Pope to canonize French Jesuit martyr

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Father Jacques Berthieu.

Later this month, Pope Benedict XVI is slated to canonize Father Jacques Berthieu, a French Jesuit who was martyred in Madagascar in 1896.

Fr. Berthieu will be canonized alongside six other blesseds in an Oct. 21 ceremony on World Mission Sunday at the Vatican.

The priest was born in 1838 and grew up with six siblings in a pious farming family in central France. He was ordained to the priesthood for Diocese of Saint-Flour in 1864.

Fr. Berthieu then felt called to join the Society of Jesus, and did so in 1873. While in the novitiate, he became devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which had been popularized by the Jesuit St. Claude de la Colombiere. Before finishing his novitiate, he was assigned to the missions in Madagascar in 1875.

In a letter to a friend dated July 28, 1875, he wrote that “I have been designated as a future apostle to the Malagasy (Madagascar)...probably to never return, which is fine with me.”

The French priest became a highly successful missionary, nearly tripling the number of mission stations on the north of the island.

Local government officials, however, became increasingly concerned about French and British colonialism, and a series of wars between 1883 and 1896 resulted in the island’s colonization by France.

During that time, an uprising called the Menalamba rebellion targeted foreigners and Christians in the country. The group believed that the island's loss of sovereignty was due to the abandonment of ancestor worship.

The Menalamba attacked Fr. Berthieu and other refugees he was accompanying on June 8, 1896, and their chief insisted he become a conserve to their tribe. They insisted, however, that he renounce his faith.

Fr. Berthieu refused to apostasize, was beaten with clubs and ultimately killed by a gunshot wound. His body was dumped into a river and was never recovered.

Some of his persecutors reportedly were later baptized.

The priest was declared venerable in 1964, and was beatified by Paul VI the following year. He has been celebrated liturgically on June 8 by the French Province of the Society of Jesus, and Feb. 4 by the rest of the society.

On Dec. 19, 2011, Pope Benedict accepted the decree of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints acknowledging a miracle worked through Fr. Berthieu's intercession.

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