Father Jean Charbonnier, a Mandarin-proficient French priest who has been entrusted with making China better known to people in France, celebrated his Golden Jubilee on Oct 26 at Church of St. Bernadette, where he served from 1960 to 1970.
By Joyce Gan
JEAN CHARBONNIER FELT a calling to the priesthood when he was aged 11, entered the Versailles Seminary, joined the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP) after completing his first-year Theology, was ordained by the MEP Superior General on Dec 21, 1957 at age 25 and was promptly told that he would be sent to Singapore.
In December 1959 he boarded a ship named "Cambodia" in Marseilles and reached Singapore three weeks later. "On the boat I studied 'Teach Yourself Malay' and I could speak a few words on my arrival," Father Charbonnier recalls.
He was posted for one year at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd Cathedral where he visited many Eurasian families who helped him improve his English. "Archbishop Michael Olcomendy filled me with joy when he asked me to study Chinese." he adds. To do that, he went to Kuala Lumpur to attend a school for civil servants located in the Chinese ancestral temple of the Chen Family (Chenshi Shuyuan) near Petaling Street.
His Mandarin teacher was Yang Demao, a Pekinese employed as an announcer at Radio Malaysia. But his classmates were rather slow in learning the Chinese words, and Father Charbonnier decided to expedite his own learning. "I bought the textbooks of the Chinese School, Primary One to Six, and spent one semester learning to read all by myself!"
By November 1961, when he was posted to the newly-built Church of St. Bernadette at Zion Road, he could give homilies in Mandarin. While there, he became spiritual advisor to the Chinese-speaking Legion of Mary, taught catechumens who were "quite cooperative in correcting my language mistakes", became chaplain to different Young Christian Students (YCS) teams and Zhonglian (for China Catholic Communication). He was also advisor to English-speaking YCS, first in the St. Bernadette parish, then at Catholic Junior College. President of Zhonglian, Patrick Lee, who has worked with Father Charbonnier since 1983, says, "Father is a very humble man, more like a friend than a spiritual director. He really guides and trusts us, listens very much to our opinions and lets us try new things, always being supportive all the way."
Mr Lee remembers that Father was one of the first priests to use the computer for Chinese and English word processing. "He is a simple person who does all his daily cooking and washing by himself. He liked to watch Channel 8 TV programmes and used to say he could not understand what Singaporean Chinese were thinking and doing, so these programmes helped him!"
Mr Lee was one of the many familiar faces at the Golden Jubilee celebrations which Father Charbonnier describes as "a great joy". Remembering faces, adapting to local conditions and recognizing God in the various situations that he experiences are all part and parcel of Father Charbonnier's 50 years as a priest.
Wherever he is sent and in whatever work he is assigned to do, Father Charbonnier continues to "keep the same goal of making known God's truth and love". For example, "during my first 10 years of pastoral service at Church of St. Bernadette, I felt very much God's presence and grace when preparing people for the sacraments of baptism or marriage. When visiting many families around River Valley Road, Prince Philip Avenue, Queenstown and Tiong Bahru, I felt that Christ was bringing peace to these homes."
Though he was handed responsibility for the China Service of the MEPS in 1980, he was asked to return to Paris only in September 1993 when the MEP accepted seminarians from China for further studies in France. Father Charbonnier helped to train these seminarians and to make "China better known to French people" in an office called "Relais France-Chine" (fa-zhong lian luo she). "I have been involved in China work for the past 30 years and still feel very much comforted by the faith of Catholics in China," he says.