An unusual experience in Muslim-Christian dialogue has come to light. On 13 September 2003, in Algiers, Christians and Muslims gathered around Archbishop Teissier in remembrance of Ulisse Caglioni, a focolarino, a pioneer of the dialogue promoted by the Focolare Movement between members of the two religions in Algeria. A similar gathering will also take place at the end of Ramadan in Tlemcen, and on October 4 in Orano with Bishop Alphonse Georger.
“It was Ulisse’ faithfulness to evangelical love of neighbor which paved the way to discovering and fostering deep friendships between Muslims and Christians, drawing down God’s blessing on this initiative,” wrote the Archbishop of Algiers, Henri Teissier, after hearing of Ulysses’s death last September 1st.
Ulisse was born on March 5, 1943 into a large, deeply Christian family of 10 children, in Pedrengo (Bergamo-Italy), in northern Italy. He was twenty-one years old when he first came in contact with people of the Focolare and he soon felt called to give his life to God in the Movement.
In 1966, a small Benedictine Abbey which had fallen into disuse was donated to the Movement. It was built in Arabian style, located in Tlemcen, in the western region of Algeria. It was there that Ulisse, at age 24, went to live with two other focolarini, giving life to the first focolare community in a Muslim country. “It was a totally unknown world,” commented Giorgio Antoniazzi, now co-director of the Focolare in Algeria. “Their only preparation was on love of neighbor.” And this was how the dialogue with Muslims was born, a dialogue without a specific agenda, a dialogue built up day by day.
In 1970, still learning his way in a world very different from his own, Ulisse wrote: “I am trying to live the present moment well, capitalizing on the more difficult moments as much as I can. They make it possible for me to live even more out of pure love.”
Archbishop Teissier further noted that one of Ulisse’ characteristics was “his readiness to be of service. This was shown by the many small concrete gestures his good will invented.” Maria Teresa Sala, co-director for many years with Ulisse in Algeria, defined him as a monument of brotherly love. “For him, the most important thing was the relationship with one’s neighbor. It was something sacred to him, I would say. He knew how ‘to waste time’. Ulisse ‘wasted his time’ and ‘gained it all back’. He helped me learn how to penetrate the heart and soul of the people of Algeria.”
Ulisse depended largely on his belief that “Love conquers all.” In a letter from 1993 he wrote: “In such a different culture, I experience each day that only the presence of Jesus among ‘two or more united in his name’ is capable of performing that breakthrough that will make even the desert bloom.”
Tlemcen soon became “a place to gather, to dialogue, a center of spirituality, an oasis of peace,” as Sidi Ahmed Benchouk, Muslim and former prefect of the Tlemcen region (Orano), described it. He attended Ulysses’ funeral at the Mariapolis Center of Castelgandolfo (Rome), and addressed his remarks to Ulisse: “You were a magnificent example of consistency between what one says and what one does. You came among us, melting the ice and tearing down the walls which separated us in order to build an indestructible bridge.”
In time a community of people who lived the Focolare spirituality of unity came to life. It now includes hundreds of young people, families, persons from different walks of life, and several Imams.
This same experience has been repeated not only among Christians and Muslims, but also with Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, animists, and people of many other religions from countries with the most diverse cultures, wherever the Focolare Movement is present. These groups aim at building “islands of brotherhood”. They represent the unforeseen developments of a spirit of dialogue lived out day after day.
“Ulisse was, for us, the bond linking Christianity and Islam,” wrote the Movement’s Muslim friends to Chiara Lubich. “We learned how to listen, without prejudice, without judging. He taught us to do everything out of love. He always bore witness to his faith in God. He was for us the model of how a believer should be. The unity he built went so far beyond our differences that many would say of him: ‘Ulisse – he’s a true Muslim,’ not because they didn’t know what faith he belonged to or what vocation he followed, but because his life as a believer had transformed him into a man of God.”
In 1985, Ulisse was ordained a priest by Bishop Claverie of Orano, a man of extraordinary faith who was assassinated 10 years later. Ulisse did not leave Algeria, even when waves of violence shook the country in the 70s. He lived there for over 30 years, until the year 2000 when he was forced to leave due to a serious illness he originally contracted after inhaling asbestos dust as a factory laborer in Brussels, Belgium, 40 years ago. Yet his witness of faith lives on in that land he loved so much.