Charles was born in Italy on the 15th May 1932 near the shore of Lake Maggiore. He came from a humble deeply Christian family. His father was a tiler and his mother was what we coyly call nowadays a ‘homemaker’ that is to say she spent her life entirely devoted to bringing up the family of two boys and one girl. His mother would have a major influence on his life and she accompanied him to the altar on the day of his ordination just as his sister kept vigil when he was on his deathbed.
Soon after his birth, the whole family emigrated to Vitry le François in France. Charles did his secondary schooling in the Junior Seminary of Chalons. His admiration for his Parish Priest meant that he had a deep desire to become a priest. When he was 20 years old, he became a naturalised Frenchman and was called up for military service. He volunteered to serve in French Overseas territories both to test his vocation and his state of health as he had, in the past, been infected and had been treated for a persistent strain of TB. So at the end of 1952, we find Charles in the Military Camp of Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire before being transferred to Bobo-Dioulasso in Upper Volta (Burkina Faso). The military chaplain, Fr. Gilles de Rasilly (+2011) who was also in charge of Catholic education pushed Charles to prolong his stay after demobilisation and remain a little longer in the country in order to take charge of the senior classes of a primary school at Tounouma. It was there that he caught the ‘White Fathers’ bug. This led him naturally to the traditional White Father formation programme at the time: he entered the novitiate at Maison-Carrée in September 1954 followed by theological and some complementary philosophical studies at Thibar and then at Carthage. He was recalled to serve in the Army for a period of six months during this period. He took his Missionary Oath in Carthage on the 2nd February 1958 followed by ordination there on the 18th June the same year.
During his years of training, he demonstrated all the qualities required for a future ‘good’ missionary according to those in charge of his formation. Among the assessments made about this time, this one best sums them all up, “What struck us firstly about him was his calmness, his seriousness and his moderation. We have seen his qualities as organizer, his ability to get on with all sorts of people, as well as his energetic and imaginative zeal. Polite and friendly, he is also open and frank: it is characterized by a straightforwardness that goes straight to the point, without beating about the bush. He is very open with his superiors and his confreres; he has a particular aptitude for working in a team. A man of rules and obedience, he has understood the meaning and the demands of his vocation, and we feel that he has sincerely taken his formation seriously. He is modest, and when he takes initiatives, he does so very discreetly and secretly. Bro. Sarti is one of our best prospects. He is not an intellectual, but he is intelligent and practical, very mature, able to think things through, has a deep spiritual life and is a man made for community life.” Any of the confreres who have worked with him would surely recognise him from this description.
His first appointment in 1959 was to Dedougou in the Diocese of Nouna in Upper Volta. The Bishop asked him to learn the local language: Bwamou. Let him tell us, with his customary humour and self-deprecation, about his experience at studying an African language, “God gave me big ears, but I can hardly distinguish the different tones which give the meaning to words. After two and a half months, I was completely discouraged and one afternoon I found myself in front of the Blessed Sacrament crying my eyes out. Jesus did not appear to me, neither did he talk to me as in the films of Don Camillo, but I believe that it was Him who inspired the following thoughts in my heart, ‘Who do you think you are? I, the Word of God, the Word of the living God, I learned Aramaic with Mary and Joseph and the people of Nazareth for thirty years, and you would like to learn bwamou in three months … You think you’re smarter than me, or what?” This kind of easy relationship with God, stamped with a very deep faith and trust, never left him for the rest of his life. Charles was a truly “poor” person in the evangelical sense of the word.
From then on, appointments followed regularly. From 1965 to 1966, he was bursar in the Junior Seminary of Tionkuy. From 1966 to 1967, he attended the language school at Guilongou to learn Mooré. This led him to the Toma-Tougan-Kiembara sector and to the many Mossi who lived there. He took a spiritual pause in September 1969 and did the Long Retreat in Villa Cavaletti near Rome under the direction of Fr. Jan Deltijk (+2002). From 1974 to 1979, he worked in Dedougou among the Mossi. He was Parish Priest in Toma from 1979 to 1987 with a view to the “Africanisation” of the parish as he liked to say. What can we remember from those years of pastoral work from which he kept many happy memories? His pastoral zeal astounded many, but it was his ability to be close to ‘his’ people by his facility for listening, his respect for other religions, especially traditional religions and the special care he took in adapting local customs to the Gospel. His superiors, confreres and members of his ‘flock’ loved him for these qualities. His relationships with the local diocesan clergy were close. Some confreres advised him against this so much so that he felt obliged to explain himself to his Bishop in a letter; “From 1967 to 1987, I have lived and worked with priests of the Diocese. I have been living with and being supportive of them 100%. I have never accepted this backing away of the White Fathers. For myself, we share the same priesthood and we are harnessed to the same mission. Certainly, our sensitivities and our ways of functioning are different but we should be able to overcome that. It is at the same time, a witness in the eyes of the Christian communities, Muslims, animists…How can we talk about love and unity, if we, consecrated by the same priesthood, live apart from one another.” Charles Sarti did not mince his words.
In order to get a better idea of how close Charles was to people and to understand his discretion and comprehension which were the trademarks of his contacts, it would be good to read a small booklet which he wrote after he returned to France at the request of his Diocese. It is simply called, “Joys and Sorrows of a Missionary.” He describes it in the following way, “It is not a biography, neither is it a reprint, revised and corrected of ‘the Story of a Soul.’ It is not a history of the Church in Burkina Faso. It is simply some details of the missionary life of an average White Father. It describes the experience of those to whom he has been sent, and where he has discovered God’s love for these people and for himself. He who sows is nothing, he who waters is nothing, only God counts. Thanks be to God”.
However, the time came for him to take a break and from 1987 to 1988, he took some sabbatical time in rue Friant. Afterwards he became superior of the house until 1992. However, Africa was still his reason for living and he returned to Solenzo in the Diocese of Nouna working as a curate until 2001. Then he received an appointment to be Provincial Treasurer of Burkina Faso residing at Ouagadougou. He did not have great memories of this period of his missionary life. He scrupulously carried out his responsibilities until 2008. Again he showed remarkable sensitivity to the many confreres who came to see him because of financial difficulties. His contribution to community life was full of humour and simplicity and he used his wisdom to amicably resolve all the little tensions that can sometimes disturb a community. He never gave up pastoral work and liked giving small services to parishes and sisters’ communities. The noise of his asthmatic mobylette and the glimpse of him going to the bank each morning with his shabby leather satchel were familiar sights. He was a well-loved missionary because he made a mark on people by his unpretentiousness and his piety.
However skin cancer on his face began to handicap Charles and caused him a lot of suffering (he never complained). He returned to France definitively in 2008. It was a decision he accepted with serenity. This decision of his superiors was facilitated by his legendary spirit of obedience shown in an email he sent to the Provincial in France, “As the one responsible, you are better able to appreciate priorities, I obey, and that’s why I took the Oath of Obedience. You know how I define the ‘average White Father’: not very smart, but disciplined.” He stayed for just a year in rue Verlomme to look after the Archives then he moved to rue de Printemps as bursar and manager of ‘Voix d’Afrique.’
Charles’ treatment was beginning to affect him more seriously. In 2010, he moved to Tassy as Superior but also to receive further therapy. He underwent the first operations on his face, which would lead to serious disfiguration. Tassy was to be his last posting as ‘responsable.’ He welcomed it with his usual great missionary sense as he explained to his family and friends in a circular letter, “I have always had great admiration for these ‘elders’ who sweated in their ‘burnous’ and who, for decades, wore themselves out in Africa and in serving the Africans … from Algiers to Cape Town and from Dakar to Dar es Salaam. So I did not have too much trouble accepting this new mission. Pray to the Holy Spirit for me that he will give me sufficient patience, compassion and a listening ear to be at the service of my elders…7 days out of 7 and 24 hours out of 24.” The memory he left at Tassy made a deep impression in the hearts not only of all the confreres but on all the residents of the nursing home and its personnel. He empathised with them through his own suffering. He was to undergo 16 operations on his face. He was the second last White Father to live in Tassy but at the beginning of 2017 he took up residence on the 2nd floor of the Nursing Home at Bry sur Marne where the Lord finally called him on the 18th July 2017.
Charles’ final days were a real Calvary. His rosary never left his fingers. His face resembled that of the “Suffering Servant” but his expression reflected calm, peace and hope in Him. It seemed that the Lord had abandoned him because he was 10 days in a semi coma before He finally took him to his eternal home. It is said, “Who loves well chastises well”; nobody could have imagined just how much Charles was loved by God. The funeral Mass was simple as he had wished it. He had said that “he wanted to be buried rolled up in a mat and carried in a cart drawn by a donkey.” His sister was at his bedside as well as some nephews and grand-nephews and family members who were so close to him all his life. A good many of the confreres from the region attended, as well as a number of African friends. The Chapel was full as it should for an “average White Father,” and the reading of the Beatitudes did not seem out of place in the recital of sincere praises that accompanied him to the White Fathers cemetery at Bry sur Marne.
“Happy the poor in heart, they will see God.”
Clément Forestier, M.Afr.