Saturday, November 3, 2012

Spirituality: All things to all People

Jesuit Fr General Adolfo Nicolás says the Society’s newest saint, Jacques Berthieu, was a model to all the faithful in his devotion to God’s people.

St Jacques Berthieu was canonised on 21 October in Rome, along with six other blessed, as part of the celebrations for the launch of the Year of Faith.

Born in 1838, Jacques was ordained a diocesan priest in 1864 in Auvergne, central France. A desire to evangelise distant lands and to ground his spiritual life in the Spiritual Exercises led him to seek admission to the Society of Jesus and enter the novitiate in Pau in 1873.

He left France just two years later, sailing to the islands of Réunion and Sainte-Marie near Madagascar. When French territories were closed to Jesuits in 1881, he moved to Madagascar, where he carried out his ministry and worked on missions in various parts of the country.

In 1895, Christian communities were targeted as part of the Menalamba (“red shawl”) revolt. Berthieu sought to place the Christians under the protection of the French troops, but was denied by a French colonel whom he had previously chastised for his behaviour with the women of the country.

His convoy of Christians stopped in the village of Ambohibemasoandro, where Berthieu was finally captured by the Menalamba on 8 June, 1896. He was marched across country, stripped, beaten and mutilated.

The decision was made to kill him. Two men fired simultaneously at him but missed. One of the chiefs gave him the choice to give up his religion and become their advisor and a chief, but Berthieu replied, ‘I cannot consent to this; I prefer to die.’ Two men fired again, and missed him. Another fired a fifth shot, which hit Berthieu without killing him. A sixth shot, fired at close range, finally killed him.

A model for the faithful

In a letter to the Society, published in America last week, Fr Nicolás recalled the French-born Jesuit’s life, and his approach to ministry.

Berthieu said to be a missionary was ‘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’, said Fr Nicolás.

He said the missionary work that Berthieu did grew out of a deep spiritual life. He was often seen reading the catechism, and prayer was a large part of his daily life.

‘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’, said Fr Nicolás. ‘A fervent devotee of the Virgin Mary, he went on pilgrimage to Lourdes, and the rosary was his favourite prayer; it was this prayer that he recited while he was being led to his death.’

His willingness to stand up for Christian principles, which ultimately cost him his chance at safety, was also what made him a model for the faithful today.

‘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’, said Fr Nicolás.

‘The Society rejoices that the church canonizes a new saint from among us, proposes him as a model to all the faithful, and invites them to seek his intercession.’

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha

Also canonised this week was St Kateri Tekakwitha, a Native American who joined a Christian community established by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century.

Shunned by her tribe during her life for her conversion to Catholicism, she continued to live the life of a normal Indian while also following the Gospels. She died at just 24 years of age, six years after she converted to Catholicism, yet her example of charity and giving among her people made such an impact that she was remembered by Native American Catholics long afterwards. She is the first Native American to be venerated by the Catholic Church.

It was Jesuit missionaries who baptised St Kateri, and whose writings provided much of the background for her cause for sainthood. Two of the Jesuits who knew her at the Mission of St Francis Xavier in Quebec wrote biographies of her – Frs Pierre Cholenec, her spiritual director, and Claude Chauchetiere, who also did an oil painting of Kateri after her death (pictured).

Speaking to the Catholic News Service earlier this year, St Kateri’s Postulator, Fr Paul Molinari SJ, said her cause was an important one for the native peoples of North America. The Church, he said, ‘is the first organisation that has acknowledged the richness of one of their own people. The US and Canadian governments have never done anything like that.’