A member of the Paris Foreign Mission Society, which he led as superior general, the French missionary spent years during the Vietnam War helping refugees fleeing the Vietcong. Forced to leave the country in 1975, he continued helping Vietnamese Catholics from France. In 2010, at the request of Vietnamese bishops, he was able to return to live in Huế.
Hue (AsiaNews) – The Vietnamese Church is mourning the death of Fr Jean-Baptiste Etcharren, a member of the Paris Foreign Mission Society (MEP[*]), who died in Huế, central Vietnam, at the age of 89.
With the death of Fr Etcharren, who served as superior general of the French missionary institute for two terms, Vietnam’s Catholic community lost a figure who accompanied them through thick and thin, before, during and after terrible years of war.
Born on 15 April 1932 into a Basque family in Irouléguy, Diocese of Bayonne, he was ordained priest in 1958. After studying the Vietnamese language for a few months in Cambodia, he immediately reached his mission, in Huế, the following year.
After several years of teaching at the Collège de la Providence and the minor seminary, he was sent in 1966 to serve as parish priest in Dông Hà, not far from the intra-Vietnamese border along the 17th parallel, the demilitarised zone established in 1954 between the North and South after the Indochina War.
Here he faced the great flight of civilians in the summer of 1972 following a Vietcong offensive. At that time, he tirelessly helped refugees resettle further south, in Bình Tuy province, until 1975, a few months after the Communists seized Saigon, when he was forced to leave the country and return to France.
In Paris, he never stopped taking care of the people he had served as a missionary. From 1976 to 1986, on behalf of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of France, he followed the Vietnamese and Laotians who had fled to Europe because of the war, becoming responsible for the Catholic chaplaincy.
In 1986 he was called to play a leadership role in the MEP, serving as superior general from 1992 to 2010. Even in this role he did not fail to pay close attention to the Vietnamese Church, seizing the opportunities provided by the country's evolving political situation.
In January 1996, he was able to organise the first official visit by a delegation of French bishops in Vietnam since the end of the war.
Archbishop Joseph Duval, then president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of France, led the delegation on this historic trip, which provided an opportunity to the Vietnamese Church and French Catholicism to renew cooperation.
The latter including clergy training, with scores of Vietnamese priests attending theological studies in Paris. Many of them later became bishops in Vietnam.
Last but not least, in 2010, at the end of his mandate as MEP’s superior general, Fr Etcharren accepted an invitation from the Vietnamese Church and, with the consent of Vietnamese authorities, travelled to the country he had been forced to leave in 1975.
In recent years he returned to Vietnam on several occasions to carry out his apostolate in the Diocese of Huế.
[*] Société des Missions étrangères de Paris.