Bishop John MacWilliam's new diocese covers 800,000 square miles of arid land in southern Algeria. 'You go where you are needed,' the former Army officer says

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.”

In an Army career that also included service in Northern Ireland and other hot-spots, he was at the Ministry of Defence in London when he began to ponder a call to the priesthood. “I used to go to a lunchtime Mass at the Church of the Precious Blood, just off Southwark Street near London Bridge, and it was there, I think, before the great crucifix, that the first sense of it all came …”

The specific call to missionary work followed when he knew that he did not want to be a settled parish priest in Britain, or a monk. “I went to the different missionary orders and I liked the White Fathers, specifically because it was about being part of a team. A bit like the Army, perhaps – united in a common purpose, working together.” He was ordained in 1992 at Worth.

His flock in Algeria will not only include members of various different missionary orders and expatriate Christians from different countries, but also struggling would-be migrants who have made their way across the Sahara attempting to reach North Africa or Europe in search of a better way of life.

He is often asked about the dangers of life in a Muslim country but emphasises that Algeria is not a place where Christians are oppressed. “You have to differentiate between Islam and the Islamists,” he says, explaining that the aim is always to foster goodwill between people of all faiths.

“There are things that make sense to us all – things that we can recognise. Faithful Muslims pray, they fast, they give alms. There are many points of contact. The Second Vatican Council emphasised how we should seek out the good in the different faiths.”

The majority of today’s White Fathers are from sub-Saharan Africa, where Christianity is now the major religion in many countries; missionaries are sent to the north of the continent as well as to Europe. “European priests in the White Fathers – we were named because of the white robes that we wore, to blend with the local dress in the territories where we first went – are now mostly older and are in the minority,” he says.

The tiny Catholic community will welcome him when he arrives in his diocese – but as his own church there is so small the main celebrations will be on June 2 at the Basilica of Our Lady of Africa in Algiers. And it will not be restricted to Christians. “There will be a party for all our friends. There is a lot of goodwill. And then as it happens, the next day, June 3, is the feast of the Uganda Martyrs, which is a day we always honour in a special way in the White Fathers – so more celebrations.”

Daily life and work involves living in a culture where the Muslim way of life is the norm. Women in rural southern Algeria are not only veiled but usually cover their faces completely with just one eye visible, and never enter a shop where a man is present. Missionary work involves friendship, quiet faithful witness, and a recognition that immediate results are not to be expected. “The history of the White Fathers reveals, for example, how their schools came to be watched, and then valued, and how people came to know them and to see what they were offering and to trust them. It’s a story of decades and centuries of prayer and trust.”

His experience in Tunisia – where he has worked for some years – and as superior-general of the White Fathers, means that the Islamic world is familiar to him. He is fluent in Arabic, “though the Tunisian dialect is different – I’ve got some learning to do.”

Bishop MacWilliam flew to Algeria immediately after his episcopal ordination at Worth – which was carried out by Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald (himself a White Father, now based in Jerusalem) and the Archbishop of Tunis. The new bishop’s family – his brother and sisters and a large array of nieces and nephews – were at the ceremony, and then saw him off to his new appointment. He says he plans a number of visits home. “The White Fathers have a system of having a two-month home visit every two years. And in any case part of my work involves contacting missionary orders. So I hope to be back in Britain from time to time.”

Algeria has seen violence and tension over the years: the heroic Trappists of Tibhirine, led by Dom Christian de Cherge, who were kidnapped and killed in 1996, are now candidates for beatification. But the newly appointed Bishop of Laghouat is emphatic that his diocese – 420 times the size of that of Arundel and Brighton – is peaceful. “We are not being persecuted. We do need help, because this is mission territory and Christians are few in number. I’ll be asking missionary congregations if they’d like to send more people to help us. But I’ll get settled in first, and take things from there.”

The tone is rather that of an Army officer calmly accepting new orders and working out how best to implement them. There is a sense of quiet purpose, and a lack of drama, as the new bishop gets ready to take on 813,790 square miles of desert and a missionary tradition.

Joanna Bogle is an author, broadcaster and journalist

This article first appeared in the May 26 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here