(left) Fr. Jean-Theodre Randriamahenina, M.S.; (right)
hometown of Faratsiho in the rural region of
Madagascar (photo: © Cirad, A. Teyssier)

Editor: Fr. Jean-Theodore, M.S., was asked to share with the members of the French Province his experience of coming from Madagascar three years ago to serve in France.

A little bit about me…

I thank Fr. Frantz Monnet, M.S., the French Provincial, and his council for asking me to speak to you. I am glad to be with you to share some of the modest experiences I have lived while in France. I do this first and foremost as a Malagasy, proceeding slowly (“moramora,” as we say in Malagasy, slowly but never backwards), then as a religious and priest living in the La Salette French Province.

Here are a few words of explanation about how I came to be living here in France for the past three years.

My Seminary Days

In the program for this Gathering, I see that Fr. Gilbert Rakotorahalahy, M.S., will also be speaking. As a Malagasy I have a have a high regard for my elders, no matter who they might be. Yet Fr. Gilbert holds a special place in my heart. Why? Because it was he who sent me to the La Salette Seminary in Antsahasoa in October 1989 when I was only 14 years old. At that time he was pastor of the parish in my hometown of Faratsiho, in the central region of Madagascar. That church had been established by the French La Salette Missionaries and afterward served by Malagasy La Salettes; so don’t be surprised that I say a few words about my La Salette vocation which stems from there.

La Salette runs through my veins, or if you want, is part of my DNA makeup! I made my first profession on September 19, 1996, at the La Salette Shrine in Antsahasoa. Then in 2002 I made my perpetual profession on September 29th. I was ordained on July 29th 2006 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of La Salette in Antsirabe, after which I was named Treasurer of the Scholasticate and Vicar of the Parish of St. Louis in Fenomanana, Antananarivo. I remained there until my arrival in France to begin serving at the Shrine of Notre-Dame de Chêne in the Fiocese of Besançon. There you have it!

My Journey to France

The Shrine of Notre-Dame de Chêne,
in Scey Maisieres, France

…The shrine of Notre-Dame de Chêne had been falling into ruins, and was abandoned in 2006 with the departure of the Montfort Fathers, who had served there for 90 years. In 2007 the bishop requested that the La Salette Missionaries come to serve the Shrine. The French Provincial agreed to send a community of La Salettes to do this ministry. As a result of that decision, I can say that now the Shrine is truly flourishing!

As you all well know, there are not enough priests here in France. In Madagascar it is true that the number of priest is on the increase and that the median age is decreasing – yes, a young church! – but there is still not a sufficient number of priests. On the other hand, priests here in France are aging and becoming fewer in number…

In my three year presence here in the diocese of Besançon, there have been quite a few priests’ funerals yet only one ordination – a La Salette and a Malagasy on June 26, 2011! We are proud of that.

My own coming to France is… the answer to a call and be a free “thank-you” gift because French Missionaries evangelized my homeland, the Great Island of Madagascar. There are still a few French La Salette Missionaries there even today.

Life and Ministry at the Shrine of Notre-Dame de Chêne

Bronze statue of
Notre-Dame de Chêne

La Salettes were asked to be spiritual animators at the Shrine of N-D de Chène. I’m not alone there. We accomplish this animation as a community, especially in and through daily Eucharistic celebrations, which are preceded by Morning or Evening prayer. We take turns preaching to the neighboring people who come to share in these celebrations.

Every Sunday there are two Eucharistic celebrations – one in the morning, another in the evening – in which local residents as well as visitors participate. Then there are six pilgrimages for different parts of the diocese which are spread throughout the year.

Pastoral ministries in different parts of our deanery also fall on us. We don’t have time to twiddle our thumbs! At times each of us says two or three Masses on Sunday. But offering Mass, which is indispensable, is not all.

A Call to Service

I, as well as my fellow priests, am called to service – not merely to be a pastor, a helper or assistant. What does it mean “to serve”? Every priest, by virtue of his prior ordination to the deaconate, is called to service. This implies availability. I would like to be cautious in the use of this word because it could lead to confusion.

A remark was made in the diocese about priests who “come from elsewhere”. I quote from “Eglise de Besançon”, the bi-monthly diocesan revue (Nº 19 from November 17, 2013): “The priest coming from elsewhere should not be seen as a stranger who fills-in, as an arrival in-the-nick-of-time, or worse yet as a person who comes in a time of crisis to fill a gap.”…

I am aware that a priest is not a priest for himself. This conviction has led me to be thoroughly involved in pastoral activity: catechesis, confirmation; health ministries (hospital chaplain, service to sick and handicapped).

Doing What I Can

Jesus enjoying the company of the “little ones”

What can I do? Certainly I can’t solve all the problems. The best I can do is to be engaged and carry my part of the load in educating people in their faith. If I, as a priest, a religious, a La Salette missionary, don’t do what I can, then who will do it? If one does nothing, nothing gets done – of that I am sure. I must bear witness to my faith so that people can see by my engagement in what I believe. That’s no little thing. I can tell you that ministering to children and to the youth gives me much joy. I truly receive much more than I give.

While serving in health ministry, apart from working in the hospitals and retirement homes, I frequently visit many people who live alone, are ill and suffering, along with those who do home care. And I derive joy from it. It’s not their suffering that brings joy, but, while showing the necessary reserve, joy comes from being with them, showing my concern. One day Jesus said: “Whatever you did for one of these little ones …”

I thank God for the quality of service and attention rendered by caregivers to these sick, suffering and handicapped. As I think about what goes on in Madagascar in this regard, I ask the good Lord one thing: that the aged here may be accompanied more and more by their families, and that the indigent of Madagascar (and other countries) have better access to healing remedies. May my prayer be answered.

A Gift From One La Salette Community To Another

My Malagasy La Salette community sends me here. Of course, I do nothing in my own name. It is the community’s mission, not mine! That fact changes everything. In community, how important it is to strengthen each other through prayer and fraternal admonition because, having recently arrived here, I have a lot to learn.

Holy card of Notre-
Dame de Chêne

Sharing with one another, which is always a challenge because we are so different one from another, can never be dispensed with. We are all unique, meaning that each one possesses talents and qualities as well as fragilities and limits. Diversity can prove to be a cherished resource if one knows how to profit by its presence yet this can be an enormous stumbling block if one is stubborn.

From One Culture To Another

During these three plus years in France, much water has flowed under the bridge. My inculturation into life in France and my integration into the life of the church are only beginning… and I hope to continually progress in this process.

We’ll all see what happens to me with my total uprooting from homeland and how it effects me. I can honestly testify that it’s not easy – a new cold climate, language, culture, mentality, food. Adaptation is not a given; it requires time. Time must be given time. But in the meantime, I’m doing all I can to learn, and to inform myself.

Both the diocese and the province offer many formational tools. I am trying my best to take advantage of them. Already, within a month, Dominique will present to us the next permanent formation course on the theme: Our rootedness in the Church of France… We have already dwelled on the laity, ecology, and being uprooted through Exile… Many others will hopefully follow. I can only rejoice and try to profit from these opportunities as I take root and minister here in France.