Friday, November 9, 2012

An Exceptional Missionary Commitment

The Anti-Slavery Campaign of Cardinal Charles Lavigerie (1888-1890)

Charles Lavigerie
Charles Allemand Lavigerie, born in the south west of France in 1825 was a brilliant student in the Major Seminary and then at the Seminary of the Carmelites in Paris. As a young priest he directed with, remarkable enthusiasm, the Work of the Oriental Schools. He then served for some years in the Roman Curia before being appointed, at the age of 38, the Bishop of Nancy in 1863. It was there that his missionary vocation matured and when he was asked to take over the Diocese of Algiers in 1867, he accepted straightaway. He exercised this pastoral service for a period of 25 years and it was in this setting that he opened his ministry to a missionary dimension on an unprecedented scale. He was the founder of two Institutes dedicated to the African Mission: The Missionary Sisters of our Lady of Africa (MSOLA) and the Missionaries of Africa. He had a passion for this great continent (still little known to the European World of this time) for its history, its culture, and its people. Pope Leo XIII appreciated this exceptional personality and he elevated him to rank of Cardinal in 1882. It is in the context of this missionary commitment and the service of humanity in general that one must place the Anti Slavery campaign which we are considering here.

In 1888, Lavigerie already had a profound knowledge of some of the realities which marked out the African continent. Among these realities, there was one, in particular, that upset him the most, that of slavery. He waswell informed of the accounts given by the great explorers, but also by the letters of his missionaries who were present in the region, called the Great Lakes, since the arrival of the first caravan in 1878. He knew the extent of the raids, the routes of the slave caravans between the lakes of the centre and the Indian Ocean coast. He also knew of the unimaginable sufferings of the slaves during these long forced marches. From the beginning of the 80s, Lavigerie tried on several occasions, to get one or another of the major European powers, notably Great Britain and even the Holy See, to intervene, but without effect.

In 1888, a new opportunity arose for him to make another intervention. Brazil announced that it would abolish slavery definitively in its territory. Pope Leo XIII decided to publish an encyclical to approve this decision. Immediately, Cardinal Lavigerie asked him to mention the drama in Africa that was still taking place and the Pope agreed to this. At the same time in May of that year, great celebrations were being prepared to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Priesthood of Leo XIII. Lavigerie again brings up the problem when he came to congratulate the Holy Father, accompanied by a group of young black Christians. He pleads once again, publicly and in a private audience, for the victims of slavery on the African continent. Leo XIII was very much impressed and decided to become more openly involved. He told him: "We count on you M. Le Cardinal, for the success of this undertaking." For Lavigerie, this reply of the Pope was the go ahead for the execution of this mission. Therefore, he took it upon himself to organise and develop his massive anti Slavery campaign.

Immediately, Lavigerie thought up a plan on three fronts. A large geographical coverage across Europe, interventions that would touch the general public by way of conferences, articles in the press, and other methods and finally he planned to found a network of national and local associations with the aim of maintaining the interest of benefactors and to support other specific activities. It was precisely in the area of practical action that Lavigerie took up again an idea that he had considered a number of years previously. He thought, at first, of forming a militia of armed lay people who would protect the refugee centres for escaped or ransomed slaves and who could intervene in other areas according to the circumstances. It must be said, straightaway, that this project never got off the ground principally because of the marked reluctance of the colonial powers, now, established in Africa.

The first event of this wide ranging programme took place in Paris on the 1st July in the Church of St. Sulpice. After giving a long description of the sufferings endured by the slaves, Lavigerie appealed to the generosity of the people not only in soliciting gifts but also appealing to young people to have the courage to enlist in order to go to defend and protect the victims. Lavigerie was a great orator and of imposing height and this first conference was a great success not only in the press but also with French public opinion. In the following weeks he made similar appearances in Great Britain, in Italy and in Belgium where he gave an impressive lecture in the Church of St. Gudule on the 15th August. One of the last public speeches was given in Rome in the Church of the Gesù on the 23rd December 1888.

Church of Saint Gudule, Brussels

Everywhere, Public opinion was outraged by the revelations about the extent of the slave trade in Central Africa. The political authorities were also concerned and Lavigerie did his best to entice them to take a public stand and to act eventually through diplomatic channels or even by military means in order to end the slave trade, especially on the Indian Ocean coast and in the Red Sea. However reaction was mixed and generally followed national interests. In England there was great support because the country was well aware of the problem for some time. In Belgium, King Leopold feared interference in his territory of the Congo and Lavigerie had to take this into account in his different lectures. Nevertheless, public opinion everywhere approved and supported his campaign and in this sense, it could be considered a great success.

In this programme, the Cardinal had foreseen the creation of solidarity committees on a national and local basis. Several committees were founded in the countries where he visited. In other countries, where he was not able to go, he made contacts, sent letters and supported the creation of groups of benefactors. In this way, he had contacts in Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Austria, Spain and Portugal.  He wanted to take the matter further, by calling for an international congress, where Governments would commit themselves to wipe out the slave trade in Africa. After many unsuccessful attempts, this proposal was finally achieved by the meeting of an International congress in Brussels in November 1889.

Sixteen powers were represented and the work continued over many months. It was not until July 1890 that it officially ended. Lavigerie was not present, but his name was frequently quoted and he pronounced himself happy with the results, especially with the decision to put in place maritime patrols along the eastern coasts of the continent. However he also wanted to organise under, his own personal supervision, a new convention comprising all the representatives of the Anti Slavery Committees. This Congress took place in Paris in September 1890 and this time, one saw theorganisational talent and strong personality of the Cardinal which played a great part in consolidating the initiatives already taken and in ensuring a better coordination between the projects.

After a visit to Rome where he gave an account of the campaign to the Pope, Lavigerie, after months of intense efforts, returned to his diocese of Algiers in the autumn of 1890. The scale of his campaign and its remarkable organisation, without doubt, moved things forward in looking for a solution to the problem of slavery. As Lavigerie said in his first public conference, a great cry has been heard, a cry of indignation made by an old Cardinal, both in the name of humanity and in the name of the Gospel.

Jean-Claude Ceillier, M. Afr.
Historian of the Society

  Extracts from the Cardinal's Conferences
against Slave Trade in Africa

1. Conference given at Saint Sulpice, Paris, 1st July 1888

St. Sulpice Church, Paris

“Where there is no distinction between slave and freeman…there is only Christ: he is everything    and he is in everything." (Col.3.11)

Recently, our great Pontiff, Leo XIII, borrowed these words of St. Paul in his Encyclical to the Bishops of Brazil.

Pontiff Leo XIII
By virtue of the Apostle’s teaching, he condemned slavery saying that its very existence among Christians is a crime. Since all humankind are born in the image of Jesus Christ, they are new Christs, and hence, brothers. To oppress one another and to deprive people of their freedom is a sacrilege, because this freedom is “nature’s most precious gift”. Jesus Christ taught this truth when he said that on the last day we shall all be rewarded, if we “have gone to the aid of prisoners”, because “in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine you did it to me.”  (Encyclica In Plurimis)

...But I repeat, my dear brethren, that charity, however great it may be, will not suffice to save Africa. A more prompt, more efficacious and more decisive remedy is needed. When our Holy Father, the Pope, had finished appealing for charity, he then appealed for force - a peaceful force which would be used not for attack but for defence. For that, he addressed himself to Christian nations. These can do a lot through their moral strength with the Muslim princes, on whom these African slavers depend, in making them feel responsible for the continuation of their infamies....

... We read in the Acts of the Apostles that, while St. Paul preached in Asia Minor, he had a vision: a Macedonian appeared and appealed to him in these words, “Come across to Macedonia and help us”. Through my voice, it is this same prayer that the African slaves address to you, today! Christians of Europe come across the sea which separates us and come to our help! St. Paul lost no time in replying to the Macedonian’s prayer. In Macedonia, he rescued those held prisoners under the yoke of evil. Come across to the country of the black population. Come there, some with your kindness, others by the strength of your arms and rescue these peoples, seated in the shadow of death, and those even more miserable from slavery.


2. Conference given at Prince’s Hall, London, 31 July 1888

Therefore, I come to bring you my testimony for the portion of Africa that evangelization has entrusted to me.

This undertaking is, without doubt, the very undertaking of the Antislavery Association which gathers us here today, of the eminent men who preside over it and direct it, under the patronage itself of the heir to the throne. Nevertheless, an association of men, no matter how powerful, cannot do everything, and, if I dared to address myself to you, Ladies, I would say that in a very real sense, an undertaking “of mercy and pity” is yours, above all. You know better than a man how to find the way to the heart for you feel more deeply than he does. That is not the sole reason when it comes to African slavery. The victims of slavery are, especially, children and women. That is what my missionaries never cease to repeat. Scarcely two days ago, I received in London a letter from our Tanganyika Mission, in which the Superior repeated the same message: “Here, now, only children and women are sold; the men are killed.” I do not hesitate to say, in this talk, that the women are more to be pitied than the men.  Death delivers the men with one single blow; slavery means a thousand deaths for the women and children. They are placed without defence in the hands of their masters for the most base debauchery and for acts of horrible cruelty.

... Christian women of Europe, women of England, it is up to you to make such horrors known everywhere and to stir up against them the righteous anger of the civilized world. Leave your fathers, your husbands, your brothers no peace at all, use the authority they possess through their fortune, their situation in the State, to stop the blood shedding of your sisters. If God has given you the talent to write, use it in this cause, you will not find a holier one.  Do not forget that it was the book of a woman, a novel, Uncle Tom that, translated into all the languages in the world, sealed the deliverance of the American slaves.


3. Conference given at Rome
in the Church of the Gesù, 23 December 1888

Church of the Gesu. Rome
Slavery makes a man a goods item, from then on he is subject to the law of supply and demand.

However, this law states that all goods offered for sale at a reasonable price will meet the demand. As long as the demand persists, the supply will also continue. One can try to turn back a river on its course before one can succeed in preventing it from happening. Self-interest and avarice are used to their advantage to overcome all obstacles, by suffocating even the most sacred beliefs in nature. They use, in turn, trickery, threats, money, and despicable acts until they have overcome or got around all the barriers that opposed them

However, in the crowd, that has gathered from all parts, to fill this church, there are perhaps people who do not believe as we do, and I want to address myself to them nonetheless, in a cause which concerns the whole of humanity. Slavery, as it is practised in Africa, is not only, in fact, opposed to the Gospel, it is contrary to the natural law. That is what our great Leo XIII affirms, with a freedom and a vigour that has never been surpassed, in his Encyclical on slavery: “Contra quod est, dit-il, a Deo et a natura institutum.”
Now the laws of nature apply not just to Christians but to all men. That is why I appeal to all, without distinction of nationality, or party, or religious confession. I do not appeal just to faith, but to reason, to justice, to respect, to the love of freedom that supreme good of man, as our Pontiff has likewise said. No doubt I am pleading this cause today in a church, and before altars, but I am ready to plead it everywhere. I have pleaded  in Prince's Hall, before  English protestants, in salons, before philosophers, before non-believers, and always I have found in people’s hearts the echo of the sentiment expressed by the ancient poet: Homo sum, et nihil humani a me alienum puto (Quote from Terence: Heautontimoroumenos, v. 77) 'I am a man and nothing of what is human is foreign to me.' It is a cry that came out from Rome and which, also, has its echo through the whole universe. I am a man; injustice towards other men revolts my heart. I am a man; oppression fills my nature with indignation. I am a man; cruelty against so many of my fellows inspires nothing but horror in me. I am a man, and what I would want done to give me freedom, honour, the sacred bonds of family, I want to do to restore family, honour, freedom to the sons and daughters of this unfortunate race."


4. Address given on Good Friday, the 19th April 1889 in the Cathedral of Algiers before the Solemn Prayers for the abolition of Slavery, on the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ and that of Africa

Charged as I am by the Holy See, to plead the cause of the poor African slaves, I thought that nothing would be more proper to appeal to your compassion for their sufferings than to place them today under the protection of the memorial of Our Lord’s Passion.

These slaves continue their sorrowful passion, given up to despicable tormentors who hunt them down  like wild animals, who inflict hideous tortures, to captivity, to the shame of vices one dare not name, to death.

I have already appealed in Europe, but today I do not ask either for armed support, or for charity which I sought before, but for a higher help, that as a Bishop, I ask of all faithful Catholics, to pray.

Without doubt, sacrifice and alms have, in themselves, a virtue. When they are offered with pure intentions, they attract blessings from on high. However if I have begged from all without distinction of nationality, race, or religion, it is that I have appealed only to normal feelings of humanity, such as pity and justice which are found in all men. Prayer, my dear brothers, I can only ask from yourselves because it presupposes a strong faith, and a religious obedience. The Church teaches that it is God himself who, supernaturally, imposes this duty. He demands that we ask him, in the humility of our powerlessness, even for the goods that he has decided to grant us himself, only wishing that we recognise his sovereign power in the goodness and freedom of his providence.  So it is  to you Catholics, that, today, I come to beg  not only for the renewal of that prayer that we have already made in the secret of our hearts, but that of public prayer which is done with more fervour in the temples of God on the most solemn occasions.  It is not just a question of a private misfortune but of the welfare and honour of our continent and of all humanity. Nobody can be indifferent to it and we ought to unite so as to storm heaven with our prayers.

While some have enlisted under the flag of piety and fraternal solidarity, and have taken up arms and are ready to leave for  battle, we who are staying behind ought to invoke the name of the Lord (Hi in curribus et hi in equis, nos autem in nomine Domini Dei nostri invocabimus) and climb the mountain to lift up our arms toward heaven.

Have confidence therefore in public prayer which has often guaranteed, in similar circumstances, the victory to the Church against catastrophes, scourges and bloody persecutions..........
If the use of force is not yet possible for us or if political jealousies oppose our action, prayer remains for us. It does not know obstacles. It is free, like our faith, and finds the way everywhere to reach the very heart of the God of Calvary. Let us all together, then, make it resound beneath the vaults of this temple.  They are draped in black to remind us not just of the Passion of the Saviour, but also of the death that hangs over Africa and of the destructions that threatens it….