Buried Outside

(The Nationalist, 26 July 2002)


In the nineteenth century the Christian community on the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar came under attack by the queen, Ranaválona III. She was the ruler of this large island of about 1200 km long and 300 km wide. Just what sparked off her hatred I don’t know, but in her long rule she became known in French as La Sanguinaire (the Bloody) – and not without reason. Her palace was built on top of the highest of the many hills that make up the capital, Antananarivo. Nearby was a cliff from which, on her orders, Christians were thrown to their death, an estimated 30,000 of them during her rule. She had previously expelled the missionaries, Protestant and Catholic alike, who had brought the Christian faith to the island.

How was the new, young Christian community to manage without the missionaries who had first spread the Gospel message? The answer was to be found in the quality of local leadership.

One such person was Victoire Rasoamanarivo, daughter-in-law of the prime minister. On one occasion, while at a meal in the palace with the queen, during the persecution, the clock in the room struck twelve. Victoire rose and stood aside, quietly saying the Angelus. When the queen asked her what she was doing, Victoire replied that she was saying the Angelus, as was the custom among Catholics. For whatever reason, the queen did nothing. On Sundays, Victoire used to go to a local church. But she found the doors locked and guarded by soldiers with orders to let no one in. She must have had a powerful personality because she managed to persuade, cajole or bribe the soldiers into unlocking the doors and letting her in. And, once in, she led people in prayer.

This situation continued for several years, throughout the persecution, until, in the end, La Sanguinaire died. Her successor lifted the persecution and allowed missionaries to return. They found, not a church in ruins, but a flourishing church.

But the end of the story was not a happy one. Victoire was congratulated, thanked – and shunted into obscurity. The missionaries were back in charge and there was no place for a woman in a position of leadership in the church. She died a few years later.

Today the Catholic cathedral stands on the edge of the cliff from which the Christians were thrown. From its back door you walk two or three metres to a railing overlooking the valley. If, like me, you’re scared of heights, you can share in some tiny way in their terror.

In 1989, Victoire Rasoamanarivo was declared Blessed by Pope John Paul II when he visited Madagascar. Her tomb is close to the cathedral – but outside it. What a pity! Her life, and the placing of her tomb, speak with sad eloquence about the role of laypeople in general and of women in particular in the Catholic Church.