Bishop John MacWilliam, a former British Army officer, is about to take charge of a diocese that is 10 times the size of Great Britain. It has a population of some four million people, of whom only a few hundred – at most – are Catholic. And it is a place of which, I suspect, few readers of the Catholic Herald have ever heard.
The Diocese of Laghouat covers the whole of the southern part of Algeria, which is dominated by the Sahara desert. The few Catholics are mostly missionary priests or Sisters, with some expatriates from the Philippines or elsewhere who are working in the oil industry.
The vast majority of the people are Muslim. The languages are Arabic and French. And the White Fathers and other missionaries are under the Holy See’s Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples and witnessing to the Faith by their presence and prayer.
“People often ask what we do as missionaries in Algeria,” he says when we meet in London. “But it’s not a question of what we do, but of who we are. We are simply there, and because we are there, we offer help to people – and so the Sisters care for the handicapped, or give care to women who are in need, and so on. As a missionary, you give witness to your faith by your life, by the way you live.”
It’s all a long way from Wimbledon, where he was born – and from Worth Abbey in Sussex, where he was at school, and where he was consecrated as a bishop last weekend. But not, in fact, so very far from where he spent part of his earlier life – he served for many years in the Army, as did his father before him, and so living in distant and desert places has been part of things for him from childhood onwards.
“I served for some while in Oman – that’s when I came to know what it was like being in a country where Christians are few and far between and where it was only possible to get to Mass once every six weeks or so,” he recalls. “In any case, belonging to a missionary order is in a sense like being a soldier – you go where you are needed, you go where you are sent.”
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