‘Having Maria Voce was like rain that refreshes everything, now everything is flowering again,’ said one young Algerian, summing up in a few words the visit of the Focolare President to the people of Algeria who share the Focolare spirit.
In the ’90s, when the community was just beginning, Chiara Lubich, answering someone who had asked her to visit, said, ‘It’s necessary to work for this.’ After that there was a journey of dialogue spanning the years that still carries on. The visit of Maria Voce, from 9th to 14th February, was therefore an extremely important event for the Focolare community in Algeria. But not only for them. Dialogue with the Muslims in this country, in fact, is well-developed and recognized by the local Church and further afield too. This was confirmed by a visit from Mgr Ghaleb Bader, the Archbishop of Algeria.
Algeria is no longer a tourist destination. The image of Islam has been obscured nowadays by many things that have very little to do with religion. Maria Voce’s visit went beyond all this. As Chiara used often to recall, dialogue is a ‘highway’ towards a united world, and this small community of Muslims, which has made Focolare spirituality its own, raises questions. How are these things possible? ‘We have to live in order to understand,’ Maria Voce said at one point.
The Siberian cold that had gripped Europe did not spare North Africa. Tlemcen at 900 metres above sea level is used to the cold. But this year has been exceptional. To this city with its rich cultural and religious history (where the first focolare in Algeria was opened in 1966), on the late afternoon of 10 February, arrived the Focolare President.
She was met by a welcome typical of Tlemcen, with two riders on superb Arabian horses who gave her a guard of honour, children in traditional costumes who offered milk and dates according to the custom of the nearby desert. Maria Voce joined in willingly and embraced everyone. The firing of guns made her jump; feelings ran deep. Indeed, feelings were no less on the following day, when she went to the small hall of the Mariapolis Centre. There were 130 people there, all Muslims expect for the members of the focolare, four African students, two bishops and two Dominican friars from Tlemcen, who had been specially invited. Some people had also come from Morocco and Tunisia.
After the telling of a brief history of how the Focolare Ideal had arrived in the Maghreb, there was a conversation that marked the beginning of a ‘spring’: ‘The leading figures in this hour were the young people,’ Maria Voce commented on her return to Italy. They were the first to start, speaking of their experiences and asking questions. Maria Voce answered in French with great clarity. The adults present were deeply moved, feeling the certainty that the future was assured. And the answers were helpful to everyone, ‘even to bishops,’ affirmed Mgr Henri Teissier, the Archbishop Emeritus of Algiers, who is in his retirement lives in the Tlemcen Focolare’s Ulisse Mariapolis Centre. The questions revealed the difficulty of spreading the Ideal in the daily life of young people, in Algiers and in other parts of the world, with the necessary commitment to going against the tide.
In her answers Maria Voce often spoke of love, the summary of Focolare spirituality: ‘If we are in Love towards the other person, there is nothing any more to separate us.’ She therefore stressed the importance of interpersonal relations: ‘The crisis in the world today, before it is about economics and politics, is about relationships.’ For this reason it is important to have ‘an unconditional love, that expects nothing in return, completely disinterested, totally Love for God through our brother or sister.’ This culminates in joy.
Algerian music, in the Andalusian style, is very popular in Tlemcen and traditional dress decorated an afternoon of celebration. The words of many of the songs give praise to God and show the profound religiosity of this people. Following Algerian tradition, everything finished with a dance.
Tlemcen, the international capital for Islamic culture in the year 2011-12 and host to numerous cultural and religious events, showed itself in all its beauty. The sun shone when, at the end of the visit, the moment came to see it. Fouad, the guide, himself from Tlemcen, is in love with his city. He presented it and pointed out its legacy of Muslim saints, the most famous of whom is Sidi Boumediene, well-known in all the Islamic world. At his tomb Maria Voce prayed that all the Muslims of the community in Algeria would be able to follow the example of these saints. When they left, Fouad chanted some verses of song containing the saint’s teaching: ‘All is from God, we are nothing.’ And Maria Voce rejoined, ‘Yes, but we belong to God.’
Fouad said, ‘That’s it, that’s the word: “to belong”.’
Algeria – Maria Voce visits the Focolare community (9-14 febbraio 2012)