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Fr. Zéphirin, who is your family of origin?

My parents have had 18 children, and I am the 5th. My dad worked in a textile factory in Antsirabe. There are was not much money in our home. Many times, I waited for his return to have a little money to pay for the noon meal at school .

How did you come to know about La Salette?

I told my father about my desire to become a priest. I said: "With the ten boys that we have, you can let one go for life in the Church." Then he replied: "Go, if this is your wish, but first you must finish high school." It was a long time to wait, and the time for work at home was limited. Soon I entered the nearby La Salette Seminary. I’ve known the La Salette Missionaries all my life since they minister in our home parish. Father Dominique Fallet, M.S. sometimes even took me to our High School. Also two of my own sisters are now Sisters of La Salette.

How did you prepare for priestly ordination and what was your ministry experience?
Zeperin and parishioners 04a(from left) Fr. Zéphirin Rakotomalala, M.S.; gathering of parishioners; photo: Fr. Zéphirin
My desire to be a priest never left my mind. I loved the prayer, and I had time each day to reflect during my daily two-hour walk to school. I was ordained on July 27, 2002.

For my first ministry as a priest, I was sent to the bush area, as Parochial Vicar in Âmbolotara, in my own diocese of Ântirabé. I stayed there for three years. At the seminary, ion preparation for ministry, we had learned formal French and even how to use a computer. In the bush, of course, this was not very useful because electricity was provided only sporadically by a group generator. All the same, we did have a radio, although it was fairly expensive. However my first ministry placement was very beneficial for my ministry today in the diocese of Morondava, since the living conditions are similar even though the pastoral context is a bit different.

So you are serving in the diocese of Morondava in a bush parish?

The priest whom I succeeded said to me at my arrival: "Here you do will do nothing!” This was because when I arrived in the parish in 2005, a cyclone had just done a lot of damage—demolished villages and churches, and the bandits had also ravaged the entire area. There was no much remaining of the parish and the Catholics were not very motivated. They would do only the basic of the faith—just have their children baptized, but they didn’t even send their children to catechism.

On Sunday however, participants at Mass were not very numerous. Their living conditions were harsh as well. When a family didn't have sufficient food or clothing, they weren’t able to invite people for their marriage celebration, they quickly gave up the idea of celebrating the Sacrament of Marriage.

In addition, where we lived, everything was far away. To reach the villages, you had to travel between seven and thirty kilometers (five to 18 miles) in very difficult conditions. When a river takes away the road, you aren't able to cross the expanse.

How do you go about evangelizing your needy people?
Group workers cross 05aHis parishioners: working and praying; photo: Zéphirin
The pastoral methods have perhaps not been adapted very much over the years: the missionaries attracted people into churches by their giving out various things. But when other Malagasy people come after them, we have nothing to give them, just ourselves same. For the people, that’s less attractive.

For me , I find that the only way to arouse their interest is to mix with them in the villages, establishing relationships with everyone—not just the rich or the poor, but with everyone. We now visit all the families, the parents of our communicants. We also the visit the gendarmes, the high officials of the city to meet and get to know them. I wish to meet absolutely everyone.

We assembled a football (American Soccer) team for our youth. For the parents we have two meetings a year on “Education for Love and Life” to remind them that marriage is for young people and not just for those who already have children. With the catechists and people of the villages, we have begun to rebuild the churches and their communities.

What does Our Lady of La Salette mean to you?

I have lived Our Lady’s message since my childhood. The charism of reconciliation is important to me. Our Lady is simple; she does not complicate matters. I believe that reconciliation becomes my life when I feel called to fit in with people and when I try not to complicate things.

(Reprinted from the La Salette publication, Les Annales, August 2009, pgs. 22-23)