Presentation given by Jean-Théodre RANDRIAMAHENINA ms
during a Gathering of the French Province
I thank Fr. Franz and his council for asking me to speak to you. I am glad to be with you to share some of the modest experiences I have lived while in France. I do this first and foremost as a Malagasy, proceeding slowly (“moramora,” as we say in Malagasy, slowly by never backwards), then as a religious and priest living in the La Salette French Province.
It would seem normal for me to preface my experiences with a few words of explanation about how I came to be living here in France for the past three years.
In the program for this Gathering I see that Fr. Gilbert Rakotorahalahy will also be speaking. As a Malagasy I have a have a high regard for my elders, no matter who they might be. Yet Fr. Gilbert holds a special place in my heart. Why? Because it was he who sent me to the La Salette seminary in Antsahasoa in October 1989 when I was only 14 years old. At that time he was pastor of the parish in my hometown of Faratsiho. That church had been established by the French La Salette Missionaries and afterward served by Malagasy La Salettes; so don’t be surprised that I say a few words about my La Salette vocation which stems from there. La Salette runs through my veins, or if you want, is part of my DNA makeup! I made my first profession on September 19, 1996 at the La Salette Shrine, Antsahasoa. I did my PPP in 2002 and that same year made my perpetual profession on September 29th. I was ordained on July 29th 2006 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of La Salette in Antsirabe, after which I was named treasurer of the scholasticat and vicar of the parish of St. Louis in Fenomanana, Antananarivo. I remained there until my arrival in France to begin serving at the shrine of Notre-Dame de Chêne in the diocese of Besançon. There you have it!
People sometimes ask me: Why are you here? Are there too many priests in Madagascar? The questions are complex; the answers are simple. To the first question I respond: I am here because you are not! The shrine of N-D de Chêne had been falling into ruins, and was abandoned in 2006 with the departure of the Montfort Fathers, who had served there for 90 years. In 2007 the bishop requested that the La Salette Missionaries come to serve the shrine. The French Provincial agreed to send a community. I can say that now the shrine is flourishing. To the second question I respond: It is not that there is a superabundance of priests in Madagascar but rather that there are not enough here. In Madagascar it is true that the number of priest is on the increase and that the median age is decreasing (Yes, a young church!) but there is still not a sufficient number of priest. On the other hand priests here in France are aging and becoming fewer in number. I’m not in the habit of keeping track of deaths, because according to the Malagasy mentality that’s not done! But in my three year presence here in the diocese of Besançon (which I know better than other French dioceses) there have been quite a few priests’ funerals. Yet only one ordination, and that a La Salette and a Malagasy on June 26, 2011! We are proud of that. My own coming to France is not by chance or a mishap; rather it is the answer to a call and a free gift. Missionaries evangelized my homeland, the Great Island, and there are still a few French La Salette Missionaries there today.
La Salettes were asked to be spiritual animators at the Shrine of N-D de Chène. I’m not alone there. We accomplish this animation as a community, especially in and through daily Eucharistic celebrations, which are preceded by Morning or Evening prayer. We take turns preaching to the neighboring people who come to share in these celebrations. Every Sunday there are two Eucharistic celebrations – one in the morning, another in the evening – in which local residents as well as visitors participate. Then there are six pilgrimages for different parts of the diocese which are spread throughout the year.
Pastoral ministries in different parts of our deanery also fall on us. We don’t have time to twiddle out thumbs! At times each of us says two or three Masses on Sunday. But offering Mass, which is indispensable, is not all. I, as well as my fellow priests, am called to service: not to be a pastor, nor a helper, nor an assistant. What does it mean “to serve”? Every priest, by virtue of his prior ordination to the deaconate, is called to service. This implies availability. I would like to be cautious in the use of this word because it could lead to confusion. A remark was made in the diocese about priests who “come from elsewhere”. I quote from Eglise de Besançon, the bi-monthly diocesan revue (Nº 19 from November 17, 2013): “The priest coming from elsewhere should not be seen as a stranger who fills-in, as an arrival in-the-nick-of-time, or worse yet as a person who comes in a time of crisis to fill a gap.” That question was asked during a meeting for priests and pastoral delegates helping in the deanery. We answered by asking them a question, much as the shepherd did to the shepherdess: “What do you take me for?”
I am aware that a priest is not a priest for himself. This conviction has led me to be thoroughly involved in pastoral activity: catechesis, confirmation; health ministries (hospital chaplain, service to sick and handicapped).
What can I do? Certainly I can’t solve all the problems. The best I can do is to be engaged and carry my part of the load in educating people in their Faith. If I, as a priest, a religious, a missionary, don’t to what I can, then who will do it? If one does nothing, nothing gets done. Of that, I am sure. I must bear witness to my Faith so that people can see by my engagement that I believe. That’s no little thing. I can tell you that ministering to children and to the youth gives me much joy. I truly receive much more than I give.
While doing health ministry, apart from working in the hospitals and retirement homes, I frequent and visit many people who live alone, are ill and suffering, along with those who do home-care. And I derive joy from it. It’s not their suffering that brings joy, but, while showing the necessary reserve, joy comes from being with them, showing my concern; “Whatever you did for one of these little ones …” Jesus said one day. I thank God for the quality of service and attention rendered by care-givers to these sick, suffering and handicapped. As I think about what goes on in Madagascar in this regard, I ask the good Lord one thing: that the aged here may be accompanied more and more by their families, and that the indigent of Madagascar (and other countries) have better access to healing remedies. May my prayer be answered.
I give this presentation, this witness, but in truth it can only be done because the (my) community sends me here. I do nothing in my own name. It is the community’s mission, not mine! That fact changes everything. In community, how important it is to strengthen each other through prayer and fraternal admonition because, having recently arrived here, I have a lot to learn. Sharing with one another, which is always a challenge because we are so different one from another, can never be dispensed with. We are all unique, meaning that each one possesses reserves and qualities as well as fragilities and limits. Diversity can prove to be a cherished resource if one knows how to profit by its presence; yet can be an enormous stumbling block if one is stubborn.
During these three plus years in France, much water has flowed under the bridge. My inculturation into life in France and my integration into the life of the church are only beginning … and I hope to continually move forward. Let’s see what happens with this total uprooting and complete depart from homeland will bring; it’s not easy (cold climate, language, culture, mentality, food). Adaptation is not a given, it requires time. Time must be given time. But in between time, I’m doing all I can to learn, to inform myself. Both the diocese and the province offer many formational tools. I am trying my best to take advantage of them. Already, within a month, Dominique will present to us the next permanent formation course on the theme: Our rootedness in the Church of France… WE have already dwelled on the laity, ecology, and being uprooted through Exile… Many other will follow. I can only rejoice and try to profit from these opportunities.