A model of commitment
Nguyen Nghị, a Vietnamese historian, writer and journalist, was a great friend of Sergio. Here he tells the story of their friendship from the time of the YCW followed by their meeting many years later at first through CCFD and later through the Centre Lebret.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Sergio from the time he came to Vietnam for the first time as a member of the Executive Committee of the International Young Christian Workers (IYCW). At that time I was the chaplain to the Girls YCW. This was before 1975. Sergio had come to act as a kind of “arbitrator” between the two groups of the Vietnamese YCW, Nha Trang and Saigon, who were disputing on the orientation of the YCW in Vietnam at that time. I acted as interpreter during the working sessions. Patient and conscientious, Sergio helped restore calm in the Vietnamese YCW in an impartial manner by bringing the people to choose, unanimously, in favour of a Christian engagement in the social reality of the country. This first meeting began a friendship that lasted until his death and why not even beyond? That first meeting also drew me into a circle of friends which grew progressively larger.
Peace was re-established in Vietnam in 1975 and the unity of the country followed. The socialist regime, under the leadership of the Vietnamese Communist Party, extended over the whole country, both north and south. In our conversations during those first years, we spoke of Sergio from time to time but we thought that he would never return to Vietnam as he had promised on his departure from Saigon, because we well knew that the new regime was highly suspicious of foreigners.
The years passed and one day we received a telephone call announcing that he had just arrived in Vietnam in Hanoi but this time working for CCFD. We did not know exactly what the Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development was but we soon began to receive letters and documents from him describing his work in Vietnam.
His friends in Saigon finally had the pleasure of meeting him again but there was no more YCW. Those in Vietnam had become “former YCWs” and he a man of CCFD. But for me there was no difference. We stayed the same. He was always the same committed man whom we met, full of enthusiasm but modest, someone with whom we could collaborate. In fact, we had more and more opportunities to meet and work together both in Vietnam and in France: working meetings at Saigon and at Danang, immersion trips organised by CCFD, projects in which I took part (e.g. the Centre for Popular Knowledge), a stay for two days in Vung Tau, bringing together the families of former YCW leaders with his own, two days of reflection in Luxembourg... So many memories of work that united and enriched us.
Sergio was a friendly and sincere man. Always very simple. I often took him with me on my Honda. One day, I am not sure if it was the last time, before I mounted my “iron horse”, he said: “Actually, I weigh 83 kilos.” Nevertheless, we toured the streets of Saigon on my Honda in spite of his weight with no untoward incidents. We had great mutual confidence. We could share ideas on any subject and I can say that we agreed on most of them.
His friendliness based on the Christian commitment of the YCW, CCFD and Foi et Développement won him the friendship of many people whom he met in Vietnam, even at a time before workers, intellectuals, historians and journalists had permission to enter.
Evidently he experienced difficulties. However, his constant and transparent testimony was for me a sign of hope because it is always such a total commitment, such an incarnation, friendship and gratuity that crosses borders and comes up with valid and lasting solutions to the various problems that we cannot avoid in our lives.
A road sign for the future
Medicine Professor Pham Gia Khai, head of the cardiology department at the Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi, testifies on the important aid that Sergio and CCFD brought to the region. Aid which still bears fruit today.
Years passed, much water has passed under the bridge, the world has changed but true human values remain. Our common friend Sergio Regazzoni was one of those values. He will always remain an unforgettable person for me, with his smile and way of speaking which breathed goodness and serenity. And whose message was not reduced to simply waiting in the queue for a visa (Ed.: Reference to the difficulty to obtain a visa for Vietnam). Because in spite of everything, Sergio had visited every continent, brought care and encouragement to the poorest and destitute of the world where faith and human charity allowed one to play the role of an angel or a devil.
Sergio has gone but his human heritage remains and with his friends who share his views, his work, our work, he is a sign post towards a future where hope still reigns.
I am a doctor. I first met Sergio through Mr Hung during the 1980s. Mr Hung worked at the Foreign Editions in Hanoi. With Sergio, we had established contact with the local authorities at Luong Son in the province of Hoa Binh, where most of the population are of Muong origin. There was the matter of establishing a health post directed by the Hoa Binh medical service. The post was constructed and its operation ensured by Luong Son.
The audio-visual equipment for teaching cardiology at the Hanoi Medical University (video cameras, echo-cardiography, accessories) were all provided thanks to CCFD funds transferred through the French Embassy in Hanoi. It was very effective and pedagogic and greatly inspired us for future cardiology activities in the fields of teaching and scientific research.
The workshops, which were held in Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi as well as in Cambodia and Laos and which brought together scientific personalities with an influence on national decision makers in socio-economic policy, were an opportunity to discuss the form of assistance for ethnic minorities in the grip of opium. This aid helped them to change their culture and also provided assistance for blind people to learn spatial orientation.
An organised visit to Thailand in 1991 to the University of Chulalongkorn which benefited ten leading teachers from the Hanoi Medical University, was also financed by CCFD.
I would add that the regular sending of magazines and booklets from CCFD and the Centre Lebret to our homes, even up to the present day, are useful for us in gathering information on the operation of NGOs such as CCFD in favour of peoples who need not just immediate material assistance but above all to learn to look after themselves in order to live in dignity. All with an awareness of their own human value.
A target of sometimes harsh criticism
Nguyen Tri Dung knew Sergio very well. Here he explains concretely his spirit of discernment and tenacity at a tile when Vietnamese had to make a choice of staying in the country despite the inherent difficulties of a political regime that scorned freedom and the economic crisis that followed the end of Soviet aid. He also recalls the suffering of Sergio in the face of some currents of French opinion that did not hesitate to make use of lies and calumny to caricature CCFD action.
It was in 1989 and I was the director of a basket-weaving co-operative where more than 200 people were working. Most were women and young girls. Clearly they were from poor families. Our products were exported to the Soviet Union. But suddenly the whole regime crumbled. We lost all our production contracts and we experienced a grave period of unemployment. How could we find an effective solution?
Happily I met Sergio. I was a former member of the Young Christian Students (YCS). We had discussed deeply in the search for a solution. Sergio introduced me to CCFD which granted us precious support which enabled us to launch a clothes making co-operative. It was the time of the great wave of boat people. Many Vietnamese were fleeing the country to seek freedom despite all the dangers that were involved and the risks to their lives.
In the confused situation of Vietnam, a communist country, our dear Sergio worked with great patience. He travelled Vietnam from north to south to meet people, atheists and religious, associations and communities, as well as ethnic groups, and even groups whose points of view differed or against his own. He tried to build links, contacts, dialogue between people, including those who were antagonists.
In Vietnam the situation at that time was very complex. It happened that French public opinion thought that all aid to Vietnam implied support for communism, the regime which caused the exodus of boat people. Consequently, often the support of French public opinion was often lacking for the projects granted by CCFD to the Vietnamese people. This meant that Sergio as the project officer for Vietnam was often the target of sometimes rude and severe criticism.
With marvellous patience and admirable courage, he showed how to overcome all kinds of difficulties. His efforts finally brought about deeper and more convincing understanding within the Vietnamese community. He helped people to understand projects in Vietnam were not there to help the government but to assist the people towards sustainable development. This admirable achievement took years and years of perseverance by our dear friend.
Thanks to CCFD and Sergio, many projects were supported in various fields including economic development, education, culture, public health, environment, dams, agriculture, livestock, ethnic traditions... Imagine how many people, poor and marginalised, really benefited from these projects. As a result, their living standard, both material and spiritual, was lastingly improved.
Sergio, with his always smiling, open and sympathetic manner, was truly an activist for peace, development, reconciliation, patience, joy and hope.
The Vietnamese people have their reason for being
A journalist for a Vietnamese Catholic weekly, Pierre Nguyen Thanh Long also describes the difficulties Sergio faced in his work for the Vietnamese people, e.g. criticism from various French Catholic groups, suspicion on the part of the Vietnamese authorities with respect to a Catholic NGO. Despite these attacks, Sergio's overwhelming concern was for Vietnam and its people.
I met Sergio quite late during his time of coming to Vietnam. He had become involved long before with this war-torn country. The war had affected not just the land but also its spiritual values, its culture, its people. Before 1975, he was a leader in the International YCW and he had come to support Vietnamese YCW leaders who had been arrested as a result of their struggles for peace and human rights. After 1975, when Vietnam began its new historical period, he came as a project officer for CCFD for South East Asia in order to assist the Vietnamese to fight “against hunger and for development” as well as for human rights.
I remember the material assistance, as well as the spiritual support from CCFD, via Sergio, for our magazine Công Giáo và Dân Tộc (The Catholics and the People). At that time, the aid was for the purchase of positive film for offset printing, a material that was quite difficult to obtain at that time in isolated Vietnam. It is necessary to imagine the context of the epoch which was marked by the post-war economic difficulties and an ambiance of maximum vigilance on the part of a harsh socialist regime. This assistance from CCFD – and from many others in favour of other groups of Vietnamese people obtained by Sergio – was a courageous, indeed almost reckless gesture to meet the most urgent needs of the Vietnamese people.
Later, when I had become closer to Sergio and I was able to get to know the projects supported by CCFD in Vietnam and in other countries, I understood that CCFD had a development policy conforming to the concrete and various needs of poor people in the country and that it was also effective. However, for the effective implementation of this policy, CCFD and its project officers such as Sergio needed not only to be firm but to also have the courage to take up the challenges, risks that this policy implied. In order to implement such a policy, it was necessary to have the capacity to harmonise differences between people and the local authorities, it was necessary to make relations between partners transparent and certainly it was necessary to gain the support and confidence of French donors. As far as Vietnam was concerned at that time, many difficulties arose from the existence of particular political, indeed severe and suspicious conditions concerning religions, particularly foreign Catholics.
Criticism from France
And it is true that during the 1980s CCFD and Sergio in particular were subject to all kinds of criticisms from France and also Vietnam, with Sergio's main “sin” being to love the Vietnamese people too much. We must not forget these noisy denunciations from certain French newspapers targeting CCFD because of its priority aid to Vietnam during those years, years of an economic blockade by the USA against our country. At the same time, on the other hand, we can't forget the suspicions of CCFD and above all of Sergio on the part of the Vietnamese government concerning their activities in Vietnam, including one time when he was expelled after which he was refused an entry visa for quite a long time.
I sometimes had the opportunity to meet Sergio in Paris during these delicate periods. I found him sad but without hate or despair. He always maintained his sense of humour and found a way to overcome problems, not for his own interests, but for the just interest of people and peoples. It seems that because of the particularities of Vietnam all those who love it sincerely and deeply must suffer similar suffering to him. Nevertheless, the misunderstandings in relation to Sergio were finally more or less resolved. He was able to return to Vietnam to visit his many friends there and to take part in the organisation of an International Forum in Vietnam in 2006. However, that was his last visit since his work and his health no longer permitted him to return to the country that he loved so much. During a meeting at the Centre Lebret in Paris, he showed me the entry visa to Vietnam that he had obtained but at the last moment because of his workload he was unable to go. Jokingly he told me: “I won't go, I'm sulking!”
The last time I met him was in March 2008 during my participation in the CCFD Lenten campaign. At the end of the campaign, he came to see fetch me for a dinner at the Centre Lebret with his co-workers. Vietnam still obsessed all his ideas and his heart. And even at that time he was still criticised and treated as a “red” by a number of French people owing to his work for the Vietnamese people.
The ordinary people
Following my return to Vietnam, we sometimes continued to keep in contact, e.g. on the occasion of the publication of a book to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Populorum Progressio, he asked me to write an article on Vietnam on the occasion of the death of Fr Pierre Truong Ba Can, the director of our magazine, who was also a long standing friend of Sergio from the YCW. The last time was the occasion of an event concerning the former residence of the Apostolic Delegation in Hanoi. He had expressed his astonishment that a French Catholic press agency in Paris had written that, grosso modo, a number of “low people” were trying to prevent demonstrations by Catholics. He wrote to me: “I don't know why they use the term “low people” for these people! Let's not forget that the Child was born in misery among these low people!”
It is difficult, indeed impossible, to speak of everything that Sergio undertook in his various role, in several fields, for people from various developing countries. It is also impossible to enumerate all the difficulties and sufferings that Sergio had to endure because of Vietnam. But there is one thing that I can firmly say: the Vietnamese people were one of the reasons for living for Sergio. Certainly, there were other people, and in a general sense, all people, particularly the poor. But Vietnam held a particular place in his activities and in his heart. And this alone helps explain why he was able to accept and overcome all the injustices in that regard.
Based on what others have told me, Sergio was unable to eat during the last days before h is death. And his last meal, according to his wishes, was a bowl of Vietnamese “pho” soup. Isn't that a sign of his destiny that, as well as the love of his family, his last material meal followed him into the beyond?
The Sergio “miracle”
In the often delicate situations that he had to deal with, Sergio was always careful to surround himself with competent people. This was also the case when it was a matter of problems of health policy in Vietnam and elsewhere. Lucien Molinié, a pharmaceutical doctor, testifies.
At the request of Professor Marc Gentilini1 and Robert de Montvalon, journalist at Témoignage Chrétien, I took part in the work of a small team the objective of which was to advise CCFD in its choice, monitoring and evaluation of projects in the field of health. This team called SADEC and later Santé et développement (Health and Development) had an ephemeral existence because of the absence of demand from CCFD. However, for me it was at the origin of many discoveries.
Based on my knowledge in the pharmaceutical field acquired over 35 years of professional involvement, I had the role of reflecting more particularly on the issue of medicines in countries of the South. It was on that basis that I came to meet Sergio and to work with him, evidently completely as a volunteer.
In September 1988, I received a telephone call from Robert de Montvalon inviting me to meet Sergio with a view to taking part in a trip at the end of that yeare to Vietnam. Sergio was then project officer for Asia and I knew of him but I had never met him. Moreover, I had no knowledge of Vietnam. So I was quite surprised and a little bit fearful. However, very soon after I was able to meet Sergio. We had a long discussion interrupted by numerous phone calls from all parts of the world to which Sergio responded always in good humour and with equal facility in French, English, German, Italian or even in other languages unknown to me.
The warmth and simplicity of his welcome
I was immediately put at ease by the warmth and simplicity of his welcome. In a few minutes, Sergio told me of his desire to see me take part in a meeting organised in Ho Chi Minh City by Dr Duong Quynh Hoa, director of the Centre for Pediatric Development and Health there, and to carry out an enquiry into the health needs of Vietnam, particularly in the field of medicine.
But that was quickly settled with Sergio considering that my agreement was obvious and giving me total confidence to implement these missions. After a long conversation I understood that he wanted to involve me with him in his main action, namely developing friendship and fraternal links between people beyond all the barriers of history, political and religious ideas.
So I left for Vietnam for the first time with him and several CCFD friends including a journalist Pierre Vilain and a doctor, Alain Fillon. Either separately or in a group, we met several of the people that Sergio described as partners and who comprised a network throughout the country, the “Sergio network”. There were communists, Buddhists, Christians, including the archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City – differences did not count, they were just people who beyond the tragedy that their country had experienced and which continued were working to create more human living conditions for their compatriots.
To illustrate the spirit in which Sergio worked in Vietnam, I will refer to a meeting organised in Danang by Sergio and in which I was able to participate several years later. There in a real spirit of fraternity I was able to meet men and women who had taken part in the war in opposing camps, from small farmers to professors, priests, bishops and religious, a former minister in the PRG2 together with several western friends. Each person felt recognised in their originality and accepted the other in their difference. It was the “Sergio miracle'. I still remember with emotion that meeting.
A man of relationships
I often returned to Vietnam for CCFD and once for Secours Populaire until 2002. I accompanied Sergio on two or three occasions. We met often but each of us worked on our own programs in total independence. I was deeply moved by the total confidence that he gave to me to work with partners on development programs that they had conceived.
A few memories of our collaboration come back to me at the moment Sergio has left us. Sergio as a great man of relationships. He had that simplicity that breaks down hierarchies and he spontaneously had the same gentleness with cyclo drivers in Hanoi or Saigon as with bishops, presidents of popular committees or any other officials. He was deeply attentive to others. During our missions, he was concerned about our lodging conditions or our travels before worrying about his own needs.
With respect to Vietnam, I could also mention those long evenings that we spent together, alone or with Vietnamese friends discussing the current difficulties and our hopes for a better future. Towards 11.00pm, I left him but he still had several meetings before sleeping and the following morning he began again at 5.00am at the same pace. He was a non-stop worker and I don't know where he found the strength to keep going. He must have arrived home exhausted after his missions.
Nor was the return to France a period of rest and quick recuperation. As soon as he arrived, he would find a mass or letters, faxes and emails that had arrived during his absence and which often required a rapid response, decisions to be made or procedures to be followed both inside and outside of CCFD. To that was added the need to quickly draft a mission report to be presented to the CCFD decision making bodies.
Here, I believe, I was also able to assist Sergio in answering his abundant post, which I was able to do as I was already quite familiar with his thought and the objectives of his work through many conversations. Sometimes I even had to sign letters that committed CCFD on certain issues.
I am immensely grateful to him for the total confidence that he always accorded to me. Never, over the years that we worked together did he make the least remark to me concerning the way in which I translated his thought or that of CCFD.
A fine negotiator
I have many more memories of Sergio and of his personality. But I would just like to tell one story of which I was the witness during the Terre d'Avenir (Earth of the Future) forum at Bourget in 1992 and on which I worked with him for several months full time. It shows that Sergio, without ever getting involved in conflicts was a skilled negotiator. Our friends from CAFIU3, a Chinese organisation invited to the forum, had designated the bishop of Beijing from the Chinese Patriotic Church as the head of their delegation. As a result there was much discussion on how to behave in his regard. Should we welcome him as a bishop or simply as a leader of the delegation? It was Sergio who disarmed any antagonism with the friendly assistance of Bishop Guy Deroubaix from St Denis.
I will not allow myself to speak of Sergio's faith since it is so clear to me that it was at the heart of all his work. I will retain the memory of a man who translated into his life an aspect of the Acts of the Apostles in this beginning of the 21st century. I can also testify that it was thanks to his work that the Vietnamese Church committed itself resolutely to the path of Vatican II and that it survives a little better now than it did in the harsh conditions imposed on it after 1975
I cannot finish this testimony without mentioning what I felt strongly during the celebration of his funeral at Evry on 7 August 2009. There was a crowd of solidarity activists who had known Sergio in the International YCW, CCFD, the Centre Lebret and other places. Some had come specially from Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Latin American and various European countries. Others, who were not able to make the trip, organised a celebration of farewell for him the same day in Ho Chi Minh City.
For me, one thing was evident through all this. Sergio, like Charles de Foucauld, was truly a universal brother to whom the word “foreigner” did not exist. Madeleine, my wife, was also a privileged witness to this long history and I have a marvellous memory of Sergio.
May Denise, Barbara and Nicolette know that Sergio was a sign of God's love for us.
Audacity and intelligence of the heart
Sister Anne-Lucie Vo Thi Ri, former general counsellor of the Congregation of Providence of Portieux from 1980 to 1992, and superior general in Vietnam from 1992 to 2002, took part in several solidarity actions organised by CCFD there. Her congregation was and still is closely linked to the history of Vietnam as well as Cambodia and China.
Here Anne-Lucie Vo Thi Ri recounts the constant support that Sergio brought to the very complex Vietnamese context of that time.
I had the opportunity to get to know Sergio and to work with him thanks to my congregation the Providence of Portieux, which has its headquarters in the Vosges. Following the events of 1975 and the fall of Saigon, and more particularly from 1979, the congregation worked with CCFD to provide assistance to children in the Mekong Delta. Within the framework of the International Year of the Child, the then superior-general Sr Micheline Turon did everything to equip a children's hospital with the assistance of CCFD and the active participation of all the sisters in Europe. From that time, there was close collaboration between the congregation and CCFD.
After I was elected in 1980 as Vietnamese assistant general for the congregation until 1992, while living in France, I was able to take part in several CCFD solidarity actions in my own country. This was the framework within which I was able to work closely with Sergio while following the CCFD projects in Vietnam financed by CCFD.
Who is not familiar with the story of Vietnam? It gained its independence in 1975 but the period after independence was extremely severe and bitter. A word or a gesture could be interpreted in various ways based on the tendency of the interlocutor. It was on this shifting ground that Sergio had to walk in order to work in collaboration with partners and to achieve development projects. During his term, he continued the policies of his CCFD predecessor Jose Osaba, a policy based on the desire to build links, relationships, solidarity and partnerships in Vietnam. It should also be noted that all the international NGOs who wanted to work in Vietnam during that period experienced the intensity and burden of these difficulties.
Let us mention in passing that during 2002 the Cantho authorities carried out an evaluation of all the international NGOs who had worked in the Mekong Delta. And it was CCFD which headed the list. It was the first to carry out concrete projects in these regions. It provided development assistance to the children's hospital in the city of Cantho. But without ignoring the rural sectors in the delta. The first priority was care for children in these zones. Later, another priority was for training for women in clothes making, pig and poultry farming as well as help with their modest co-operatives.
To be accepted to realise solidarity in a given place is already a step. However, to last and to be effective in a partnership implies that there is another path to travel. A lot of prudence, patience and vigilance is required concerning the risk of individual and even institutional slippages. Sergio made use of a sixth sense to navigate these waters which were not without waves.
Sœur Marie-Claude Faure, superior-general from 1986 to 1997, took part in several humanitarian actions in Vietnam with Sergio. Together they had to manage a number of inextricable situations. Returning home in 1992, I was there with our sisters and I can testify to their courage, their conviction, their faith in the objectives of their action. At these times, a great sense of discernment was necessary.
If you will allow me, I would like to tell you a story to illustrate what I have just explained. In March 1987, Sergio and Marie-Claude Faure had left together on a mission to Vietnam. They landed at the airport of Ho Chi Minh City. At that time, one had to take everything out of one's bag before passing through the controls. Our two friends were in the process of doing this when the city police arrived and told them with no explanation to close their bags and to get back into the plane! Our two “heroes” could only do what they were forced to do. But instead of returning to France, Sergio had the idea of stopping in Bangkok to ask the Vietnamese ambassador the reasons for the expulsion. Thanks to this intervention they were able to re-enter Vietnam a few days later without any difficulty!
Sergio knew how to give time to the essential and to eliminate the superfluous in order to find a path towards truth and brotherhood. In the field of his action, through the finesse of his approach, Sergio contributed to bring more justice and respect for every human person. In his choices, he gave priority to the Gospel values which were at the heart of his action and his respect for every person.
These values need to be cultivated and developed for society now and in the future. Sergio has left us a message of hope and love. A love that overcomes all obstacles and divisions since it comes from the source of Love which is God. “Blessed are the peacemakers!”
José Osaba told us one day with certainty that Sergio was a gift from heaven for us, sisters of the congregation. Over time, I have seen the truth of this statement... Yes, Sergio was a gift from heaven, not only for those who worked with him but to me he was also a gift from heaven for humankind in a certain sense. His generosity, his audacity and intelligence of heart made him a universal brother on whom one could depend.
A cultural project in Vietnam
Sergio wanted to create and strengthen links within civil society by using all the opportunities that were available to him. Thus, thanks to his links with the cultural attaché at the French Embassy in Hanoi, he was able to make contact with the Vietnamese Association for Plastic Arts with a view to developing co-operation with it. A person who helped him as mediator for this delicate operation in the context of the time was Henri Thommen, who was then an art history teacher in Switzerland.
In November 1983, I had just changed my work. I was starting to study my favourite subject art history. My objective was to keep in touch with my desire to go further in my research on a 19th century Swiss painter. After the first semester of study, I had a proposal to also teach at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Basle, an offer that I accepted immediately and with great pleasure.
Meanwhile, Sergio had started working for CCFD where he was project officer for Asia while my future wife Marlyse Strasser was doing a similar job on Latin America, which also helped build links with him and his family. Soon Sergio was in charge of those countries regarded as “dark spots” on the political map, including Vietnam which he already knew.
Concerning these “difficult” countries, Sergio wanted to identify persons of confidence in various domains and at all social levels, including upper government levels. In this context, he had the opportunity to develop a relationship with a representative of the Ministry of Culture in Vietnam. At the same time, he strengthened the already existing links with foreign policy in France, making contact with the French cultural attaché in Hanoi, Patrice Jorland, who was greatly interested in Vietnamese arts. It seems that these two people informed Sergio of the existence of the Association of Plastic Arts in Vietnam (AAPV), one of the rare associations in Vietnam that was not directed by the Party.
Sergio's objective was to make links with Vietnamese civil society. He developed these links after some initial clarifications with the result that a protocol was developed and adopted on 6 October 1985 between four parties, namely representatives of the foreign affairs representatives of the Ministry of Culture and the AAPV on the Vietnamese side and the Commissioner for Cultural Affairs in Hanoi in the person of Patrice Jorland and Sergio representing CCFD on the other side. The document provided for several measures by CCFD to promote the AAPV. Shortly after, when Sergio met Marlyse and myself, he proposed that I come to Vietnam as an “expert” to help select the artists to propose for scholarships that CCFD was ready to provide.
Opening a window to the outside
First of all, I energetically refused to regard myself as an “expert” with the following arguments. I was only at the beginning of my studies and I did not have any experience in a delicate situation as in a communist country, not to mention my general ignorance of Asian art in general and Vietnamese art in particular. But my arguments did not change Sergio's. It was simply a matter of opening a window to the outside” in a totally closed country which was his main objective. Then we spoke no more about it for some time. Meanwhile, he continued working on the 1985 protocol in view of the promotion of the AAPV. He also clarified with CCFD as to the cost of any support.
He then came back to me with a second proposal that I get to know the neighbouring country Thailand. Thus, Marlyse and myself took part in an immersion program organised by CCFD in 1986. At that time Marlyse had to bring some material from Thailand to Hanoi for AAPV. However, this did not occur because the Vietnamese Embassy refused the visa.
Finally, Sergio succeeded in breaking down my resistance. He would balance my inexperience of this kind of country with that of a person who would accompany me. It was Mrs Kim who knew the language and culture of both countries. She was living in Paris and would go to Hanoi to visit her family. Moreover, Sergio also added an ethnologist to our delegation, Christine Hemmet, who worked at the Musée de l'homme in the field of musical culture. Finally, in the face of my relucta ce to manage the currency exchange, a solution was found with that responsibility being taken up within the team.
Thus, the confidence that Sergio gave me overcame my reluctance and my own mistrust of myself. Little by little, I was able to understand and assume Sergio's vision and I prepared myself for the trip. It was only then that Sergio finally explained the difficulties that we could face. Basically, in a few words, he warned me of the points to pay attention to in human, cultural and political relations, concluding: “Anyway, you will handle it all correctly!”
The trip took place from 5 – 21 July 1987 with various stages in Paris – Hanoi – Danang – Hué – Danang – Ho Chi Minh City – Hanoi – Paris. This is not the place to retrace that mission in details. However, the objective was to select Vietnamese artists to receive scholarships to study in Paris. For me, everything took place as if we were in a cloud. However, I also faced some moments that could arise in a rigorously organised communist society. Sergio had prepared me. In the final report I signalled these points. For Sergio, these incidents were neither shocking or anodine; they were simply items that necessarily came to the fore during a meeting of cultures that were so different.
After a few months, the scholarship holders arrived in Paris. First there were the representatives proposed by the Vietnamese government, then, among the candidates suggested by AAPV were those who were accepted on the basis of my “expertise”. Sergio maintained cordial relations with all of them despite the limitations of time that his agenda imposed. He also visited the expositions – usually organised at the end of the stay of the scholarship holders and which were usually held at the Vietnamese Cultural Centre in Rue des Ecoles in Paris.
How easy it would have been for Sergio to create a position of some importance for himself in this field! But he remained committed to his work at CCFD thanks to which he was able to facilitate the flourishing of many other economic and political projects.
A star in eclipse
Sr Mai Thanh presented television programs in Ho Chi Minh City and directed documentaries on development and solidarity actions among the poorest in Vietnam. A sister of the Congregation of Notre Dame, she testifies on her experience of Sergio, “a man with a heart”.
The unexpected death of our friend Sergio seems to me like the eclipse of a star... Eclipse means displacement not disappearance. In many parts of the world as in Vietnam, Sergio's presence over the last three decades was the occasion for an unbelievable radiation of understanding, friendship, solidarity, fraternal sharing that was exceptional from several points of view.
My meetings with Sergio began in the field of the media, particularly the Ho Chi Minh City television station where I was responsible for the section on children's education. During this period of great economic poverty in socialist Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City TV greatly lacked technical equipment. Knowing that CCFD was concerned for the situation of countries in South East Asia, I was able to make contact with Sergio thanks to providential circumstances.
Meetings, reflections, sharing full of understanding and reciprocal friendship led to cooperation. In welcoming assistance for professional technical equipment from CCFD, the director of television asked me to direct several documentaries on magnetic tape as requested by Sergio. Among others, the activities of the Centre for Malnourished of Doctor Duong Quynh Hoa from Ho Chi Minh City, actions by several feminine religious congregations in South Vietnam which worked with the poor, sick and destitute... All these were treated as subjects for both human and economic development in the country.
One of the audio-visual documents entitled “At the service of all” presented a number of religious congregations in South Vietnam engaged in service to the country based on the spirit of Gaudium et Spes of the Second Vatican Council: “Man is the way of the Church. The latter must share the community of destiny with all peoples”. After close control by the cadres responsible, the documentary was totally approved and later sent to CCFD.
Outside of television, Sergio had proposed for me to cooperate with other development projects in various poor villages in the province of Thanh Hoa...
What impressed me through these various projects was the rays of light from Sergio's rich personality: sensitivity to the needs of people, work in partnership, wisdom and discernment, clear thinking, generosity of heart, respect and dialogue in friendship with all, believers or atheists, cadres or simple employees. For Sergio, each person deserved to be approached and listened to whoever he or she was.
By way of example, here is an anecdote that I will never forget. It happened in the Visa Office of the Vietnamese Embassy in Paris. They asked him:
- Who are the people you are going to meet in Vietnam?
- I could not say since there are people on the streets throughout the country and they often greet me and I try to respond in the same way.
- But who are your friends in Vietnam?
And Sergio answered: All the Vietnamese are my friends!
Not only did Sergio seek to meet the other but he also sought to transform them and open them up to new horizons. In 1994, Sergio invited me to France for a farewell dinner in the presence of a group of Communist cadres who had come from Vietnam at his generous invitation. He wanted them to get to know the culture and the activities of European Christians who worked at the service of people. Throughout the meal, several of these guests shared with me their joy to have better understood Christianity through these visits and their desire to deepen their experiences. Afterwards, at the Charles De Gaulle airport, where some of us had accompanied them, they said goodbye with emotion, even with tears in their eyes.
Sergio was a man with a heart illuminated by Christian faith and the wisdom of the Spirit. The “star of Sergio” continues to lead us towards paths of universal friendship and solidarity, not only between peoples but also between two universes that are henceforth inseparable: Heaven and Earth.
Just as the CCFD maxim says that “the Earth belongs to all of us”, so too we can say without hesitation that our common brother and friend Sergio belongs to all of us!
1 Professor Gentilini is an epidemiologist specialising in tropical diseases at the Hospital La Pitié Salpêtrière in Paris.
2 The Provisional Revolutionary Government governed South Vietnam in 1975 after the fall of Saigon.
3 Chinese Association For International Understanding (See the Chapter on China).