On March 28, 1969, Monsignor Jerome Rakotomalala was named Cardinal by Pope Paul VI. This nomination of the first Malagasy cardinal marked an important date in the history of the Catholic Church of Madagascar, and it is interesting to follow the various steps of Cardinal Jerome Rakotomalala's career.
1914 to 1975
Born on July 14, 1914, on the island of Sainte-Marie, Jerome Rakotomalala was the third child in a family of eight children. The family had an ancestral burial plot in Alasora, which is a suburb of Antananarivo. His parents were among those early Christians who had been given a thorough education by the missionaries, and their lives were aligned with their religious convictions. His father, Paul Razafy, died from the plague in 1939, while Jerome was at seminary, but his mother Cécile had the joy of seeing her son accede to the episcopacy.
From a young age, he had expressed his desire to attend the Catholic secondary school in Ambohipo, but Mgr. de Saune had asked him to wait a year, as he considered him too young. In the meantime, he went to the school of the Brothers of the Christian Schools in Andohalo, where he received the C.E.S.D. (Certificat d'Études du Second Degré) [Secondary School Certificate], which was, at that time, the highest diploma available in Malagasy schools.
In 1935, he entered the theological seminary in Ambatoroka. He took an interest in science and mathematics, which he studied on his own. He acquired so much knowledge while he was studying philosophy that, in 1939, he was put in charge of teaching science and mathematics at the seminary - and this was before he had even begun his course of theological studies. Certain dominant traits of his character came to the fore at that time. He was strict and austere with himself, and he was quite demanding with his students, even if the educational value of this rigor was not always understood. He was ordained to the priesthood on July 31, 1943, one year before the usual time, on account of the services he had rendered as a teacher.
After he was ordained, he continued teaching at the seminary in Ambotoroka, but he also had a parochial ministry as a vicar in the cathedral of Andohalo. It was a proving ground for the type of pastoral work he was to do: giving responsibilities to laypersons, conducting social training sessions for Christians, etc.
In 1947, Rakotomalala was put in charge of the vast district of Ambohimiadana, southeast of Antananarivo. There had been many disturbances in that area related to events that had occurred that year. He put his pastoral vision to work for seven years there, transposing lessons learned in an urban milieu to a rural parish. He was concerned with the overall well-being of the people there and with the economic and social needs of the farmers, but was also attached to the development of religious training and catechism. To his thinking, a disjunction between the life of faith and ordinary life was not supposed to exist: spiritual progress would bless the marriages of young people if they had a house, some ground to farm, and a rice paddy; higher standards of learning in the local schools would help to keep people from moving to the city; and community work was mandatory for Christians, as it maintained the Malagasy tradition of unity and fraternity, and also helped the local churches to be financially independent. In addition, he set a particularly high standard for the level of religious education that was received by the several hundred people who were baptized during his tenure.
In 1953, he was given responsibility for the Saint-Pierre Canisius Teachers Training College in Ambohipo, which trained teachers for the Catholic Mission. He turned the college into one of the best academic institutions on the island, a college that became renowned as much for the value of the education received there as for the results its students received on examinations. Everything was designed to give future teachers a high quality Christian education: there was a high level of academic study, there were serious spiritual requirements, and there was vigorous physical training through sports and an ascetic lifestyle.
In August of 1959, the archbishop of Antananarivo, Monsignor Sartre, assigned Rakotomalala to the position of vicar general. It was the first time a Malagasy priest in that diocese had been given such a great responsibility.
The following year, Rome received Monsignor Sartre's offer of resignation - which was tendered in order to give native clergy access to the highest positions of responsibility within the church - and Jerome Rakotomalala was named archbishop of Antananarivo. He received Episcopal consecration from the very hands of Pope John XXIII on May 8, 1960, along with other African and Asian bishops. He intended to carry out his responsibilities as bishop very thoroughly, and Malagasy clergy gradually took responsibilities in the diocese as the missionaries stepped aside and took auxiliary positions.
Nine years later, Pope Paul VI proceeded to name new cardinals so that the College of Cardinals would better reflect the reality of the global Church. On March 28, 1969, Rakotomalala was thus elevated to the rank of prince of the Church, and in the month of May the new cardinals were consecrated in grandiose fashion.
Jerome Rakotomalala had an unbending and demanding temperament, and his authoritarianism and strictness were sometimes criticized. He knew how to take severe criticisms and judgments without straying from the course of action that he deemed to be the right one, and he held fast to what he considered to be his duty. However, he did not hesitate to humbly reconsider a judgment he had made or a position he had taken if he realized that he had been mistaken, or if the circumstances demanded it.
He was keenly aware of the mission that he had been entrusted with (to spread the Gospel), and as a cardinal he had taken the motto Opus fac evangelistae (Be completely devoted to the Gospel). He put into effect the reforms that had been advocated by Vatican II, so that the Church of Madagascar would truly be a Malagasy church.
He was greatly attached to, and completely submitted to, the Holy See. This fidelity was made apparent when it came to the question of ecumenism. During the meetings of Vatican II he condemned the rivalry that had existed in the past between the Protestants and the Catholics in Madagascar, as this division among Christians was considered to be scandalous among the unbelievers. He was well aware of the difficulties inherent in the ecumenical movement, and thought that it would be premature to apply them in Madagascar, but he submitted to insistence from Rome on this point. By way of example, he attended the consecration of two Anglican bishops in Antananarivo in October of 1975.
He had a very simple and austere lifestyle, and his status as a cardinal had absolutely no effect on this. When he went on his rounds outside of the city, he sometimes went on foot or on a bicycle, and he could be seen driving around Antananarivo at the wheel of his small economy car, a Renault 2 cv.
When the Malagasy capital was plunged into mourning by the events that led to a change of government in May of 1972, Rakotomalala and the other Christian spiritual leaders interceded with the government in order to calm things down and to end the trouble.
The first Malagasy cardinal died while fully engaged in his apostolic work, just like the first Malagasy bishop, Monsignor Ramarosandratana. The cardinal had returned from Rome on October 31, 1975, and had gone to Ikazolava the next day, November 1st, to visit the district and to administer confirmation. Following the solemn mass, as it was All Saint's Day, he gave a response to the speeches that had been given to welcome him, and was on his way to the main house of the Sisters there, when he suddenly complained of a terrible headache and fell down on the lawn. He died a few minutes later. He was sixty-one years old.
The funeral service of Cardinal Jerome Rakotomalala was held on November 5, and was led by the apostolic nuncio Monsignor Cecchini, in the presence of the bishops from the seventeen dioceses of Madagascar. Also present were Mr. Didier Ratsiraka, President of the Republic of Madagascar, the members of the diplomatic corps, the Anglican bishop, and the presidents of the Protestant and Adventist federations. The cardinal's body was interred in the cathedral next to the former apostolic vicars, NN.SS. Cazet, de Saune, and Fourcadier.
B. Laurent, Le Cardinal Jérôme Rakotomalala, Archbishop of Antananarivo China-Madagascar, 1976, Lille.
Rémy Ralibera s.j., Le Cardinal Jérôme Rakotomalala, Maduré-Madagascar, No. 159, April 1976, Paris.
This article, which is printed here with permission, is taken from Hommes et Destins: Dictionnaire biographique d'Outre-Mer [Men and Destinies: Overseas Biographical Dictionary], Vol. 3, published in 1977 by the Académie des Sciences d'Outre-Mer (15, rue la Pérouse, 75116, Paris, France). All rights reserved.