June 8th: Blessed James Berthieu, SJ

June 8th - Blessed James Berthieu, SJ

Born : November 27, 1838
Died : June 8, 1896
Beatified : October 17, 1965

James Berthieu, a Frenchman, was born on a small farm in Monlogis, Polminhac, in the diocese of Saint-Flour. As a youth he studied at the minor seminary at Pleaux before he joined the major seminary at Saint-Flour in 1859, and was ordained a priest in 1864. He was assigned to a country parish in Roannes-Saint-Mary, where he served for nine years as a diocesan priest until he decided to enter the Society of Jesus. And so with the permission of the bishop, the 35-year old Fr Berthieu entered the Jesuit novitiate at Pau on October 31, 1873.

As he had been a priest for some time, Fr Berthieu’s noviceship training was different from the other novices who were fifteen years his junior. Before finishing his second year of noviceship, he was appointed to the Madagascar mission with a missionary companion. He made his religious vows just before beginning his first mission to the island of Saint-Marie. There he threw himself into missionary work immediately, catechized children, dispensed sacraments, heard confessions, and cared for the sick. There were twp other Jesuits on the island with him, but one was old and the other infirm, hence Fr Berthieu had to bear the burdens of the mission.

For four years, Fr Berthieu relished the work and peace at Saint-Marie, but these were soon interrupted by France’s decree expelling the Jesuits. In 1880 the French government closed the Society’s schools and forced the Jesuits into exile. Fr Berthieu went to Tamatave on Madagascar Island and later to several other islands but this missionary work also was also halted when another war was declared. Fr Berthieu had to walk 200 miles which took him almost a month to reach Tamatave, where he met his fellow Jesuits. As he could not engage in any priestly ministry, Fr Berthieu devoted his energy to gardening and growing food. When peace returned after two years in 1885, he reopened the mission at Ambositra and later started a new mission at Andrainarivo. As the new mission covered a large area, he had eighteen stations to visit and he was often on the road. His work was interrupted several times by new warfare against the French.

In the Menalamba rebellion in 1896, the French colonel, concerned about the people’s safety, ordered them to move outside the village. Fr Berthieu went with his people and camped with them in the fields, enduring the hardships of living outdoors, day and night. The non-Catholic missionaries had been, for some time, inciting the non-Christians to resist the missionaries on the island and in the view of Fr Berthieu “the devil is directing the entire operation.” On their way to the capital after he received word that it would be safer for his group to move there, they were attacked by the Menalamba tribe and were forced to scatter to any nearby villages. Fr Berthieu and some of his people found hospitality in Ambohibemasoandro. The next day the Manalamba came to the village and arrested him. They maltreated him, and after clubbing and wounding him, they stripped him of his cassock and forced him to follow them in the cold rain to the residence of their chief. Fr Berthieu was shivering from the cold and his undershirt was heavily bloodstained from his wounds. When Fr Berthieu refused to accept the chief’s offer of becoming the Manalamba’s leader and counselor and would spare his life if he would renounce his faith, the men attacked him with clubs and he was killed by a blow to his head. After he was killed, his attackers took his body and threw it into the river and it was never recovered.

Fr Berthieu died a martyr’s death at the age of fifty-eight and was beatified by Pope Paul VI on October 17, 1896.