Jesuit martyr Fr Nicolas Kluiters’s cause of beatification gets underway in Beirut
The Dutch-born missionary died in 1985 “in hatred of the faith”. In spite of dangers and war, he pursued his mission like the Tibhirine monks (Algeria). Healing divisions was his greatest challenge. His work sparked a vendetta by pro-Syrian, leftist and Shia parties.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – The process of beatification of Dutch Jesuit priest Nicolas Kluiters, a missionary abducted on 14 March 1985 on a road in the Bekaa, tortured and killed “in hatred of the faith”, opened last Saturday in Beirut.
The opening session of the ecclesiastical tribunal responsible for investigating his case was held in a room of the great Church of St Joseph of the Jesuit Fathers, presided by the Apostolic Vicar of Beirut for the Latins, Bishop César Essayan.
To mark the event, Bishop Essayan celebrated Mass, on the same day, in the presence of residents of Barqa (northern Bekaa Valley), the Maronite village where Fr Nicholas served as parish priest, and who almost to a man and woman consider him already a saint.
Nicolas Kluiters was born in Delft (Netherlands) in 1940. Initially, he studied Fine Arts, but alter joined the Jesuit order in 1966, giving up the brush like Saint Peter gave up his fishing nets.
Over the next ten years, having completed his theological studies, and was ordained a priest.
He travelled in Lebanon, learnt Arabic, and graduated as a social worker from the Université Saint-Joseph. In 1976, in consultation with his superiors, in particular with Fr Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, Superior General of the Jesuits, he came to Lebanon in mission.
Initially, Fr Kluiters based himself at the convent of Taanayel, in the Bekaa, working with three fellow clergymen: Fathers Hans Putman, Hani Rayess and Tony Aoun.
With the assistance of various female religious congregations (Holy Hearts, Salesians, Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, Little Sisters, Nuns of Jabboulé), he became involved in a number of traditional apostolates: Masses and confessions, baptisms and funerals, catechism and training for first communion, evangelical evenings, spiritual retreats and youth activities, etc.
In 1981, at the request of Georges Iskandar, Maronite Archbishop of Zahle, he was appointed parish priest in Barqa.
The challenges of the 1980s
Simply put, the pastoral tasks entrusted to the Jesuits in the Bekaa seem unimportant. Tiring, yes, perhaps, but without risks. But this applied only in peace time. This was no longer the case during the civil war that broke out in Lebanon in 1975.
The great work by this extraordinary priest is to have closely associated faith to development.
When he arrived in the village, the big question locals asked themselves was: Should we stay or leave? Impacted by the unwholesome climate of war, the village suffered from its geographical encirclement and the risks associated with travel around the region and to the capital.
In addition, like many other villages, Barqa suffered from economic underdevelopment and parochial quarrels. Feuding families went to Mass in two different churches, St Michael and St. Joseph, located at different ends of the village.
For Fr Nicolas Kluiters, the greatest challenge was first and foremost the local context. In his personal notes, he wrote: “The miracle of my vocation in the Bekaa is that I was able to experience a transformation of the residents of a village who were fighting among themselves, and who were turned into people who build their future together.”
To achieve this, Fr Kluiters used all his skills as a priest and as a social worker. Halfway between the to chapels that stood at either end of the village, he built a school and pushed the nuns of the Congregation of the Holy Hearts to settle there.
Acquainted with the local form of religiosity, he created an open-air Way of the Cross.
He also began work on various public work projects: earthworks, irrigation channels, water reservoirs, orchards (to counter illegal hashish production), garment workshops (in cooperation with a garment company in Beirut), the construction of road leading to distant orchards, the construction of a church for shepherds, and the establishment of a dispensary (with the Order of Malta).
These unifying projects made him popular among the locals, who were initially surprised by his presence. Over time, people got used to him.
In the beginning, the Dutch priest deliberately accepted the hospitality residents offered him. And he was not afraid to travel, having already crisscrossed the Bekaa several years before.
Every day, he went to Hermel to say Mass at the home of the Little Sisters of Charles de Foucault.
Residents had a hard time to understand his Arabic, but over time, it improved taking local features. “He eventually spoke a northern accent,” noted Fr Thom Sicking, the vice-postulator of his cause, a smile on his face.
Alas, as time went by, the success of his projects led certain parties – pro-Syrian, left-wing or Shia – to take umbrage at this man who was undermining their influence and their plans. He became a thorn in someone’s side.
In 1984, a year before his death, Fr Nicholas went to Rome for a period of retreat. He thought his mission in Barqa was accomplished and was considering a mission to Sudan. However, Fr. Kolvenbach thought otherwise.
It was decided that he would return to Barqa “to consolidate the work done”, despite the very real dangers of his mission.
Fr Sicking compares this decision to that of the monks of Tibherine (Algeria), who chose, out of solidarity with the population, to stay in their monastery despite the risks posed by Islamist groups who were sowing death and destruction in Algeria at the time.
The price they paid for staying was abduction and decapitation. They were beatified on 26 January 2018.
In the words of Fr Kolvenbach, like for the monks of Tibherine, martyrdom arrived for Nicholas Kluiters, “not as a surprise, but as the fruit of a long period of ripening, experienced in union with the offering of Christ, his crucified and risen Lord”.