“If it hadn’t been for a group of friends – teachers at a school for street children – I would never have known about this side of my city: the poor. And yet, Saigon – or as they now call it – Ho Chi Minh City, also has it: poverty, disadvantage and suffering.
On Christmas and all the big holidays some people like to go out for walks, perhaps around some of the famous breweries, to look for some poor, or better, very poor families who live in stinking rat-infested slums. I thought I had seen all the poverty in Thailand among the Karen refugees and migrants from the mountains in the North, as well as along the dirty canals of Bangkok. But what I saw today in Saigon, in the ‘Milan of Vietnam,’ I had never even imagined. Small rooms with twelve people living inside them, along with three dogs perhaps. I become so nauseous in such places that I could hardly force myself to stay there. But then, the faces of the children lit up, the intense gazes of the mothers looked at us and seemed to say ‘thank you’ when we placed in front of them a sack with 5kg of rice in it. That gaze was all the thanks we needed, along with a will to live and the joy to dry ourselves off after such a drenching rain.
And then there are Nativity Scenes in Saigon and Christmas stars over the homes of many families. Some alleyways are lit up, which gives a bit of warmth to the city which is by no means cold, impersonal and indifferent – nor even atheist. You notice the stars and Nativity Scenes, because they’re everywhere and appear on many street corners: they take you by surprise. The ones I found most striking were the ones in the public markets, at night, almost covered under the day’s trash; or else, the ones that were lost along the outskirts of the market, but illuminated by two huge Manger Scenes set up right on the road. Then, on the tops of the houses, at night, there are the fluorescent stars that blink off and on. Returning home tonight, after the visit to the poor, I looked at this scene that had filled me with such a feeling of gratitude: even though far from home, I wasn’t at all missing the real sense of Christmas.
Last year Pope Francis said that ‘Christmas is the feast day of weakness, because it celebrates a child, the symbol of fragility, smallness, humility and love.’ Today I understood those words a little more. This night that I now leave behind because it’s already morning, was illumined by the love that I saw among the people that went to help, to lift up, to show their closeness with those who suffer. Once again, the cultural darkness in which we live is illuminated by these living Nativity Scenes, by people who have made that Boy the reason for their lives. And I realized that the real message of Christmas hasn’t died. It’s message of love, tenderness and understanding is alive and I saw it. It was all there in that gesture of taking a small disabled three-year-old and hugging him as close as possible. And that little boy let himself be raised up by that face that unknown face.
All the technology of present and future robots, the commercial frontier that everyone is talking about in Asia, will never be able do this miracle: love. Because love is free. Love is never a duty, and nobody can program it or order it. It’s a gift that comes from inside. I saw faces brighten and believe that life, tomorrow morning, will go forward and be more beautiful than yesterday.
I don’t miss my Europe this Christmas. Because wherever there is love, there is also my home. Saigon is also my home.”