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Madagascar: Mourning a soldier of Jesus

29 February 2016 – “Fr Jean-Simon was a true soldier of Jesus. He struggled to help the poorest of the poor, the excluded and the oppressed. He was the one whom people turned to when they were in need.”

This is how Masy Razafindradama remembers Fr Jean-Simon Ratsimbazafy SJ, a Malagasy Jesuit who died after an illness, aged 52, on 21 January 2016. His death is a huge loss for the poor and sick people he served; for the staff at the Centre Social Arrupe (CSA), which he set up and ran for many years; for the national struggle against HIV and AIDS; and for the African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN), of which he was a veteran and valued member.

Fr Jean-Simon was the creator and driving force behind the Action chrétienne dans la lutte contre le VIH/sida (Christian action in the struggle against HIV and AIDS), a project initiated within the CSA in Antananarivo. If this project is the dynamic, creative and flourishing venture that it is now, it is largely thanks to him.

Fr Jean-Simon set up the project in 2006, in collaboration with AJAN, because he was convinced that the struggle against AIDS and related stigma, rejection and poverty, is an integral part of the mission of the Jesuit social apostolate “to fight for the justice of the Gospel and against poverty in all its forms – socio-economic, moral and political”.

Writing to his provincial about the project back then, Fr Jean-Simon quoted Jesuit General Congregation 34: “The Risen Lord… is now present in all who suffer, all who are oppressed, all whose lives are broken by sin. As he is present, so we too want to be present, in solidarity and compassion, where the human family is most damaged.” (Decree 2, no.4)

Fr Jean-Simon was tireless in the range of activities he launched as head of the CSA. All had distinct aims – AIDS awareness, healthcare, family ministry, value-based education, healthcare, radio transmissions – and were implemented in close partnership with others. All were harmonized and harnessed in a bid to bring life “to the full” to the poorest and most marginalized, among them people living with HIV.

Busy as he was with his many projects, Fr Jean-Simon was never too busy to care for the poor individually. “Although his time was fully occupied, Fr Jean-Simon always found time for the sick,” continues Masy. “In particular, he lent an attentive ear and stretched out his hand to those who were marginalized and discriminated against – something always done with the greatest discretion.”

Like Masy, Dr Zoé Randriana was another long-time collaborator of Fr Jean-Simon at the CSA. She recalls: “He was profoundly altruistic. When we went for field visits, we referred children who had a harelip and others who were physically disabled or severely ill. Fr Jean-Simon used to take them himself for their hospital appointments, he went to seek them out and accompanied them for their appointments and surgery. He would visit people until they got better. Just recently, when we went for a field visit to Ambohitra with Fr Paterne, the AJAN Director, an elderly women hugged me and whispered: ‘We are orphans.’”

The people who were recruited by Fr Jean-Simon at the CSA, and who worked with him over the years, will miss him terribly. They remember a man who was determined, decisive, professional, efficient, meticulous in all he did, and a stickler for time. And a man with a sense of humour. 

“At the CSA, he was appreciated for his availability to his co-workers too. His personality, loyal character, and charitable and benevolent heart made him an admirable, respectable and respected man,” says Masy.

Fr Jean-Simon was able to achieve all he did – truly a considerable amount – because he was totally committed. Masy describes him as “truly devoted to the mission that the Society of Jesus had entrusted to him. Driven by his strong faith conviction, he implemented each task he was responsible for, and gave the best of himself. And everything he did, he did for the greater glory of God.” 

Something that Zoé remembers about Fr Jean-Simon is that he “liked to learn from others.” She said: “In the 10 years I worked with him, he never hesitated to sit down with the project animators, teachers, medical personnel and others to learn a bit more about AIDS.”

Fr Jean-Simon was truly a remarkable man, a “man for others”, who leaves behind a remarkable legacy for the Church in Madagascar, especially its AIDS ministry. His was truly a life lived to the full, each day packed with intense efforts to bring the Good News of the Kingdom of God to those who most needed to hear it.

Thank you, Fr Jean-Simon, for all you were to all those you met and to the African Jesuit AIDS Network, where you will be very much missed. May you rest in peace and rise in glory. 

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