishop of Oran, who died, like Henri Vergès, during the Algerian persecution. Alas I missed this production, performed the previous night at Notre Dame. Since it has had hundreds of performances, I am sure it will come round again. The martyrs of Algeria need to be much better known. Their faith dialogue with Muslims has surely much to teach us.

Tags: Barbara Kentish, The Fifth Gospel, Notre Dame de France,

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