Saint of the Day – 8 June – St Jacques Berthieu SJ – Martyr, Priest, Missionary known as the “Martyr of Madasgacar” (28 November 1838 in Monlogis, Polminhac, Cantal, France – shot on 8 June 1896 in Madagascar by Menalamba rebels for his work in replacing ancestor worship with Christianity, his body was dumped in the Mananara River). He was declared venerable in 1964, Beatified on 17 October 1965, at Saint Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City by Pope Paul VI and Canonised on 21 October 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI.
Jacques Berthieu was born on November 27, 1838, in the area of Montlogis, in Polminhac, in the Auvergne in central France, the son of deeply Christian farmers of modest means. His childhood was spent working and studying, surrounded by his family. The early death of an older sister made him the oldest of six children. He studied at the seminary of Saint-Flour and was ordained to the priesthood for this diocese on May 21, 1864. His bishop, Monseigneur de Pompignac, named him vicar in Roannes-Saint Mary, where he replaced an ill and aged priest. He served as a diocesan priest for nine years. Because of his desire to evangelize distant lands and to ground his spiritual life in the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, he sought admission to the Society of Jesus and entered the novitiate in Pau on October 31, 1873 at the age of thirty-five.
He sailed from the port of Marseilles in 1875 to two islands in the vicinity of Madagascar that were then under French jurisdiction, Réunion and Sainte-Marie, where he studied Malagasy and prepared himself for the mission. The beginnings of his missionary life were not easy for this 37-year-old Jesuit. Climate, language, culture were all totally new things which made him exclaim, “My uselessness and my spiritual misery serve to humiliate me but not to discourage me. I await the hour when I can do something, with the grace of God”. Mindful of his farming background, he was happy to cultivate the kitchen garden that supplied the station. He and two other Jesuits and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny formed a missionary team. There he was engaged in pastoral work for five years, until March 1880.
In 1881, French legislation closed French territories to Jesuits, a measure which compelled Jacques Berthieu to relocate to the large island of Madagascar, an independent kingdom at that time. Jacques Berthieu went first to Tamatova and then to Tananarive until his superiors sent him to the far-off mission of Ambohimandroso, near Betsileo. The outbreak of the first French-Malagasy war in 1883 forced him to depart. From 1886 on, he supervised the mission of Ambositra, 250 km south of Antananarivo. After a stay in Ambositra of five years, he went to Andrainarivo in 1891. This post was northeast of the capital and had 18 mission-stations to look after, situated in the most remote and inaccessible places.
Insurrection of 1896
France captured the royal palaces in September 1894 and declared Madagascar its possession, sparking the Menalamba (“red shawl”) revolt against European influence. Europeans and Malagasy Christians were targeted by organized and armed Hova units. Jacques Berthieu sought to place the Christians under the protection of French troops. Deprived of this protection by a French colonel whom Berthieu had chastised for his behaviour with the women of the country, Berthieu led a convoy of Christians towards Antananarivo and stopped in the village of Ambohibemasoandro. On 8 June 1896, Menalamba fighters entered the village and found Jacques Berthieu hiding in the house of a Protestant friend. They seized him and stripped him of his cassock. One of them snatched his crucifix from him, saying: “Is this your amulet? Is it thus that you mislead the people? Will you continue to pray for a long time?” He responded: “I have to pray until I die.” One of them then struck Berthieu’s forehead with a machete; Berthieu fell to his knees, bleeding profusely. The Menalamba then led him away for what would be a long trek. After about a ten kilometer march, they reached the village of Ambohitra where the church Berthieu had built was located. They insisted that it would not be possible for Berthieu to enter the camp because he would desecrate the nearby sampy, the idols held sacred by traditional communities at that time. They threw a stone at him three times and the third time Berthieu fell prostrate. Not far from the village, since Berthieu was sweating, a Menalamba took Berthieu’s handkerchief, soaked it in mud and dirty water and tied it around Berthieu’s head, as they jeered at him, shouting: “Behold the king of the Vazaha (Europeans)”. Some then went on to emasculate him, which resulted in a fresh loss of blood that exhausted him.
As night drew near, in Ambiatibe, a village 50 kilometers north of Antananarivo, after some deliberation, a decision was made to kill Berthieu. The chief gathered a platoon of six men armed with guns. At the sight, Jacques Berthieu knelt down. Two men fired simultaneously at him but missed. Berthieu made the sign of the cross and bowed his head. One of the chiefs approached him and said: “Give up your hateful religion, do not mislead the people anymore and we will make you our counsellor and our chief and we will spare you.” He replied: “I cannot consent to this; I prefer to die.” Two men fired again. Berthieu bowed his head in prayer once more, and they missed him. Another fired a fifth shot, which hit Berthieu without killing him. He remained on his knees. A last shot, fired at close range, finally killed Jacques Berthieu. His body was dumped into the Mananara River and was never recovered.
As a missionary, Jacques Berthieu described his task thus: “This is what it means to be a missionary: to make oneself all things to all people, both interiorly and externally; to be responsible for everything, people, animals and things and all this in order to gain souls, with a large and generous heart.” His many efforts to promote education, to construct buildings, irrigation and gardens and to develop agricultural training all give witness to these words. He was a tireless catechist. A young school teacher, who was accompanying him on a journey, noticed that even while on horseback, Berthieu still had his catechism open before him. The teacher asked him: “Father, why are you still studying the catechism?” He answered: “My son, the catechism is a book one can never understand deeply enough, since it contains all of Catholic doctrine.” In those days, once on foreign mission, there was no question of returning to one’s country of origin. “God knows,” Berthieu said, “how much I still love the soil of my country and the beloved land of the Auvergne. And yet God has given me the grace to love even more these uncultivated fields of Madagascar, where I can only catch a few souls for our Lord… The mission progresses, even though the fruit is still a matter of hope in some places and hardly visible in others. But what does it matter, so long as we are good sowers? God will give growth when the time comes.”
A man of prayer, Jacques Berthieu drew his strength from it. “Whenever I looked for him,” declared one of the catechists, “I found him almost always on his knees in his room.” Another said: “I have seen no other Father remain so long before the Blessed Sacrament. Whenever we looked for him, we were sure to find him there.” A brother of his community also gave this testimony: “While he was convalescing, each time I entered his room, I found him on his knees, praying.” His love for God was such that they called him “tia vavaka” (the pious one). He was always seen with the rosary or the breviary in his hands. His faith expressed itself in his devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, the Eucharist being the source of his spiritual life. He also professed a special devotion to the Sacred Heart to which he consecrated himself in Paray-le-Monial before departing for mission and he became the apostle of this devotion among the Malagasy Christians. A fervent devotee of the Virgin Mary, he went on pilgrimage to Lourdes and the rosary was his favorite prayer; it was this prayer that he recited while he was being led to his death. He also venerated Saint Joseph.
As a shepherd, he addressed Christians with the very words of Christ: “my little children” (Jn 13, 33); as for his executioners, he questioned them with gentleness: “ry zanako, my children.” His charity was full of respect for others, even when he had to correct an erring believer. And yet, he knew how to speak strongly and firmly whenever he judged that the interests of God and of the church were at stake. He did not hide the demands of Christian life, beginning with the unity and the indissolubility of monogamous marriage. Polygamy being the usual practice at the time, he denounced the injustice and the abuses it generated, thus creating enemies, especially among the powerful.
On the eve of his death, while he was heading towards the capital with the Christians hunted down by the Menalamba, he was moved with compassion at the sight of a young man with a wounded foot. Berthieu began looking for carriers, offering a large amount of money for this service but all refused. Descending from his horse, Berthieu lifted the disabled man onto his mount and despite Berthieu’s own weakness, he himself continued the journey on foot, while pulling the animal by the bridle. “He was gentle,” declared a witness, “patient, zealous in carrying out his ministry whenever he was called, even when someone called him at midnight or when it was raining heavily.” In the south of Anjozorofady lived two female lepers. Whenever he returned from his travels, he would visit them, bring them food and clothes and teach them catechism, until he baptised them. He considered the accompaniment of the dying in their agony a most important ministry: “Whether I am eating or sleeping,” he would say, “do not be ashamed to call me; for me there is no stricter obligation than to visit the dying.”
St Jacques Beerthieu, pray for us!