Born August 17, 1910, in Santec (Finistère, France), Claude Rolland was the second child in a family with five children. When he was nineteen years old, he entered the novitiate of the Fathers of the Salette. After being ordained as a priest, he went to Morondava (on the west coast of Madagascar) in 1938. After thirteen years as a missionary, he was well-acquainted with the Malagasy milieus and problems, and this knowledge would serve him well during his episcopacy.
He was named vicar general of the diocese of Antsirabe in 1954, and was consecrated bishop in 1956. This happened at a time when political life in Madagascar was very agitated, as the “Loi-Cadre” [1956 Overseas Reform Act] had just been passed into Law. He was able to come to a synthesis of both the national aspirations and the religious concerns of his people within himself.
In 1960, which was the year of Madagascar’s independence, he tendered his resignation. He did this in order to allow a Malagasy priest to take over the leadership of the diocese of Antsirabe, which was one of the largest and most heavily populated of the island. Cardinal Agagianian wrote to him, saying, “I know the feelings that led you to take this step. The church is blessed to have missionary bishops that are willing to step aside so that indigenous clergy can rise to the episcopacy. Don’t think about your resignation any more, just don’t think about it…” (A.C.M. “Aspects du Christianisme à Madagascar” [Aspects of Christianity in Madagascar], Jan.-Feb. 1974, p. 205).
We would like to evoke Rolland through two documents that are not only biographical but that also express his pastoral work. These documents are also related to the immediate history of the relationship between Christianity and political power in the Third World, and to Madagascar in particular.
The documents in question are two letters that were addressed to the Christians in his Antsirabe diocese. The first letter is from Christmas of 1956, and is entitled: Our Duty at This Present Time. The other is from May 1, 1964, and it develops a theme that is always of immediate relevance: Christians. The Fight against Poverty. Economic Development. Our Present Duty.
Some remarks that will enlighten us about the scope of the first document are in order. When he published it, Rolland had been the bishop of Antsirabe for almost one year. It was a meditation on the Church’s thinking in relation to the question of colonialism, and it had been assembled from material in a speech the bishop had given to his priests a little earlier. Published in Malagasy and in French, it contained ideas that had slowly coalesced for Bishop Rolland during the course of twenty years of missionary work. From the very beginning of his time in Madagascar, he had actually experienced the most critical moments in the contemporary history of the people of Madagascar: The Second World War, the British invasion of 1942, the renaissance of the nationalist movement, and the events of 1947. It was the very chain of events that were to give rise to the painful birth of the new Malagasy nation.
In 1947, the bishops of Madagascar had made a rather timid collective statement on the legitimacy of nationalism, but in 1953, the catholic hierarchy took a clearer position in relation to the problem of national independence. Rolland was still a simple priest at the time, but he participated in the formulation of this new statement.
The letter entitled Our Duty at the Present Time outlines the principal characteristics of that movement, but its’ true importance comes from the immediate context in which it was published. The “Loi-Cadre” [1956 Overseas Reform Act] had just become law in Madagascar and in the other French Overseas Territories (June 23, 1956). It was a law that granted voting rights to men and women, and that gave more power to the territorial assemblies. In Madagascar, the “State of necessity” that had been proclaimed after the 1947 rebellion, and that forbade all political groups, had been lifted. Political parties became active again, and nationalist ideas were being widely circulated in the Great Island.
However, the 1956 Overseas Reform Act didn’t grant more than a certain administrative autonomy, and it didn’t bring about substantial change to relations with France, which is why it failed to please nationalist groups that were talking more about independence.
Bishop Rolland’s letter came into an overheated context that was being fanned by the flames of propaganda from various political parties and ideologies. The text, which was potentially of interest to all the Catholics of Madagascar, was written by someone who was supported by all the bishops of the island. Also, it was addressed to the diocese of Antsirabe and was signed by Rolland, who alone assumed all responsibility for it.
Without mentioning it explicitly, the bishop presented the 1956 Overseas Reform Act to his flock, and explained the political transformations that were taking place. To emphasize that international context was equivalent to giving more strength to the Malagasy question at hand. The people didn’t want an Overseas Reform Act even if it had socialist roots. Also, the second part of the letter went beyond the law itself, as it made mention of the word “Independence,” the very word that was at issue. It also developed the political line of thought that had been outlined by the bishops in 1953, when they had affirmed a theoretical principle that needed to be put into actual practice. Thus, Rolland told his flock: “You have the right and the duty to love your country, and to wish for and to promote its independence. No-one can deny that that right and that duty are written on the hearts of all people.”
This was the first time that the notions of rights and duties had been linked and put together in a bishop’s document, and had been applied to a problem as fundamental as national independence.
The letter, as a whole, encourages political action in the direction of complete emancipation from colonialist powers.
Clearly, there were other factors that caused decolonization, and documents like the declaration of 1953 and the letter from Bishop Rolland were just contributions to that end. Decolonization was to be the end result of a slow and difficult evolution, one that the Church was to give its hesitant contribution to, a sometimes isolated and often “against the grain” contribution. It is a pleasure to evoke this bishop of Antsirabe who had so thoroughly invested himself in Malagasy problems, and who had taken in the soul, the culture, and the language of the people that had been presented to him by the Church. He was committed to more than an exclusively spiritual witness, and his presence was encouraging to Christians who were fighting to build their earthly kingdom as well.
Christians and Economic Development
The second document is even closer to home, because it addresses problems that are quite current. The title indicates the direction the bishop’s thinking is going to take.
This letter also comes into a very particular context, and is basically an examination of where Madagascar stood at the beginning of its independence, which was a time when the various hopes and plans were all mixed in with some dangerous illusions.
It was at this very time that the country was preparing to launch the first five-year plan that was supposed to be started by the “Program-Law” of June 9, 1964.
First, the bishop sets the problem of development in its global and human context: “Madagascar is one of the countries that need to bring to fruition this economic, cultural, and fraternal human development.” He goes on to describe the outlines of a chart (which can still be used today) that shows the levels of poverty that exist in the world, and the problems that are particular to Madagascar. However, it is possible that certain points made in the chart were not sufficiently put to good use by the technicians who were setting up the first plan: for instance, the primordial place of agriculture and cattle-breeding within the economic structure of Madagascar, and the need to direct industry in the direction of agriculture, which are two points that are dealt with in depth in the letter.
At the same time, Bishop Rolland denounces the neo-colonialist situation that was being established in Madagascar and in several other Third-World countries: “The biggest businesses are commercial, and they deal with exports of raw materials and imports of manufactured products. They don’t create wealth for the country.” This theme of colonialist contracts was taken up again in almost the very same wording, in the letter of the bishops on development, in 1972, which was to be one of the last documents of the episcopal conference to be signed by Monsignor Rolland.
However, the most important part of the 1964 letter had to do with the issue of Christian commitment to the struggle for liberation, which took the form of development. Jesus Christ didn’t propound any philosophical theories about how to have eternal life. Salvation comes from commitment to him, and this commitment is made concrete through service to one’s neighbor: “There is no need to go on at length about how poverty is a direct appeal of the Gospel: indeed, the first law is the law of the brotherhood of humanity in Jesus Christ, to the point that the smallest act of love carried out for even the least of these actually has an effect on the one these are identified with, which is the Christ.”
Monsignor Rolland’s thinking starts to open up at that point: it is no longer a question of “paternalistic charity, bestowed through a few good deeds.” Even though it shouldn’t be neglected, almsgiving is a temporary solution that has no effect on poverty. “The goal should be…to lift everyone up to living conditions in which people can handle both personal and civic responsibilities. This should be the case for individuals as well as for entire people groups whose development can only come about when they get more than the pre-existing benefits of assistance that come from a state that acts like their tutor.”
Rolland really gets to the root of the problem of development when he turns to the theme of what motivates one to work. Man collaborates with God when it comes to organizing the world. Through man’s activity, he is called to have dominion over nature and to explore it so that he can bring to fruition the seeds of progress that are contained within it. This insertion of human activity into the development of natural resources however, is not without confrontation.
This is precisely where the meaning of work is to be found, work that is “the act of this confrontation that takes place between man and nature.” Development is but the “good by-product” of this work, and it comes from a “hard and ongoing” struggle, one that leads to freedom from the constraints that are imposed by nature.
It is a question of individual and group effort, in which the Christian has a very important role to play: “In order for someone to be human, all people have to be human. Every person is now the concern of everyone in the whole world. What an opportunity for Christians to see that the law of their gospel is to be implicit in the very conditions of development.”
As a footnote to this simple meditation by Rolland on the Gospel, one has to wonder why Christians can’t find the strength to put such commitments into practice, and why, then as now, thinking such as this keeps occurring, without really having much of an effect.
Le devoir du temps présent [Our Duty at this Time], Antsirabe, 1956.
Les Chrétiens. La lutte contre la misère. Le développement économique. [Christians. The Struggle Against Poverty. Economic Development.], Antsirabe, 1964.
Ndeha isika [in Malagasy]. A Handbook for Sunday Worship without a Priest. Antsirabe, 1959.
Pietro Lupo, Claude Rolland: sa place dans l’histoire contemporaine de Madagascar [Claude Rolland: his Place in the contemporary History of Madagascar], in Lumière, 4/11/1973 (the text above is a summary of this article).
Pietro Lupo, Église et décolonisation à Madagascar [Church and Decolonization in Madagascar], Ambozontany, ed., Fianarantsoa, 1975.
Tanguy, (P.H.), Monseigneur Claude Rolland in A.C.M. [Aspects of Christianity in Madagascar]. Jan.-Feb. 1974, pp. 203-206.
Saint-Jean (R.), La Pâque de Monseigneur Rolland [Monsignor Rolland’s Passover], ibid., pp. 207-210.
This article, reprinted 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.