French to English translation of a recorded presentation by Bishop Donald Pelletier as delivered at the REJS 2013 (EUROPEAN YOUTH MEETING) at La Salette.
This translation was done directly from the recorded French language delivery of the talk.
Paul Dion, Lay La Salette.
It is important to know that at 27 years old, the Lord had prepared me for 27 years. Thirteen years with the family. We were people with a good family. Family is very important. Mother, Father, Sister. Family is very important. I was in a surfeit of love. My mother knew that she was going to die, she was sick. So she spoiled me with a lot of love. She knew that she did not have long to live. So I was spoiled with her love. I was ten years old when my mother died. So already the Lord was preparing me. He was showing me that I had to move. This was first intervention of God in my life. It was a very important moment. All was changed. For thirteen years, it was all family. After that it was still always family, but then it was the family of the missionaries of La Salette. (VIDEO) Therefore, 27 years in all. Twenty seven years of preparation. My life, like yours was divided into two parts, if you will. The 27 years of preparation in which God prepared me. The thirteen years of preparation in my family, by my family, with my family, and 14 years by , in and with the missionary community of La Salette. Therefore, at 27 years old I was ready to leave. I was leaving for the adventure, like Abraham. Leave your country. Leave your family. Go to Madagascar.
So, like I was saying, there are always preparations. Along the way I was filled by the community. We had very, very good formators in marvelous locations. The minor seminary was in the country (la campagne). It was on a magnificent lake by the name of Mascoma, in New Hampshire. It was in the woods. It was marvelous for a young man to help him discover nature and to live in a community of friends.
Thinking about formation you have some times when you think about what it is that impressed you the most. Our educators became our friends, and continue to be so to this day. I still have some friends among them in the United States. We were 36 when I arrived in the seminary. Two of us were ordained priests. And Father Maxfield is still with us and we are very, very close friends. He is very sick. He was sick almost all his life. He worked in Spain. He suffered for me. I was never sick. I was always able to work. So, like I say, 27 years of preparation. That is very, very important. Thank God. God spoiled me. I thank Him for my human formation. You will see that during your life, your human formation is the most important. The documents from Rome about formation talk about human formation, spiritual formation, intellectual formation, and pastoral formation. Therefore at 27 years old I was ready to leave, as a young priest for Madagascar. It was by boat. So, from New York to Le Havre, by Marseilles to Madagascar we went. 23 days.
On the ship, I fell in love. (VIDEO) There was a pretty young lady on board. French. Very pretty. Her father was very rich. He was the owner of the Hotel de France in Tananarive. He had just spent one year in the United States in order to learn English. So, she sees this handsome young American priest and she wants to speak English. I am lonesome. I am ah,ah, little sad, a little lonely. I see this see this young lady, and so for 23 days Donald spent a lot of time with Marianne. Of course, it’s all good; for love. Happily, the rest of the voyage did not last very long. I did not want to lose my vocation. But, you know, the Lord talks to us. “So Donald, you need love? You had your choice.” So I arrived, like I say, after twenty three days. I never saw her again. So, like you already know, I arrived in Madagascar in 1958. I cannot describe all my experiences. There are too many.I cannot tell all the ways that God acts in our life. How God reveals Himself in the events of our life. He makes a lot of marks on us.
So, I will give you but one example. It happened in 1982. I had been in Madagascar for almost 25 years. I was the pastor of the cathedral parish of the diocese of Morondava. It was a city of 60,000 inhabitants. In the evening between 5 and 7, I would visit the various sections of the parish, homes and families. So, every evening at the same time I would leave with the catechist, religious sisters and lay people to visit. Once, we were in a very heavily populated sector, with narrow paths. So, we left one house to go to another and it had become a little dark, and I tripped. I put my foot down without being sure of my step. I didn’t see what was in the path. I fell, Kaaach! I realized then that I had tripped over a young man. I became angry and I started to scold him with forceful language. It was my first reaction. I was humiliated. I fell right there and when I looked down, I noticed that he could not walk. He was dragging himself along. He had two very small legs and he could not walk. He was dragging himself along in the dirt. So, my attitude immediately changed. I excused myself. “What are you doing there?” I let him know that I was very sorry. I asked him where he lived and we went with him to his house. It was a small cabin, like a small cage. He was living there with his grandmother. She was angry. He would only go out at dark because the family was ashamed of him. So I told his grandmother that he was already 12 years old. He could go to school. She said, “Yes. How will he go to school? He cannot walk.” I said that I would get a wheelchair from the United States; I knew some religious sisters. I asked them if they could take him in their school. They said “yes.” So we got a wheelchair and he started to go to school. One day, someone told me, ‘You know, Father, this young man can walk. There’s a hospital in Antsirabe they do surgeries. They also make prostheses there.” So, I brought him to Antsirabe. That’s not easy. So there he was in Antsirabe. He was under the care of the hospital for two years. There were operations. Braces, canes and shoes, etc. After two years he returned to Morondava. Great joy. The whole town was rejoicing. “Look, he’s walking! He’s standing!”
Then, one day at the parish a woman approached me and said that she too had a child who could not walk. So I took the information, name, address, etc. Then a week later, another one. Then a third, a fourth, a fifth…When I had seven, ooop, we leave for Antsirabe. I take them to the clinic and they stay there. I continue doing this. I bring 10; 15; another 10. I had absolutely no idea how I got into this. I knew nothing about this. And this never came from me. I had never felt a vocation to care for the handicapped. It was an accident. I tripped over this boy in the dark. One boy. When we had 50 the directress of the professor of Antsirabe told that I needed a shop to repair the shoes and the braces of those who were now back in Morondava. “These things do break,” she said. So, we built a workshop. We sent two of the handicapped to Antsirabe to train on how to repair the equipment that had been built for them. We then started this small shop. So we went from one thing to another. I had not one single qualification. Now there are over 100 handicapped children who today walk with braces, thanks to the one little boy. We have come to identify over 700 handicapped in Morondava who cannot walk. We have a foyer for the handicapped, both physically and mentally. We have four religious sisters and two lay people to care for them. We have handicapped people working in the repair shop. I have nothing, nothing to do with this. I know nothing about this. It is God who acts. As a person, so much goes back to the family. There is the community. I could never do anything without my family and the community. Even now. I thank God that I still have family. Cousins, nephews, nieces, aunts and the community and the population of Madagascar. The welcome of the people of Madagascar; The Christian communities of Madagascar welcomed me as a brother. They showed the love and the support of my work. This too is very, very important in our life. You too have your families, the community and your parish. There is a need for this community to supports us. There is the need for us to recognize this community support.
While I was in Rome, they asked me, “How did you do it, staying there for 50 years?” I answered that when I left, I told the Superior General, who in those days was father Imhoff, “I’m going to Madagascar for five years.” No matter what I said, I am still there. So, I acted. This work that I was able to do I did it with the Lord. If I had not fallen over that young man, who knows what would have happened. But at that moment, I fell off my pride, like St. Paul. I had sinned by getting angry, but with that, God came and enlightened me through the foundation of the foyer for the handicapped. He showed me the gate of the temple. You know the story in the Acts, in chapter three, when Peter tells the handicapped man, “Of gold and silver I have none, but of what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ, get up and walk.” And it is that, which we tried to do. In Madagascar, in the Malagasy culture, a handicap is like an insult. It is a shame. The handicapped are hidden. The handicapped are hidden because those who know them are ashamed of them. They are ashamed of them. A handicap is deemed to be a malediction. It is considered to be a punishment.
So the marvel that the Lord did was noticed by many people who would come to Morondava and who would ask us, “Why is it that in Morondava you have so many handicapped people?” It is not more than the rest. But thanks to God, we have been able to bring them to the surface. I cannot congratulate myself for this work. I had absolutely nothing to do with it. It is the work of God who weaves the story with us. It is a work of God’s love this rehabilitation of the handicapped.
Therefore I told this story because it is an example of the work of God through me in my ministry. So, often, people ask me, “What is the most difficult for the missionary?” I say, It is not the culture. It is not the mosquitoes. It is not the doubts that arise in the deep bush. There are times when we feel lonesome, we can feel alone. The solitude can be difficult. At night we are alone. The people retire early. We feel alone. Isolated. It is therefore a grace to run to the only solution, prayer. An encounter with the Lord who reveals Himself to us.
Now, my mission is on the coast. I don’t know if you are familiar with Madagascar. It is an island. We were on the western coast. There are very many villages along the length of the coast. There are many of these very small villages who depend on fishing for their living. These villages are populated by 300, 400, or 1,000 people along the whole length of the coast. Our diocese has 400 kilometers of coastline. So I did a lot of travelling on the sea. It was in the pirogue. I don’t know if you know what a pirogue1 is. It is a very, very ancient technology. It comes from Indonesia. The pirogue is not found in Africa. It is believed that people crossed over the ocean in these craft to come to the eastern coast of Madagascar. When you are in the pirogue, you are at the level of the surface of the sea. There is a sail. It is magnificent. If you ever come to Madagascar you have to take a trip in a pirogue. If you want real adventure, take your trip at night. That is a mystical, spiritual experience. You’re in the middle of the ocean, in this tiny pirogue, seated. The wind is pushing you by the square sail. The piroguist is the only one controlling the craft. You are being pushed by the wind in a deep silence. You can touch the stars. And so, you feel very close to the Lord, especially because you know that you’re doing it for the Lord. You know that it is for evangelization. You’re announcing Him. These are consolations that the Lord gives you to let you feel His presence. So one time, I had to leave from a distant village to return to Morondava by sea. This was normally a trip of 4 to 6 hours in the pirogue, if the wind was good. With no wind, or very poor wind, 10 hours. It was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. They put me in a pirogue with 400 kilos of cargo. ( “Targue”) I was sitting on the cargo. So it was magnificent. The stars, the silence and the gentle wind that was pushing us. But I was being pinched and bothered by the cargo. All night there was no way to find a comfortable position. I couldn’t get comfortable with my derriere being pinched and pricked all night. That is one trip that I will never forget. I was starting my Lent with a sacrifice.
So there. That’s how God reveals Himself to us, and offers us consolations as missionaries.
Also, one time I was making the rounds on foot. We used to make many rounds on foot. With a back pack, we would walk from village to village. It could be 20, 25, 30 kilometers between villages. You get to a village, stay there two days and move on. One time, we were in a pagan village. The welcome was not that great. I asked the catechist, “How much time to the next village?” He responded, “Two hours walk.” So I said, “We can leave at 4:00 in the morning and leave without breakfast. I can walk for two hours while fasting. After two hours we will arrive at the village and we will have something to eat.” So, we left at 4:00 in the morning. Walking, walking. Nothing to eat. No coffee. Huh. So we’re walking and it is coming up on two hours. In fact, at about 8:00 in the morning we had not yet arrived at the village. At that time I had a moment of weakness. I could not walk. I was just HHIISSSHHHH. I was hungry. I was weak. So I said, “Excuse me but we have to stop. We are going to stop and rest, I can no longer walk.” Then the catechist said, “You stay here. Do not move.” He left. He was on foot. He left his baggage. He left. I was waiting. Not more than 1o minutes, believe me, not more than 10 minutes later, he came back carrying a magnificent honeycomb. He had found a wild beehive and he was able to dislodge the honeycomb. He gave me that and after I had eaten all the honey that I wanted, I was re-energized. Thanks to God, I regained my strength and I was able to continue walking. God was there. I was moved to tears thinking about how God provides. He is always there and He is a constant companion.
Here at La Salette, we are reminded of that. We have a very strong example of the truth that when we see, it is easy for us to believe. We are given the example of Maximin’s father who could not think that God was present. But when Maximin told him that Our Mother had told about the episode at the land at Coin, when the father gave his boy a piece of bread made a deep impression. Such a trite and banal act did not escape the vigilance of the mother of God. She was there. It is only after the fact that they remembered and realized that God was there. I was the same. That morning on the way to the village, I was not thinking about God. I was weak. I was afraid. After I had eaten the honey that God had provided in this corner of the deep and isolated bush, I knew in my renewed strength that this was a gift from God. It is through these experiences that we see God in our life.
1. Translator’s note: I kept this word because it is so distinctive. I learned it as a boy because in Canada some people call the canoe, “pirogue.” This is especially applicable to the dugout canoe of the indigenous people of North America. The essential difference from what is described here and the North American canoe, is that the canoe is not fitted with a sail.