Monday, June 4, 2007

The Vietnamese Connection

“Mot, hai, ba!... One, two, three!” Why are these Franciscan friars smiling? They’ve all been participants in this year’s Vietnamese Vocations Day Retreat hosted by the Vietnamese Del LaSalle Christian Brothers and sisters in San Jose, California on June 2. Nearly 100 young people as well as religious representing a dozen men and women’s congregations met on the campus of the LaSalle community for a day of prayer, workshops, and speakers—plus wonderful Vietnamese food and outrageous ice-breaking activities. San Jose, along with Orange County further south, functions as an important epicenter of California’s vibrant and burgeoning Vietnamese Catholic community.

Our own St. Barbara Province has been blessed with a number of vocations from the Vietnamese community, including Friars Nghia Phan and Vincent Nguyen, who participated in the weekend event. In addition, Friars Chuck Talley and Rufino Zaragoza were on hand to lend their support. In the day’s activity we were joined by our Capuchin Franciscan confreres Fr. Hung Nguyen and Brother Hai Ho who maintained a separate information table for their community.

During the day-long event, Brother Vincent, 37, shared his vocation story with the group. He spoke of his own struggles and doubts and occasional attempts to run away from his vocation. “But what really hit me,” he shared, “was when Pope John Paul II announced the beginning of the Jubilee Year in 2000. When he quoted Jesus saying that he was sent to preach the good news to the poor, I thought: 'This is what I am supposed to do with my life.' It really woke me up. After that, I thought, okay, I will look for different communities. And when I saw the Franciscans, I said ‘I want to wear that habit!.’”

A native of Saigon, Brother Vincent emigrated to the United States with his family in 1994 and settled in California’s Orange County. Like many of our Vietnamese brothers, both Vincent and his family were dislocated by the war in their homeland. His father was imprisoned for several years as a political prisoner, and the family suffered both economic privation and social ostracism. Vincent reflects that his family’s faith, as well as daily prayer together, sustained them in their difficult moments.

Brother Nghia Phan, 32, was born in the village of Ban Me Thuat, in Vietnam’s central highlands. Along with his parents and ten siblings, he came to the United States in 1993 and entered the friars after completing basic ESL/ English as a Second Language studies. Nghia made his solemn profession in 2005 and is presently pursuing studies at Holy Names University in Oakland, with a major in philosophy. His hope—“God willing”—is to be ordained a priest. His family is devoutly Catholic and has been supportive of his vocation. One of his sisters, Huyen, now Sister Dolores, is a Poor Clare in the Aptos, California community.

A warm, open, and engaging brother, Nghia does not waste words: “I found the friars sympathetic, easy to contact. They are good around people and people like to come to us.” His advice to young people: “Come and find out who are are. Don’t be afraid. We are friendly and welcoming.” In regard to his own culture and spirituality, Nghia says, “ As a province, we really work to understand and respect other cultures. We are multi-cultural and try to make everyone feel at home with us.”

Both Nghia and Vincent live at the St. Elizabeth Friary in Oakland while pursuing their studies. In addition, they are both active with the Vietnamese community at nearby St. Anthony Parish. Nghia helps with First Communion preparation classes, while Vincent works with the Confirmation group.

In addition to Nghia and Vincent, representation from the Vietnamese community in our includes Friars Tran Nguyen, Hoang Trinh, John Luat Nguyen, and Stephen Tan Nguyen – all serving as priests who are involved in parish ministry in multicultural settings.The St. Barbara Province welcomes inquirers and candidates from any and all cultures, and we have been blessed with friars whose roots reflect the rich cultural diversity of the western United States. In addition to our Vietnamese brothers, our province includes friars of Asian background with roots in the Philippines, Japan, and China.

Multiculturalism stresses the equal value of each person’s home culture and seeks to honor and respect that significant dimension in every friar’s life. It is not enough for us that our brothers come to us from a diversity of backgrounds, however. For our part, we are working to learn more about our brothers’ home cultures and to provide ways to celebrate that richness in our Franciscan life.

For several years now, friars from the St. Barbara Province along with others have been traveling on pilgrimage to Vietnam. Led by our own Brother Rufino Zaragoza, these pilgrimages have served to open our eyes to the beauty, richness, and depth of Vietnmaese culture. They have also helped us to appreciate more deeply the tremendous witness to our Catholic faith offered by our sisters and brothers in Vietnam. You can find out more about these annual trips at

A gifted composer and musician, Brother Rufino Zaragoza is internationally regarded for his pioneer work in multicultural ministry. In recent years his efforts have focused on ministry to the Vietnamese Catholic community in both Vietnam and in the United States. Working extensively through Oregon Catholic Press, Rufino has published a number of cds featuring contemporary liturgical music inspired by traditional Vietnamese sources. Recent recordings include: Chong Ngai/ Choose Christ (2007), Tim Khat Khao/Longing Heart (2004) and Chung Loi Tan Tung/ United in Faith & Song (2001). Look for his work at or contact Brother Rufino directly at
. Inquirers can contact Brother Vincent directly at Nghia can be reached at