The French Saint Jacques Berthieu, canonized on Sunday, 21 October 2012
Did he die for the faith of the Catholic Church or because of the political stance of a colonial power? In our day, with a more acute sensitivity for the cultural, economic and political factors of the history of salvation, this will be one of the first questions asked when the subject arises of the violent death of French Jesuit Jacques Berthieu in the Madagascar of 1896.
It is true that his missionary life was dominated by the politics of his mother country, and it is a fact that his death occurred in the midst of the second war waged by the people of Madagascar against France, which had broken out just two years previously. But it's no less true that Fr Berthieu sought only the Kingdom of Heaven. In 1873 he wrote, "I don't want to possess any land but a little heart to love people in the divine heart of Jesus". And that's what happened.
In that very year Jacques Berthieu entered the Society of Jesus. Born in Monlogis in 1838, he was ordained to the priesthood in 1864 and worked as a modest and contented associate pastor for nine years before joining the Society with the request to be sent to the missions. Two years later he told one of his fellow scholastics, "I am destined to become a future apostle of the Malagasy people". He certainly did not think that he would become their protomartyr. In fact, the qualities already noted in him as a novice — good, faithful, smiling, serene — would continually develop in the image of Jesus meek and humble of heart, the "good shepherd who gives his own life for his sheep"
It was not politics that were the cause of Fr Berthieu's death but, as Pope Paul vi said at his beatification in 1965, his "passion for souls — his love for people which showed itself the more lofty and boundless, the more those whom he approached in a free and friendly manner were distant, unknown, difficult to reach because of language, customs, shyness, blindness of judgment or interest, and almost closed to the message of the Gospel".
Naturally, 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". On the island of St Mary, his first work-assignment, Fr Berthieu gave himself totally to teaching catechism, visiting the poor and the lepers, baptisms, preparation for First Holy Communions and regularizing marriages. At the same time he helped the native people cultivate their fields in an effective way — from which he was able to draw the means to sustain his school for children. But in 1881 a decree from the French government expelling religious forced him to leave his mission. "My poor little people", he wrote in his diary, "May the good Lord watch over you in his mercy and soon give you other shepherds to save your souls". That sentiment, full of love for his Malagasy people and without complaining of his own situation, could serve as the refrain of the following years in which he would be chased from one missionary station to another. Jacques Berthieu went first to Tamatova and then to Tananarive until his superiors sent him to the far-off mission of Ambohimandroso, near Betsileo.
But the outbreak of the first French-Hova war in 1883 forced him to depart. After a stay in Ambrositra of five years, he went to Andrainarivo in 1891. This post was northeast of the capital Tananarive and had 18 mission-stations to look after, situated in the most remote and inaccessible places. Here, as elsewhere, he tried to make himself 'everything for everyone'. He wrote, "Evenings and mornings I teach catechism; the rest of the time I dedicate to receiving people, or visiting everyone in the vicariate, friends and enemies, to gain them all for our Lord". The faithful flocked to him, just to have contact with a truly religious man. They said of him: "He was a father who never abandoned his children". To Christians he was fond of repeating, "Do not fear those who kill the body, but those who can kill the soul". Or, "Even if you were to be devoured by a crocodile, you would rise again".
In 1894 the second war against France broke out, and once again Fr. Berthieu had to leave his dear Malagasy people, returning only after a year but in time to be able to share their worry because of the news of the violence of the rebels directed not only against the French authorities but also against missionaries. The latter, because they bore Christ, could deprive idols and amulets of their power! So the Fetishists planned to eliminate once and for all the bearers of Christian religion.
In March, 1896 the village where Fr Berthieu lived was evacuated by the French army as indefensible. The Jesuit, then almost 6o years old, remained in the midst of his "good Christians" who were, he wrote, "happy for my presence ... and ready to die with me, if necessary, in order not to be untrue to their conscience". Tired and sick, he reached Tananarive at Easter time and recovered his strength there, passing long hours on his knees before the Blessed Sacrament. But he could not stay far from his flock and he returned to them on 21 May. On his return to the residence, he confided to a Sister, "I don't know what awaits me, but whatever happens I am ready. I made my retreat as if it were to be my last".
Two weeks later the missionary again received notice of the need to evacuate the place. The refugees now numbered some 2,000. Preceded by French soldiers they began the trip to Ambohimila. As the march went on, little by little the line was strung out: the soldiers were in the lead but the sick, old and children fell ever further behind their protectors. On horseback Fr Berthieu was trying to encourage them by his presence, and it was for this reason that he took the decision — one completely in accord with his good shepherd's heart — which would prove fatal for him. One of the mission's employees, no longer able to walk, cried for help; profoundly moved, the missionary gave him his horse and continued the march on foot. Going ahead that way, he completely lost sight of the soldiers. When some groups of the rebels rushed at them, Jacques Berthieu fled with some Christians to the nearby village of Ambohibemasoandro. He spent the night there and celebrated Mass the next morning, 8 June. It would be his last Mass. Some hours later the rebels invaded the village and captured the compassionate and courageous missionary.
Fr Berthieu was struck by axes on his shoulders and chest and fell to his knees. But then he rose and wiped off blood with his handkerchief saying. "Don't kill me, my children, I have good things to say to you". Every time he tried to say something he was struck again with the axe. Some wanted to kill him right away, but the majority preferred to take him to their camp some 15 kilometers distant to present him to their leader. Outside their village they stripped the Jesuit of his cassock, and seeing the crucifix he wore around his neck, one of the officers yanked it off him crying, "Here is your amulet! It's this that serves you to hoodwink our people!' . Then they asked him, "Will you continue to pray and make the people pray, yes or no?" Fr Berthieu replied, "I will certainly continue to pray, right up to my death". And seeing his horse cut to ribbons he went on. "I do not hope that you let me live. If I assented to what you say, I would be the one to kill myself, but if I reject your words I will live".
As if the violence and the sacrilegious words of the rebels weren't enough, the missionary who had dedicated himself for a good twenty years to his Malagasy flock was abandoned by all of them. When the troop arrived at Ambohityra, a village which Fr Berthieu had converted, it was raining. "My children", he begged, "would you give me a blanket to cover myself? I'm cold!" But the villagers didn't dare to help him. Passing in front of the church where he had administered the Sacraments countless times he asked to be allowed to enter, but he was refused. So he knelt down at the door and said the Our Father and the Hail Mary, holding a rosary in his hand and kissing its cross. His captors made fun of him and his "amulets", and when he said that the crucifix represented the Savior of mankind, they were enraged and hit him with their rifle butts. The march was taken up again, with insults and curses.
Evening was upon them and some of the groups wanted to go home, as they arrived at a large rock called Farovoay. "What should we do with him?" they asked, "it's almost night and the prisoner is exhausted. Who will stand guard over him?" The easiest solution was to kill him. They stripped him of his last clothes and threw him to the ground, while the leader made six men armed with rifles come forward. Fr Berthieu asked to be able to pray for his killers. "Renounce your evil religion", was the response, "Don't hoodwink the people any more and we will take you with us and make you our chief and our counselor, and we will not kill you". He replied. "I absolutely cannot agree to that, my son; I prefer to die". A first and second shot, each fired by two men, missed; even a fifth shooter did not succeed in killing him. Then the captain went up to him and fired a shot into his neck. It was the coup de grace.
For fear of the French soldiers the murderers threw the corpse into the nearby river Mananara, infested with crocodiles. It vanished forever. In that way the words so often repeated by Jacques Berthieu in his catechesis of his dear Malagasy people came true: "Even if you were to be devoured by a crocodile, you would arise".
*Assistant to the Postulator General of the Society of Jesus