Dom Christophe Vuillaume, OSB
Priory of Mahitsy (Madagascar)
A sketch of Monastic Life in Madagascar
A Piece of History
When a small group of Benedictine sisters (missionaries) of St-Bathilde arrived in 1934 on the Great Island monastic life was practically unknown. The congregations already present, some since the beginning of the nineteenth century, Jesuits, Sisters of Cluny, etc, were all apostolic missionaries. So much so that, in order not totally to disappoint the expectations of the population of Ambositra where they settled, our sisters needed to open a little school and give practical teaching there. This would also be the source of their first local vocations. This monastery, situated in the country of Betsileo, 300km south of Antananarivo, was to grow so swiftly that they could found another priory at Mananjary on the east coast in 1955 and a third in the far North, at Diego Suares (Antsianana) in 1976.
Not until 1954 did the monks of La Pierre-qui-Vire arrive in Madagascar; they had already made a foundation in Vietnam in 1947. Welcomed by the Jesuits, they set up on one of their farms in the mountains (1,500m) 7km from Mahitsy and about 30km from Antananarivo. It was still (since 1896) under a colonial regime, which made the settlement easier, Four brothers, whose superior was only thirty years old, set up their little monastery in the open country with very slight resources, practically reproducing, according to the practice of the time, the life of the mother-house.
A few years later, and certainly encouraged by their Benedictine brothers, the Cistercians (then called ‘Trappists’) arrived, sent by Dom Louf, abbot of Mont-des-Cats, in 1958. They also decided to settle in the central plateau, but in the region of Betsileo, only a few kilometres from the regional capital Fianarantsoa, 400km south of Antananarivo. This is the monastery of Maromby. Finally came our Cistercian sisters of Campeneac (Brittany), who established themselves not far from their brothers at Ampibanjinana, ‘the place of contemplation’.
Religious Life on the Great Island
The apostles of Catholicism in Madagascar are without any doubt the Jesuits. Although several missions were sent in the fifteenth and then in the seventeenth centuries, especially the Lazarists of St Vincent de Paul, the decisive move was begun in the middle of the nineteenth century. It was then that the often authoritarian monarchy which at that time ruled the central part of the island began to open up to western influence. It began by commerce, industry, military equipment, with some hesitations Catholic and Protestant Christianity as vehicles of European culture. France and Great Britain competed for influence in the land, often fiercely, between Anglicans, soon joined by various branches of Protestantism, and Roman Catholics. Finally the French Republic undertook the conquest of Madagascar in 1896, at the same time allowing the unification of some twenty tribes into a single nation. The colony, as everywhere, was not merely a military venture but a work of real development, and especially according to the ideas of Marshals Gallieni and Lyautey.
The extraordinary flowering of religious life in France in the nineteenth century rapidly spread to the Great Island, where foundations multiplied throughout the twentieth century and right up to the present. There are at present more than 115 female congregations and about 37 male ones, often very fruitful. Contemplative life is well represented, in that, besides the sons and daughters of St Benedict, six Carmels and four Cleretian monasteries have been set up in Madagascar, with good recruitment. Notable also is the presence of other contemplative congregations, Trinitarians of Rome, a contemplative fraternity of P. de Foucauld, etc.
Christianity, solidly planted in the hill country (Merina and Betsileo tribes) continues its work of evangelisation, difficult though it may be, on the coast, the great South and the great North. Although the same language is spoken by the whole population, different dialects and above all different mentalities can still make obstacles, even in religious communities.
Characteristics of monastic life in Madagascar
Sons and daughters of St Benedict live all over the world the same monastic life based on the observance of the Rule and our traditions, but with variations which it would be well to note here.
Still very close to French models, the liturgy has gradually become inculturated under the influence of Vatican II. Dom Gilles Gaide, monk of Mahitsy, was one of the main movers in this task with his team Ankalazao ny Tompo (‘Praise the Lord’). This undertook not only the composition of an equivalent of the breviary, Vavaka inab’andro, but also a considerable body of hymns and canticles, known pretty well by heart and sung throughout the island, including parishes. Using this edition on certain occasions, monastic communities have each composed their own prayer-books in fidelity to their own traditions. To the present day some continue to recite Vigils in French, while others celebrate the whole liturgy in the local language.
Traditional music is rarely used (tambour and valiha). By contrast there is a collection in Malgache for the Easter celebrations, Palm Sunday and Pentecost and booklets for other seasons.
These are almost the same as in France. Ascesis remains the same. Everywhere meals are fairly frugal, mingling Madagasque and Western customs. The traditional monastic habit is worn in all the monasteries without any difficulty. However a greater attention to traditional rites must be noted, notably at the death of a brother or sister. Great attention is paid to the quality of human relations, good understanding with neighbours, which also implies a real solidarity. For this reason silence is often difficult to observe, since direct contact has a special place in a still largely oral tradition. In general the local society is strongly developed in many rites and customs, which of course helps newcomers to enter into monastic observance.
For a long time this was slow, especially among monks. But a change took place or is taking place, and our effective membership is spread between about 25 and 35. Ten years ago our brothers of Maromby sent some brothers to the Seychelles to open a house annexed to the monastery of Fianarantsoa (at present five brothers). As for the sisters, apart from Ambositra (about thirty sisters) each of the communities has about a dozen. Recruitment is mainly local, and the educational level of baccalaureate is normally required, though there are exceptions. In a country where the economy is developing only with difficulty, a prudent discernment of vocations is essential but always delicate. We must remember that on the coast Christianity is still quite recent, which also explains the relative rarity of vocations and perseverance. With the extensions and prolongation of schooling the type of recruitment is already changing, doubtless in favour of better trained vocations and more attuned minds. At the present time the prioress of Ampibanjinana is French and there are two French brothers at Mahitsy.
Apart from the normal training of all novitiates a great effort has been made in the new century to set up a monastic studium with the support of the AIM on the model of the STIM and shared by our six monasteries. Several monks and nuns teach or have taught there as well as several seminary professors. Mahitsy has managed to maintain its own studium of theology since the 1990s. We have no hesitation in sending young monks to study in France, but also at the Institut Catholique of Madagascar as well as a cycle of studies for religious formators. Mahistsy had also translated into the local language a large number of texts from the ancient and contemporary monastic tradition.
This is in general stable even if certain monasteries have some problems. There again little difference from our French monasteries: farming, use of the forest, wine and liqueurs, confectionery, biscuits or cheese, local crafts, a small bookshop. The monastery of St John the Baptist in the tourist bay of Diego also receives visits from tourists who appreciate the presence of a welcoming monastic community.
6. Contribution to the local Church
This link is more important in Madagascar than in Europe. This is shown by shared participation in celebrations and diocesan meetings and a cordial relationship with our pastors who normally appreciate and respect our monastic charism. Our guest accommodation is mostly well used especially at the time of the great liturgical festivals. We note also the existence of a meeting of monastic superiors of the island which has recently included Carmelites and Poor Clares. It occurs every two years, including not only exchanges between superiors, but also a time of formation.
A last trait to mention is that the relative isolation of our monasteries, due in part to the geographical remoteness of Madagascar (9,000km from France) and lack of easy communication with African countries. We should say that the culture and mentality of Madagascar do not have much to do with those of Africa, though there are some resemblances. In many ways they are closer to an Asiatic mentality. The distant ancestors of an important part of the population, especially in the region of Antananarivo and beyond, came originally from Polynesia and retain both physical traits and linguistic and cultural heritage. It is therefore not surprising that local culture has all the elements of insularity, which do not help much towards real openness, fruitful exchanges and cultural and economic advances. We should note that residence in our French monasteries for study or fuller formation of brothers or sisters, as well as sessions such as Ananias and St Anne, have made quite a difference.
8. The Future
It is true to say that our communities are almost all composed of an overwhelming majority of local brother and sisters. This means that the work of inculturation is progressing slowly but surely. Customs are evolving according to the changes of mentality, composition of communities, the personality of superiors and the quality of their environment. The tricky moment is always when local brothers or sisters take up the major positions of authority in the communities. Till then the founders and their successors and the customs of the mother-house provide a frame of reference or even a criterion of discernment; thenceforth dialogue occurs between the Rule, monastic tradition and the spirit of the superior and the community in their place of residence. Experience shows that it is often a delicate stage and there are often clumsy initiatives, necessary experimentations and a necessary maturing of mentalities and deepening of the monastic vocation. This is an indispensable change which St Benedict himself and every community has known. It is a matter of translating an ideal, a vocation into the concrete circumstances of life. The Rule, the Constitutions and the monastic tradition are all there, but are not enough to arrange the thousand and one aspects of daily life in community from day to day.
In conclusion one can only say that in Madagascar we are living a crucial moment where our unique vocation of ‘searching for God’ in monastic life must be fully expressed and indeed also enriched in and through the local culture in the hearts of monks and nuns who will have to translate it according to their own grace and that of their people. It is a task both delicate and passionate, a responsibility which no one can assume in their place. It is a question of transmission of a charism like the birth of a child: nourished, formed, encouraged by parents, and even before reaching adulthood, the child comes to taking life in hand and progressing, confident in the love of the Lord, and confident that the Lord will never fail. The best image of this mysterious process is without doubt that of a seed sown in the ground. Made fruitful by a unique corner of the earth, the plant germinates, then flowers and finally give fruit on the pattern of the seed and of the same nature but legitimately different, marked by its own composition. This is a natural process certainly wished by the Creator to give place to an infinite variety not only of forms and colours, each more beautiful than the others, but also of tastes, perfumes and qualities of infinite richness. In reality this astonishing metamorphosis takes us back to the paschal mystery, for no part of this process which will finally give glory to God and save the world could occur unless the grain had first died. The true missionary Charles de Foucauld discovered this gospel law progressively until it was inscribed in his own flesh.