The Inculturation of the Consecrated Life

in the Madagascar Context

by Benjamin Ramaroson CM

Inculturation is an "in" word, fashionable in ecclesiastical jargon, having a sort of aura and sure of a wide audience. And does everyone think he knows what it is and is engaged in inculturation? Now if there is one area in which prudence is called for it is inculturation. This article is merely a small contribution. The pages which follow do not claim to develop a doctrine of inculturation of the consecrated life, especially since the analysis which is given refers mainly to Madagascar. It will help us, though, to have some idea of the difficulty of inculturation and, at the same time, an idea of its richness.

I will subdivide my presentation this way: A general introduction which will attempt to situate the problem. (Inculturation, urgency, challenge and duty, vocabulary problems connected with inculturation). Secondly, I will touch on one aspect of the consecrated life in order to illustrate our project: community life in relation to the Malagasy categories of fihavànana and fianakàviana (1).

A) Introduction

I. Inculturation: Urgency, challenge, duty

How can one remain a Christian, above all a religious, in today's world without alienating and denying oneself, in order to find one's true place, in order to avoid being a counter-witness to others? In short, how can one be fully religious and fully Malagasy? In my own case, at this century's end when many congregations are celebrating the centenary of their arrival in Madagascar and, above all, when there are plenty of vocations everywhere, I cannot avoid being somewhat worried when I think of the future: what will happen to these congregations? The only real problem is that of inculturation: these congregations, although international, will either be Malagasy or they will never be. That is what is at stake in the future of communities in Madagascar, all the more so since more and more of the members are Malagasy. These members must be helped to have a life totally consecrated to the Lord and totally Malagasy. If that does not happen then there is the risk that these members will have part of their being and life still on the margin of consecration, giving rise to duplicity in their way of living the gift of themselves to the Lord. It is not surprising to find religious who do this or that and disturb community life (very ambivalent relationship with their family...), but done, obviously, in secret. That creates interior problems for the person concerned and for the community.. Hence the need to show the consecrated life in and through the culture where one is today is one of the great challenges for the future of religious life, given the diversity of locations. That is why inculturation is an urgent duty (2) for all congregations. It is not something optional, it is imperative from our very faith. Without inculturation faith remains superficial, lacking both depth and personal commitment, and even risks becoming counter-witness. The example of the second vow illustrates this, because people interpret it in different ways. Without inculturation there is no real taking root. Paul VI spoke to the African bishops as follows:

It is up to you to see that the meeting of Christianity with the ancient African tradition is something both living and effective. That is when you will be able to speak of the Church really taking root. It means awakening or deepening a new civilization, equally African and Christian. And we agree with your saying that this is attainable, with God's grace (3).

The instrumentum laboris of the special assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops has the same to say about inculturation:

Inculturation is not a new method of evangelization, but rather an idea around which all schemes of evangelization take form. Inculturation would appear to be an urgent duty today for the Church in Africa (4).

Mgr Jean Guy, the late lamented president of the Malagasy Bishops' Conference (5), intervened at the African Bishops' Synod in Rome to clarify certain points about inculturation:

We are no longer at the stage of staking out our claim. At the moment we are dealing with the concretization of theory... The way is largely open... But discernment is needed, because there is "a new understanding of the faith" (6).

What, then, does inculturation mean, in particular the inculturation of the consecrated life?

II. A question of vocabulary.

a) What inculturation is not.

Inculturation must not become a sort of folklore show. For example, inculturation does not mean dressing like the indigenous people or living in huts. But we must understand why this is so. Another example: The Malagasization of the community will not be achieved by making a Malagasy superior, in the belief that he, at least, will understand the Malagasy mind. Something more than that is needed. All these approaches, plus others which I refer to as "folkloric", are merely cosmetic. Along the same lines we can also classify as folkloric the inculturation of certain rites on the occasion of religious profession, because often enough only what is superficial and attractive is kept, with the essential remaining untouched. The rite is merely the epiphenomenon of in-depth inculturation. Even if the rites are intimately linked with the culture, they are not its essential element. A cultural rite is not christianised merely by being transferred to a Christian celebration. The important thing is to seek real values which can me integrated into the faith. In general, rites are only bearers of an inspiration or a mystique. To get away from the folkloric we have to dig deep.

Neither is inculturation adaptation (7), by trying to give the gospel message some local colour, stemming from fomba (customs) especially in the liturgy. Adaptation runs the risk of mixing up several things, and even arriving at syncretism.

Finally, inculturation is not a going back to the past, it is not encouraging an "old times" attitude by suggesting the fomba. It would be a perversion of its meaning to define inculturation as a blind return to former practices.

This means that we have to realise that the inculturation process is not achieved in a day or two (8). A lot of time is needed since it is not merely a matter of external adaptation but a profound transformation of authentic values by integrating them into the faith and rooting this faith in the culture (9). It is not merely, and solely, a transformation of mentality, but is above all a total incarnation of the faith, and therefore of the consecrated life.

b) What inculturation is.

Before defining inculturation let us have a look at what culture is, the area in which inculturation takes place. N* 53 of Gaudium et spes defines it in this way:

In the broad sense the word "culture" covers everything by which one refines and develops all one's varied mental and physical capabilities; by which one tries to master the universe through knowledge and work; by which one humanises social life, at both family and civic levels, thanks to the development of habits and institutions; by which, finally, one translates, communicates and over a period of time preserves the great spiritual experiences and major aspirations of the humanity so that they may help the progress of a large number, or even the whole, of the human race (* 2).

In other words, culture is the humanised universe creating, consciously or unconsciously, a group for itself. It is the its understanding of the group from the past and its plan for the future, of its institutions and typical creations, of its habits and beliefs and its characteristic behaviour, its original way of communicating, working... In one word, culture means how the group, and its individual members, behave, think, judge, see themselves and see others.

The gospel message

Having got this far it is just as well to make quite clear at once the radical distinction between the gospel message and any culture. Faith in Christ is not the product of any culture, but owes its origin to a revelation from God (Jn 1:3). Faith can never identify itself exclusively with any single culture. St Paul was already preaching the radical distinction between this truth of faith and all the cultures of his time (1 Cor. 1:22-23). The Church, therefore, does not identify itself with any culture, not even with Western culture with which it has historical links.

However, once we have affirmed this principal of distinction we must not think that between the gospel and the various cultures there is purely and simply a question of separateness and dissociation. If that were the case there would be no further point in speaking of inculturation. Christ himself lived in one particular culture, and down through history the Church was incarnated in specific socio-cultural environments.

What, then, is inculturation?

The process of inculturation

Straight off, I have no hesitation in emphasising that it is a very complex process. It is not merely an imitative acceptance of Christianity.

"The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us" (Jn 1:14). In these words St John announces what today is known as inculturation. God became a human being so that human beings could become his children. By the Incarnation Jesus is sady Andriamanitra no olombelona, ou tena Andriamanitra no tena olombelona (Jesus is true God and true man). That is how the traditional catechism defines the Second Person of the Trinity. I find this formula interesting when facing up to defining what an inculturation means. Here, just as in the formula about the Second Person of the Trinity, the order of the two elements of the sentence must not be switched. In the co-ordinate conjunction sady...no, it is the first element which ennunciates the main datum and initiates a descriptive movement in which the second element, linked by a natural linkage, comes to add a specification which is supplementary and in a certain sense new (10). This is the process illustrated by the parables of the bread and the dough: the parable of the seed which grows by itself while the sower sleeps (Mk 4: 26-29) and that of the yeast in the dough (Mt 13:33). It is never an absorption. That is why inculturation must not be an adaptation, especially an external one, but a real transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration into Christianity, and the rooting of Christianity in the various cultures. It consists, therefore, in fecundating the cultural values from within the faith. This fecundation will, of course, call for purification so that these values may conform to the demands of the gospel. Jesus did not come to abolish, but to accomplish, to bring to perfection. But it must also be said that in this accomplishment "what must be preserved is what comes from God" (Mk 7). The post-synodal document Ecclesia in Africa is interesting. A complete theology of the Incarnation is needed if there is to be a real inculturation. In other words, the Incarnation has to be taken in its three dimensions, historical, paschal and, finally, pneumatic (N* 60-61). These last two dimensions are fairly frequently overlooked. That is why, often enough, the folkloric, adoptionist or "old days" attitudes take over.

In the matter of inculturation, then, the distinction between unity and uniformity must be noted. This brings us to the need for clear discernment: how are we to view the inculturation of the consecrated life?

III. Inculturation of the consecrated life

First of all we must realise that religious life did not arrive in Madagascar in an abstract form, but clothed, not merely in an external garment but in a culture, above all European. This has a lot of influence on the process of inculturation.

Then it is just as well to note that the inculturation of the religious life must stem from the inculturation of the faith. They go hand in hand, and one cannot do without the other without risking being a fragile, artificial entity, without roots. It is hard to see, then, how members of religious communities can work in a local church if this local church as a whole has not been sensitised to the community. Communities, of course, can be engines, but engines are not enough; a whole bodywork is needed as well as the engine to make a vehicle. It is, therefore, not right that a religious community should become a test-bed for inculturation, independent of ecclesiastical authority.

To avoid such deviant behaviour it is well to recall basic criteria put forward by the Council for the renewal of religious life (PC 2): The five fidelities, to Christ, to the gospel, to the spirit of the founder/foundress, to the life of the Church, and to the world with its needs and aspirations, and a better adaptation to the needs of time and place. If these criteria are not observed there is the risk of inculturation being neither authentic nor ecclesial.

As can be seen, if inculturation is to be well achieved two identities must be recognised: the identity of the consecrated life, and the Malagasy identity: "sady relijozy no malagasy" (completely religious and completely Malagasy). This means a religious life based on the identifying, essential, constitutive patrimony, but expressed in the authentic Malagasy culture.

B) Fihavànana - Fianakàviana - community life

Starting with the two categories fihavàna and finakàviana I will try to sketch out what inculturation of community life might be. But why fihavàna - fianakàviana? All relationships between members of society, the organization of life in general, are based on Fihavànana, on Fianakàviana. You cannot, therefore, just take no account of these if you want to reflect on what type of relationships are to be set up in community life.

Given this perspective, it is the anthropological approach, viewed mainly from the social angle rather than the psychological or philosophical, which will be our guide in our search. But at this point it is well to stress that I am undertaking my analysis from an overall perspective, because each tribe and each clan has something special to itself which I cannot deal with in this short study.

Given this, I will deal with the problem in the most concrete possible way, though not based solely on observation. To put the purpose of the analysis in the forefront, to bring out sady relijiozy no Malagasy (the inculturation of religious life: to be fully consecrated and fully Malagasy) I will try to show that there can be a certain analogy between the three terms fihavànana - fianakàviana - community life. To do this I am going to sub-divide my approach like this: origin-foundation-structure, aspects-purpose, and values-means. But it must be said at once that all these points are interlinked and complementary. I have chosen this method simply for convenience.

Vocabulary - Origin

Most authors who have studied fihavànana and fianakàviana realise that these words are difficult to translate into French [This article was written in French]. "So many things are covered by the word fihavànana and it is apparent under so many different forms that it is impossible to give one single clear easy to grasp definition" (11). That is why it is better to start from the thought suggested by these words fihavànana and fianakàviana in order to understand them.

Among Malagasy people it is often thought that fihanànana is self-explanatory. Every Malagasy person is "supposed " to understand it and to live without having to have it explained, since his whole existence can be explained only within this "universe". There is nothing in the life of a Malagasy person which is not impregnated with fihavànana. It is, therefore, the bond between a Malagasy person and his universe:

Fihavànana is a reality special to Malagasy humanism: speaking, acting and being Malagasy vibrate from the depth of this reality, the source of various relationships, especially affection and love, consciousness of knowing how to live, and a self-worth would be, in the closely-knit life of a Malagasy person, the typical expression of his way of being-in-the-world (12).

It is interesting, then, to see the origin of this profound reality among the Malagasy people. Some proverbs can make it clear (13). "Ny olombelona ohatra ny ladim-boatavo ka raha fotorana iray ihany". (People are like the ramifications of the stem of vegetable marrows; looked at close up, in reality, there is only one stem).

For the Malagasy people, what makes the person is the "relationship" brought about within the fihavànana. A Malagasy person is, before all else, essentially a member of a community. He understands himself first of all a a member of the society in which he lives without being absorbed by it, thanks to the fihavànana. This could be referred to as corporate personality. This web of relationships stretches back even to the ancestors, the source of the vital current in so far as they are responsible for its transmission. Face to face, then, with someone else, in a normal relationship, the Malagasy person believes in a sort of universal sympathy which allows him to see this other person as a father, an elder brother or a younger brother (14).

As should be obvious by now, fihavànana can be applied at different levels of relationship. The nature of the fihavànana, its real identity, will depend, then, on the nature and quality of this relationship. According to Mgr Randriambololona's study the relationship called fihavànana is made up of three elements: relationship, love, bond (15).

Let us now look at what fianakàviana means. It is what might be called fihavànana ara-pianàhana (literally fihavànana by birth, relationship, bond, based here on blood-relationship). Because of this one might be tempted to think that fianakàviana is something akin to the European family. This could lead one astray, because this fianakàviana can be very extended. For example, people of the same tribe can be thought of as being of the same fianakàviana. The idea, then, is very elastic, while at the same time more restricted than fihavànana pure and simple, which is more like the "relationship" within society in the broad sense. There can be various sources of this relationship. That is why, often enough, Malagasy people themselves even when they say they are of the same fianakàviana will ask one another: mifanìnona, or on what level of the relationship are you? It is the bond which determines the relationship, and therefore at the same time also one's identity within the fianakàviana, for example someone who has an "assured origin" (tsara fototra). From all this stems the importance of genealogy (tetiàrana) in knowing one's place in the line, determining at the same time one's rights and obligations.

When we turn to a community, we realise that a religious community is a gift of the Spirit before being a human organization. A religious community owes its origin to the love of God poured into hearts by the Spirit (Rm 5:5), by means of the charism of the founder/foundress, and it is thanks to the Spirit that the community is built up as a real family brought together in the name of the Lord (16). It can therefore be said that the community is of divine origin. It was not born by the will of flesh or blood, nor from personal sympathies or human motives, but of God, of a divine vocation, of an attraction (Cf Jn 1:13). Living in community is a vocation. That explains the important role of faith. It is faith, in fact, which allows members of a religious community to respond to this call, this vocation, and look on the others as brothers or sisters as the case may be:

A member of a religious community is not merely someone called, through a personal vocation, but rather someone "convoked", or someone summoned along with others, with whom daily life is shared (17).

The Basis

If one looks at everyday living the basis of fihavànana would seem to be, primarily, the things which bind the group together. In fact the "giving-giving" (atero ka alao) is the determining factor.

On the other hand, for fianakàviana the basis is the love which binds the members together. The fullest expression of this love is marriage, which brings family into being (ray aman-dreny sy ny zanaka = parents and children), or the fati-dra (blood-relationship, a rite by which two people bind themselves together and become "blood relatives" to show that they a really joined). Fianakàviana goes far beyond the "giving-giving" of fihàvanana.

As we have emphasised, the consecrated life is located in the area of faith. A member of a religious community is someone who desires to live the baptismal commitment to a profound degree by following the evangelical counsels. That is where the basis of community life is found: the gospel, the radical evangelical life. Christian charity is what vivifies the relationships among the members, the gift of self and the welcome for another to achieve a communion. That is why it is said that first of all a community is a place where people becomes brothers and sisters. Because of this it is never static, like a fianakàviana where people are neither brothers nor sisters. It is a becoming. It is, therefore, a vocation to "create". It needs to mature and develop in faith. It calls for journeying. Christ in his paschal mystery is, then, the model for this charity. Just like him, members of a religious community must love their brothers and sisters as he loved us. The charity of members of religious communities is participation in the charity of Christ. And that is where what we called "mifaninona" earlier on, in connection with the origin of fianakàviana, comes to pass. In fact the source of the bond between members of a community is unique: "samy zanak'Andriamanitra (the same Son of God), samy relijiozy, zanak'i... oh: Zanak'i Md Vincent Depaul" (religious, son/daughter of the Founder, e.g. "Son" of St Vincent de Paul). This emerges in the daily living out of the special charism of the community because everyone is from "the same root" (fototra iray ihany, fototra iombonana).


While stressing that the basis of the fihavànana is interest we can already conclude that duties and rights are the framework of relationships within the fihavànana. This is often referred to as firahalahiana (brotherhood). The hàvana (group members) must behave like brothers and sisters. The dina (charters) are there to indicate these rights and duties, to show how this brotherhood is to be lived in practice, and that those who do not respect these dina are excluded, and in fact exclude themselves.

The fianakàviana is based primarily on the bond of blood which creates union coming from different types of alliances such as fanambadiana (marriage), fatidra (see above). All this forms the framework of relationships within the finakàviana. There are the Ray aman-dreny (parents) who are the source, and the zanaka (children) who have the duty to form these alliances. On the other hand, in community life, it is well to distinguish two elements which in actual fact are only one: union and unity among members to form a communion (18).

The first, the more spiritual, forms union. This is the brotherhood or brotherly union which arises from hearts which are animated by charity. This element brings to the fore, above all, union of life and intra-personal relationships. the second element, more external, forms unity, and is the common life or community life which consists in leading a common life based on the rules (19). This calls for a real journeying towards interior freedom, the sole route to real communion.

In religious communities there are certain documents which spell out in more detail how to live the gospel. They also indicate the will of God, but only for those whom the Spirit calls to follow Christ on the way opened up by the founder or foundress. These are the Rules, the Constitutions. There is no question of putting the gospel and the constitutions on the same level. They are there to help a person to live the radical call of the gospel accurately. The rules-constitutions have many functions, not least the organization of community life, brotherly life. This brotherly life, though, is different from the firahalahiana (brotherhood) which is found in the fihavànana. It is based on evangelical charity. Along with this evangelical charity there is the charism taught by the founder/foundress which each member is trying to live up to. The vows, which are merely the sign of a total gift to the Lord, also give a framework for brotherly life in community: "consecrated together they discover each day that their following of Christ, obedient, poor and chaste, is lived in brotherhood" (20).

Purpose and Values

The origin, basis and structure have already indicated the aim of the fiahavàna: to achieve harmony of life in society. If this harmony is achieved the community is safe and this security guarantees the aina, life as happiness for all. This is why "life is sweet": mamy ni aina. It is necessary to preserve it from all difficulties and uncertainties, hence the fihavànana, good relationships, living together. The main purpose, therefore, of fihavànana is the aina, life. But following on from the principle that the fihavànana is in fact based on an interest which could turn into egocentricity, Malagasy people have no hesitation is saying: raha maty aho, matesa Rahàvana, raha maty Rahàvana, matesa ny omby ao am-bala (if I am to die let one of my havàna die first, but if one of the havàna has to die , may the oxen in the fields die first).

The values which are found in the fihavànana all have direct links with the Aina: the firaisan-kina (solidarity) is required from all members to show that all are of the same aina. Without this, the fiainana (21) (the means of using the aina) is not possible.

The family structure in general shows that the fianakàviana is for the survival of the Aina iombonana (life) so that the anaran-dray (the name of the line) may continue. That is why the main value of the fianakàviana is the tsimisara-mianakavy, the search for communion.

The purpose of religious life is communion with God, that is, to live the life of God, the aina divin, that life of unity which the Persons of the Trinity have. Community life is the prophetic sign of this aina divin (divine life) which unites all the members. In fact, community life must be the expression of the trinitarian communion and ecclesial communion. This communion will come to its fullness in the eschatology. But even now, in so far as it is a sign, the community is called to live it. That is why we said above that the community is the place where the patient transformation from I to we takes place every day. This transformation is possible only in the freely-given gift of self. But the community is not a ghetto, closed in on itself. It exists for the mission, for the Kingdom (Mk 3:14. Jesus calls his disciples to live with him, therefore to form community life, and then he sends them to preach the Good News). Community is inseparable from the apostolate, from the mission.


We cannot list here all the means which help members to live the fihavànana or the fianakàvianaor the fiaraha-mianina (community life). We will select just some points.

There cannot be real fihavànana without trust, as the proverb says: ny ahiahy tsy hiavanana (distrust does not make for real fihavànana). That is why "a true friend is worth more than a false havàna (member of the same fiahavànana" (ny havandratsy tsy mahaleo sakaiza tiana). This trust calls for fidelity to the dinà and fanèkena (alliances). Trust then leads to a real respect for the life.

For maintenance of the fihavànana it is well to note here the various occasions on which all the havàna come together for a true firahalàhiana (brotherhood): feasts (lànona), funerals (fandevènana), rites (sàotra ou jòro) (22).

In the fianakàviana a family spirit, based on welcome and give-and-take sharing in mutual trust, is necessary to achieve real communion.

Without prayer religious life makes no sense, because it is out of contact with the source. It is emptied of substance and can no longer achieve its purpose, which is communion, a sign of the trinitarian communion. In this life of communion mutual forgiveness, welcome and fraternal sharing must be at the centre. From that stems the important role of the Eucharist and the sacrament of reconciliation in community life.


The table below summarises what has been explained above:

THEMES Fihavànana Fiankàviana Community- Fiarahamiaina


ORIGIN sociobiologicalblood Holy Spirit

relationships relationship Faith

Razana-mifan- Founder/dress

inona-fototra- Vocation




BASIS Interests Love/AffectivityGospel-charity


STRUCTURAL rights/duties Covenants constitutions

ASPECTS dina (charter) (marriage- fraternal life charism

Firahalahiana fatidra: communion

(brotherhood) blood-links)

Fomba (usages

& customs)

PURPOSEAina (life) Aina (life) Divine life

VALUES Firaisankina Tsimisara- Holiness

(solidarity) mianakavy Prophetic

(communion) sign

Education Mission


MEANS Mutual Family PrayerEucharist

confidence spirit

Fidelity to Fidelity Reconciliation

the dina- Union with Christ

lanona (feast) Fidelity to the charism

saotra (sacrifice)




(Thomas Davitt CM, translator)

(1) We will see the meaning of these words later on.

(2) Cf John Paul II: Redemptoris missio, * 52.

(3) Paul VI, DC 74 (1997), p. 951.

(4) Special Synod of Bishops for Africa: Instrumentum laboris, 67.

(5) Mgr Jean Guy RAKOTONDRAVAHATRA had just died.

(6) Mgr Jean guy RAKOTONDRAVAHATRA in DC No. 2094, p. 486.

(7) John Paul II: Redemptoris missio No. 52.

(8) Idem, No. 52: "Inculturation is a gradual process which encompasses the entire missionary life...".

(9) Idem: No. 52.

(10) Cf. C GIRAUDO: "Prière eucharistique et inculturation" in Nouvelle Revue Théologique 116

(1994), p. 183.

(11) Mgr RANDRIAMBOLONA Ph.: "Fihavànana, chemin vers la communion" in Aspects du Christianisme à Madagascar (ACM) 1990, p. 253.

(12) H. RAHARILALAO: Eglise et fihavàna à Madagascar, Ambozontany, 1991, p. 132 (emphasis added). A. RAHAJARIZAFY, in so far as he also emphasises the fihavànana: "Every man with whom one lives is a hàvana (related by blood and affection), and all relationship with him can be thought of as, and ruled by, only an act of fihavànana. A: RAHAJARIZAFY: "Sagesse malgache et théologie chrétienne" in Pérsonalité africaine et catholicisme, Présence africaine, Paris 1962, pp.

104-105. The fihavànana is therefore at the basis of all relationships, personal, familial, social.

(13) There is a very large number of proverbs but I have selected only one so as not to overload the text, but it clearly illustrates the idea. Why proverbs? Malagasy culture is oral so it is frequently these proverbs which hand on traditions.

(14) Mgr RANDRIAMBOLOLONA Ph.; idem., p. 254.

(15) Idem., p. 257.

(16) Congrégation..., Idem., p. 15.

(17) Congrégation..., Idem., No. 44.

(18) This is why community life has been translated into Malagasy by fiaraha-miaina, literally union and unity of life.

(19) Cf. Const. 3.

(20) Idem., No. 21.

(21) In fact it is as well to distinguish, in Malagasy, between aina and fiainana. Both are translated into French as vie (life). Aina is the breath, with the prefix fi it signifies the daily lived life. (Cf. H

M DUBOIS: "L'idée de Dieu chez les anciens malgaches" in Anthropos XXIV (1929), pp. 281-331.

XXIX (1939), pp. 751-774, and also H RAHARILALALA, op. cit. pp. 183-186). This is why it is well to translate Christ's word as Izaho no lalana sy fahamarinana ary aina instead of fiainana.

(22) Time and space prevent our dealing more fully with these important aspects of life within fihavànana.

Copyright 2009 Congregation of the Mission