La Salette Missionaries, Province of Mary, Mother of the Americas

Madagascar and Family Life

I invite you to take a look at family life in one of our foreign missions, namely the Malagasy Republic (Madagascar). I have been fortunate in having had the opportunity to speak at length on this matter with five La Salette Missionaries from Madagascar, on different occasions. Along with three Americans – Fr. Jack Nuelle, Bro. Mark Gallant and Bp. Donald Pelletier – I would like to acknowledge also Fr. Tristan de Salmiech of France and Fr. Marian Sajdak of Poland. To all of these La Salettes I am most grateful, and I am very happy to share their reflections and insights.

Priest baptizes a Malagasy infant

In Western society, marriage is generally the starting point of a distinct new family, which is self-sufficient, with a legitimate claim to goods and property of its own. A family is most commonly defined as consisting of parents and their children.

Family, and Marriage – Madagascar Style

It is quite another matter in African society. There, marriage does not give rise to a new, distinct entity, but serves chiefly to continue the life of the broader family. It provides for a flow of life, that the life received from the ancestors will be passed on from generation to generation.

A “family,” therefore, in Madagascar is much larger than in Europe and America. This is brought home more forcibly when we learn that the Malagasy language has no word for “aunt” or “uncle” or “cousin."
Cousins are all “brothers” and “sisters,” aunts and uncles are “mothers” and “fathers.” Children belong to the whole family, or clan, not more

Untitled-2.jpgto the parents than to anyone else. Everyone is related, in the very real sense that all the members in this extended family are truly in intimate relationship with one another. A child is precious to all, and grows up with a constant and profound sense of being accepted. In a total population of 8.5 million, there is not a single orphanage!

Malagasy “families” are stable, and this for various reasons. First, the whole family works the same rice field, and tends therefore to stay near the rice field. Secondly, outside the towns and cities there is no easy transportation or communication and 75 % of the population lives in the bush. Thirdly, children are very docile to their elders (not just to their parents) and are content to live the way others have lived before them. In more recent times some of this has begun to change, but what is said here is still true of the great majority.

Bp. Donald Pelletier, M.S., with school children

The Traditional Approach to Marriage

First, a teenager's parents and elders will decide it's time they had one less mouth to feed, and build a small hut for their son (around age 18) or their daughter (around age 16), and then arrange with another family for a potential spouse to share the hut.Given this broad family context, let us now take a look at marriage in Malagasy society. The traditional approach to marriage is progressive.

Second, if the young man and woman are getting along, they may indicate a desire to enter into a more formal relationship. At this point the two “families” will get together to make arrangements for a betrothal ceremony. An arbitrator will help them reach an agreement on a dowry to be paid by the boy's family, to compensate the girl's family for the fact that she will no longer be there to help with the work in the rice field. The betrothal takes place, and all the grownups bless the boy and girl by blowing water on them.

Third, once the dowry has been completely paid and once a child has been born, guaranteeing that the wife-to-be is fertile, the families will come together for the formal native marriage ceremony. This is considered sacred, and in principle the marriage is considered permanent; or, as the Malagasy proverb goes, “Only death can separate a chicken from its feathers.”

In fact, however, many marriages break up. Here, too, the consent of both families is required, and divorce brings no disgrace. It is actually more like an annulment, acknowledging that this was not a question of “a chicken and its feathers” in the first place. Younger children will go to the mother's family, older children to the father's. The wife will also take one third of what she and her husband have earned in common.

Women and children dance at native music

Women Are Equal

“Aha!” you cry, “they are sexists!” Not so. The reason for this division goes back to the work in the rice field. A man carries two bundles at a time, one at each end of a pole across his shoulder. A woman, on the other hand, carries things on her head, just one bundle at a time. She “earns,” therefore, half of what her husband earns.

As a matter of fact, Malagasy society was for a long time matriarchal, and the island was ruled by queens. For all the clear distinction of roles, women are treated as equals, and have a full voice in all family deliberations. A woman may be the head of a clan as easily as a man.

A Malagasy couple hold banner for
“Marriage Encounter Madagascar”

What causes the breakup of a marriage? Two factors chiefly. Either the boy and girl did not have the time really to get to know each other – they may never have met before they started living together – and now they discover they are incompatible; or, once there are children, the wife gives all her attention to them, to the exclusion of her husband, who then will look elsewhere for the satisfaction of his needs, and “the other woman” enters the picture.

Many marriages, of course, do not break up. The tribal marriage may be followed by a civil ceremony. This is more complicated than one might think, because a birth certificate is required, and most people don't have a birth certificate. They must therefore go to the nearest town with witnesses who will testify to their parentage and their place and date of birth. Because this can be quite inconvenient, many will not bother with the civil marriage, even though the government gives financial aid to those married civilly.

The Missionary and Madagascar’s Culture

Enter the missionary. How is he to present the Catholic view of marriage to the Malagasy people? Missionaries today in all countries are very

Untitled-6.jpgmaking known to them the God they had formerly worshipped as the “unknown god” (Acts 17:22-23), they first examine the beliefs and customs of the people, to find points of contact with Christian faith. They then present Christian belief as the fulfillment of local beliefs, and try to integrate Catholic ritual and local customs, obviously within certain limits.

With regard to marriage, the missionary can take hold of the Malagasies’ sense of the sacredness and permanence of marriage. So far, so good. If married people seek to become Catholics, their two years of instruction will include Catholic teaching on marriage, and if they then choose to be baptized, their union will be ratified as a Catholic marriage.

Pastoral Situations and Church Law

Let us suppose, however, that a girl was baptized as a little child, and now is in her middle teens. The time has come for her to enter into the Untitled-7.jpgmarriage process; she moves in with a boy a year or two older than herself.

What is now her status in the Church? She is living in concubinage (living with a man although not yet married), which is normal for Malagasy girls her age, but in the eyes of the Church she is, for all practical purposes, though not in conscience, living in sin, and therefore cannot receive the sacraments. And yet, she is not ready for the commitment of a Catholic marriage. She hardly knows this boy. Part of her dowry may remain to be paid. And there can be no serious commitment before at least one child is born.

This is a painfully problematic situation, which may continue even over a period of many years. The Christian community does not reject the person in this situation, but it is very difficult, say, for the girl in our example, to continue to participate in Catholic worship when she cannot receive Communion. She Untitled-8.jpgwill probably drift away from the Church, especially if her intended spouse is not Christian. At best she will come to church on certain occasions, like Ash Wednesday or Palm Sunday, when she may participate in the special ritual of ashes or palms.

Such a case is not exceptional, and missionaries find some of their most promising “parishioners” cut off from the Church and the sacraments at that significant moment when they are about to take on the most serious responsibilities within the “family.” In many instances the best the missionary can hope for is that this trying time will be brief.

He cannot simply demand at once a Catholic marriage, for two reasons. First, the two young people are probably not ready for such a commitment. Secondly, by Malagasy law no couple may be married religiously who have not been married civilly; and since many people put off civil marriage indefinitely, any religious ceremony is likewise postponed.

Can You Be Both Malagasy and Catholic?

Untitled-9.jpgThis situation epitomizes a typical dilemma, which has grown more pronounced since the French colony of
Madagascar gained its independence in 1958 and became the Malagasy Republic. The dilemma is this: is it possible to be 100% Malagasy and 100% Catholic?

The missionary, naturally, believes that it is indeed possible to be both; but he cannot demonstrate this on his own. It will depend on the members of his congregation, who are in fact Catholic and Malagasy, to show that faith does not violate national pride. But it will take a very, very strong faith for them to make the Christian choice when a conflict between Christian values and Malagasy ways appears inevitable.

Untitled-10.jpgUnless Christian values are perceived as more desirable than local customs, it will be almost impossible for a person to behave differently from the rest of the population. Even though the Malagasy people are extremely tolerant of differences in their midst, still the person who acts differently can feel like an outsider.

One way that Catholic marriage may become more attractive is through Marriage Encounter, only recently introduced to the island. It is hoped that Catholic couples will be able to strengthen their own relationship, without sacrificing the values of their broader relationship with their “family,” and thus provide a stronger nucleus of support for their living out their faith.

Special care will have to be taken to show that Encounter is not another ficambanana, or association, which might conflict with one’s commitments to other associations. The focus of Marriage Encounter is on the relationship of the Christian couple, not more, not less. This represents a significant departure from the traditional Malagasy view, in which being parents, transmitting the flow of life received from the ancestors, is much more important than being a couple.

 La Salette window in Madagascar Church

A Native Bishop and Native Customs

“One of the bishops, a native bishop, went to his father's funeral. In his tribe, one of the things they do at a funeral is to have two members of the ‘family’ hold the body high enough so that all the deceased's children may walk under the body with their spouses and children. They do this three times, thus receiving a final blessing from their mother or father who has now become an ancestor.This reality affects religious and priestly vocations as well, as the following story related by Fr. Jack Nuelle illustrates.

“Now the bishop was the third or fourth in his family, and when it came time for him to go under his father's body – and this is a man who was a Jesuit – he felt so much of a lack, because he could not go under his father's body with the offering to his ancestors of continuing that flow of life which he had gotten from them, that he could only walk under it once!”

As I have learned, life in the missions has many more challenges beyond learning the language. Their customs, as we have reviewed in the case of Madagascar, are many and sometimes complicated. But, as I said above, they need strong faith to persevere. So too for the La Salette Missionaries who serve them.

Please pray for our many La Salette Missionaries in Madagascar, Argentina, and Angola, and please say a special prayer for young Malagasies faced with the painful choice between Catholic marriage and tribal ways. May God guide and bless them abundantly.








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