The small country of Madagascar (off the southeastern coast of Africa) has given the Church three new models of holiness since 2002, including Saint Jacques Berthieu, a French Jesuit missionary who was martyred in Ambiatibe in 1896, Blessed Jan Beyzym, a Jesuit missionary from Ukraine who died in Marana in 1912, and Blessed Raphaël-Louis Rafiringa, a native-born Christian Brother who died in Fianarantsoa in 1919. But honored alongside these male religious is a remarkable laywoman and Church leader who was beatified more than a decade before her male counterparts: Blessed Victoria Rasoamanarivo.
Born into a leading family of the Hova or Merina “tribe” in 1848, Victoria was brought up in the traditional religion of Zanahary, which honored a creating God but which was based on ancestor worship. She was raised by her father’s elder brother, a respected military leader.
Although Catholic missionaries had tried to establish a Catholic presence in Madagascar in the 19th century, only Protestant missionaries had any level of success. In 1836, the country’s anti-Christian queen had more than two thousand Christians killed and ordered the missionaries to leave her country. (Records indicate that more than 1 million individuals died as a result of the queen’s religious persecutions, military initiatives, and forced starvation of perceived enemies.) Only in 1861, the year of the queen’s death, did missionaries return. To their surprise, the missionaries discovered that the Christian Faith had endured and there were around five thousand Christians. That same year, Jesuit missionaries and Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny also began establishing missions, focusing on the southern and coastal areas, working primarily among the poorer communities (although they has some success winning converts among the upper classes). They were successful in their efforts and there were about fifteen thousand Catholics in Madagascar by 1875.
Victoria became one of the first students enrolled in the sisters’ mission school and she asked to be baptized in 1863. However, she immediately met with resistance from her relatives, many of whom had held high positions in the persecuting queen’s oppressive reign. Her decision to receive the sacraments and stand outside her family traditions testifies to her deep faith and independent spirit. At the time, she told her mother, “I will no longer be the way I was before. I will be a daughter of God, because I want to receive Baptism. I will have the seal of the Holy Spirit.”
Although Victoria had expressed her desire to enter religious life, her family promised her in marriage to the son of the chief minister, a man named Radriaka. The Jesuit missionaries convinced her that she could do more good for the Church at court by marrying the man her family had chosen. Sadly, Radriaka was a drunk and a womanizer who often brought other women into their home despite Victoria’s presence. Although his father, the ruling queen, and many others advised Victoria to leave him, she thought that would contradict her wedding vows and set a bad example for the other Christians. Victoria stayed with her husband for twenty-two years, until his death in 1887. For years she had prayed for his conversion and she had the joy of seeing him baptized shortly before he died.
A new persecution of Catholics erupted on May 25, 1883, with the outbreak of the Malagasy-French War. All the missionaries were forced to leave the country and all the church buildings were locked. As the missionaries left, they entrusted Victoria with the task of protecting the Catholic community. She was courageous in her opposition to the government’s policies, declaring, “You can put me to death, but you have no right to shut the church.” She visited and corresponded with Catholics all over the island and defended the Catholic parishes and schools in court. Because of her persistence, the churches were eventually reopened. Victoria made sure that religious instruction and Sunday prayer services took place and that lay catechists were able to continue their own ministries.
In 1886, when the missionaries were able to return, they found that the institutions they had established had been largely dismantled, but the faith had remained vibrant, thanks, in large part, to Victoria’s courage and leadership.
Throughout her life, Victoria had exemplified the Christian life. She attended Mass daily (when that was possible), recited the rosary and Angelus, and spent time in meditation each day. Beyond her habits of prayer, however, she was beloved because of her care for the poor. Despite her wealth and status, she had a hands-on approach to ministry and visited the sick, showing special concern for lepers. One early account of her life recalls that, “she made herself the servant of others and it was for this above all that one had so much veneration for her.” She was always available to any who needed her care and assistance.
This happy and peace-filled woman died after a brief illness on August 21, 1894, at the age of forty-six. She was honored in death by both Catholic and Protestant Christians and by members of all parts of society. Victoria was beatified by Saint John Paul II in Madagascar in 1989. The Church celebrates her memory on August 21.
Throughout the Church’s history, courageous women have nurtured and handed on the faith. From those first women who followed Jesus, providing for his needs out of their own wealth (cf. Luke 8:2-3), to medieval abbesses like Saint Hildegard of Bingen and Saint Gertrude the Great, to reformers such as Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Bridget of Sweden, to missionaries like Saint Rose Philippine Duchesne, Saint Marianne Cope, and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, and to wives and mothers like Saint Monica, Blessed Zelie Martin, and Saint Gianna Beretta Molla, the role of women in the life of the Church can never be overestimated.
In his Letter to Women, Saint John Paul II reflected on this, when he wrote:
In this vast domain of service, the Church's two-thousand-year history, for all its historical conditioning, has truly experienced the "genius of woman"; from the heart of the Church there have emerged women of the highest caliber who have left an impressive and beneficial mark in history. I think of the great line of woman martyrs, saints and famous mystics… And how can we overlook the many women, inspired by faith, who were responsible for initiatives of extraordinary social importance, especially in serving the poorest of the poor? The life of the Church in the Third Millennium will certainly not be lacking in new and surprising manifestations of "the feminine genius."
As we recall the life and witness of Blessed Victoria, offer a prayer of thanks for those faith-filled women who have handed the faith on to you. Perhaps you might remember your grandmother or mother, a religious sister, or a woman of prayer who has touched your life. Regardless of whom you think of, know that the Faith that has been passed down to us is gift of countless women—and men—of faith whose courage and fidelity have seen the Gospel spread to every corner of the globe. Today, reflect on how you are continuing that legacy by how you are handing the Good News on to others.
A prayer in honor of Blessed Victoria Rasoamanarivo +O God, the exaltation of the lowly, who willed that blessed Victoria should excel in the beauty of her charity and patience, grant, through her merits and intercession, that, carrying our cross each day, we may always persevere in love for you. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)
This post was originally written for Mayslake Ministries and published on their website on August 20, 2015