As we celebrate Mission Sunday today, I am very happy to announce that also in Rome today, Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI is canonising as a saint Fr Jacques Bertieu, one of our French Jesuits who was sent as a missionary to Madagascar in 1896.
It is of great significance that we reflect on the life of Fr Bertieu because as he lived his life to the full and eventually died for his faith out of his love for God, we too in our celebration of Mission Sunday are called to ask ourselves, “How is God calling me to make Him more fully known and loved in our daily living?” This is the basic question that all missionaries would most probably constantly ask themselves and treasure in their hearts. In fact, missionaries like Fr Bertieu are so passionate about making Christ known and loved that they would consider it a great honour and gift from God to suffer and die for their faith as Jesus did on the Cross.
In Fr Adolfo Nicolas’ (Superior General of the Jesuit Order) letter to all Jesuits recently, he states and explains the following about Fr Berthieu. I have extracted and adapted some of the points that I consider relevant to share in this homily. Fr. Berthieu, martyred in Madagascar in 1896, was a diocesan priest for nine years before deciding to enter the Society of Jesus (the “Jesuits”) at age 35. As a missionary in Madagascar, he nearly tripled the number of mission stations on the island’s northern end. While accompanying refugees who were attempting to escape a violent rebellion by the Menalamba (“red shawl”) tribe who were out to kill Christians and colonizers, Fr. Berthieu was captured.
Fr Jacques Bertieu, a missionary Jesuit, canonised on 21 Oct 2012
They seized him and stripped him of his religious cassock; one of them snatched Fr Berthieu’s crucifix and asked him, “Is this your amulet? Is this how you mislead people? Will you continue to pray for a long time?” Fr Berthieu responded: “I have to pray until I die.” One of them then struck Fr Berthieu’s forehead with a machete; he fell to his knees; bleeding profusely. The Menalamba then led him away . . . heading for a village of their tribe which would be a long trek.
As night drew near, after some deliberation, a decision was made to kill Fr Berthieu. The chief gathered six men armed with guns to execute him. Fr Berthieu knowing that his death was imminent, knelt down, made the sign of the cross and bowed his head to prepare himself for martyrdom. Two men fired simultaneously at him, but missed. Then, one of the chiefs approached Fr Berthieu and said: “Give up your hateful religion, do not mislead the people anymore, and we will make you our counselor and our chief, and we will spare you.” Fr Berthieu immediately replied: “I cannot consent to this; I prefer to die.” In all these, Fr Berthieu was on his knees; he continued to bow his head in prayer. Then, another two men fired at him; again they missed him. When a fifth shot then hit Fr Berthieu he remained kneeling. A last shot was then fired at close range; this finally killed Fr Berthieu.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, in today’s Gospel, Jesus tells His disciples, “Anyone who wants to be ‘great’ must be your ‘servant,’ and anyone who wants to be ‘first’ must be a ‘slave’ of all. And, to this Jesus adds, “For the Son of Man Himself did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Fr Berthieu, and from today would be called St Jacques Berthieu, lived the Gospel exemplarily; he suffered and eventually died for his faith just as Christ did.
When Fr Berthieu, with courage said, “I rather die than to give up my faith,” was it difficult for him? To answer this question, we have to remind ourselves that Fr Berthieu is in every way as fully human as you and I. Thus, during the moments of his great suffering and torture, he must have pleaded with God, as Jesus did, “Lord, if possible, remove this cup, but let Your Will be done; not mine.”
As it is a fact that Fr Berthieu persevered faithfully to the end, we can be sure that he was able to do so because it was the divine power of God within his heart that gave him the strength to endure all his sufferings and to give himself totally to make Christ known and loved.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, this same Holy Spirit is also present in each of our hearts. This same Holy Spirit is urging you and I to be the missionary of Christ who in today’s Gospel urges us to “be great for God” by becoming a “servant and a slave” of the Good News of Salvation; not so much as to preach in foreign lands, but more so to make Christ known and loved in our daily living.
In short, Jesus is inviting you and I to take up the daily challenges to make Him known and loved. Holiness is taking up God’s challenge to love Him daily. Holiness is more specifically, affirming and obeying the divine power of God’s Spirit who is present within our hearts. Fr Berthieu grew in strength and courage daily and not overnight. Do we want the gift of holiness that God wants to give you and I?
Fr Bertieu was able to attain such heights of holiness as a missionary because first, he was a man of prayer, second, he was a great pastor who was able to put his prayer in to action, and third, at the heart of Fr Berthieu’s commitment was his total and irreversible gift of his life to follow Christ.
First, as a “man of prayer” Fr Nicolas said that Fr Bertieu drew strength from his prayer life. One catechist testified, “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.” 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. He also had great devotions to Our Lady; went on pilgrimage to Lourdes, and was praying the Rosary as he was being led to his death. He also venerated Saint Joseph.
Second, as a pastor, Fr Berthieu 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 like fidelity in marriage. “He was gentle, patient, zealous in carrying out his ministry whenever he was called, even when someone called him at midnight or when it was raining heavily.” He took it upon himself to visit two female lepers who were in great need; he brought them food and clothing, and taught them catechism, until he baptized 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.”
In Fr Berthieu’s commitment to Christ, especially in the midst of trials, he retained his sense of humour, and remained affable, humble and helpful. He liked to quote the Gospel passage: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but rather of those who make one lose one’s soul.” (cf. Mt 10:28).
As I conclude, let us remind ourselves that in today’s Gospel, Jesus tells His disciples and us that anyone of us who wants to be ‘great’ and ‘first’ must be a ‘servant and slave’ of all. . . for the Son of Man Himself did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” The honour of the sainthood of Fr Berthieu is great and universal, but he paid a very high price for it.
The apostles James and John who had great ambition of success, that we heard of in today’s Gospel, eventually also followed Christ to the end too: James was martyred and John suffered much for the Gospel. All of them followed Jesus who Himself too had to walk the path of Calvary to save all of us and all of humankind.
What about us? Do we want to grow in holiness daily and make Jesus known and loved? If so, then are we willing to be challenged by the divine Spirit of God that is already present within each of our hearts or are we going to say to Jesus, “Not yet . . .” or worse still, “Not me . . .” If Jesus were to hear this, would He not be deeply saddened? Let us pray to St Jacques Berthieu for the wisdom to change for the better from today; that’s the grace of Mission Sunday today.
Fr Philip Heng,S.J.
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