If, as the saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention (and innovation),” we can understand why the first missionaries in Africa and Madagascar instituted a new ministry for laypeople, a ministry that still exists today, called “the Lay Catechist”.
A Much-Needed Ministry
The need for it is clear. As one priest was covering vast areas with sometimes hundreds of dispersed rural villages it was impossible for the one priest to assure the pastoral care of fifty of sixty communities, considering roads were non-existent and rivers did not have bridges.
The catechist is actually a church leader and shepherd, although not an ordained minister. Therefore he is serving the community from the basic nature and normal demands of baptism. He was given a very vital serious responsibility in the Catholic community as a co-worker and ambassador of the priest. Not only does he preside and animate the Sunday Liturgy of the Word and homily when a priest is not able to be present, but he prepares the faithful for the reception of various sacraments. Baptisms, Eucharist, Confirmation, Marriage preparation are his responsibility.
The missionary on his visits meets with the various candidates and decides when the sacraments will be administered, confidant that the Catechist will continue to assure the preparation. Except for urgent baptisms, all sacraments will be celebrated by the priest on his visits to the Christian community. This will vary greatly depending on road conditions and the importance of the community.
Catechist or Deacon – Baptism of Holy Orders?
The catechist will accompany the sick, the dying and preside at Funeral services. In view of all the ministries assured by these catechists, people wonder why they are not ordained deacons. In some ways they do more than a deacon but then – though they assure the preparation – they cannot and would not administer sacraments as would the deacon.
Why do Bishops hesitate to ordain as deacons the full-time catechist who remains the driving force of evangelization and leader of a Christian community? There is a fear of over-clericalizing the Catholic Church in Madagascar. In fact these simple poor men after deaconate ordination may be tempted to lose sight of their primary vocation as baptized Christians as they enter the hierarchy of the Church.
But there is a deeper, more theological reason in the fact that the Sacrament of Baptism that confers the fullness of life in Christ through the Holy Spirit is more powerful –absolutely more necessary – to enter the Kingdom than even the Sacrament of Holy Orders which confers the Holy Spirit for a specific ministry of communion.
The Deaconate is an ordained ministry; the Lay Catechist is a baptismal service to the community. As the Lay Catechist receives a stipend for his precious ministry, the deacon would perhaps require a salary. That could also create a financial burden that our communities could not meet. Thus for the moment there are no permanent deacons in Madagascar while a small army of dedicated Catechists continue to evangelize the many rural communities.
In August of this year I drove through the village of Soatanana (Bekopaka) where John, one of our better Catechists, had prepared forty infant baptisms and was waiting for the priest to come to celebrate this sacrament. No priest had visited the village in over a year. That is the reason that there were forty couples waiting for their children to be baptized.
A Vitally Needed Ministry
Such would not have been the case, in 1925, when infant mortality threatened newborn babies and priests were not readily available. Thus in August of 1925 a baby boy was born to Mary Rose and Charles Ratsimamotoana, a Catholic family living in Betania, the fishing village of Morondava.
As his parents were concerned over their new born baby, they had him baptized by Joseph Benoit, who was catechist at the time. It would be in September of 1926 before Father Picavet, a Jesuit missionary from Ambositra, would cover the four hundred miles and complete the ritual prayers but their newborn, Bernard, had received his new life in Christ through a Lay Catechist.
He would go on to make his first communion, confirmation and in 1941 was the first seminarian to enter the minor seminary in Fianrantsoa. He was ordained priest in 1955 and hardly nine years later in 1964 was named Bishop for the diocese of Morondava.
It was the year of the Eucharistic Congress in Bombay India where Pope Paul VI would ordain five Bishops representing the five continents and Bernard was one of them. What an extraordinary odyssey: baptized by a laymen to be ordained Bishop by the Pope. A great honor to be ordained Bishop by the Pope but a much more precious gift to have received the Life of Christ from a Lay Catechist.
Truly St. Paul’s words were prophetic: “Make every effort to preserve the unity which has the Spirit as its origin and peace as its binding force. There is but one body and one Spirit, just as there is but one hope given all of you by your call. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism: one God and Father of all who is over all , and works through all, and is in all”( Eph.4,3-6).
God does his work through laypeople as well as through Bishops and Popes – ordained ministers. In view of years of positive experience, the Pastoral care of isolated, distant communities is confided to Lay Catechists and this is always for the Greater Glory of God.