BY DIEM T. LY
When Duc Nguyen was a child in Vietnam, his family would pray together every night.
At age 24, Duc’s family emigrated from Vietnam to the United States where he entered seminary schools in Oregon and California. Nine years of schooling and three college degrees later, Father Duc or “Duke,” as he sometimes calls himself, is part of a growing trend of Vietnamese men heeding the call to enter the clergy.
In June this year, Seattle’s Archbishop ordained the largest priest class in 38 years —seven in all, according to a report by The Seattle Times. This may seem like an unimpressive figure, but consider the fact that typically only one to two seminarians are ordained in Seattle a year.
The most striking feature of this newly ordained class of priests is that two of the seven are Vietnamese. Father Duc is one among the two.
In December 2005, The New York Times published an article reporting that Asians and Pacific Islanders constitute approximately one percent of American Catholics, but account for 12 percent of seminarians. Vietnamese are second only to Hispanics in ethnic minorities entering the clergy. Father Duc notes that three years ago in Seattle, when five priests were ordained, two were Vietnamese.
That such a small number of API Catholics is able to produce so many new priests demonstrates the hold that tradition, family and faith still have on APIs like Father Duc.
Catholicism in Vietnam
The ties between the Vietnamese people and Catholicism date back hundreds of years to the 17th century, when missionaries from Portugal, France and Spain introduced Catholicism to the mostly Buddhist Vietnamese. Many missionaries since then have been successful and, in fact, in 1998, the late Pope John Paul II canonized 117 Vietnamese martyrs.
However, this religious open door policy that Vietnam once permitted has not existed for some time, most clearly since the rise of communism. Father Khanh Nguyen, the other Vietnamese priest ordained in June along with Father Duc, now presides over a parish in Vancouver, Wash. Father Khanh relays how his brother encouraged him to continue studying to become a priest after his arrival to the United States from Vietnam in 1994. In Vietnam, he had studied with fear because the government did not allow religious studies and he could have suffered severe consequences for doing so. He was also not sure whether he would ever be ordained if he stayed in Vietnam.
Father Phuong Hoang, director of the Vietnamese Archdiocese in Seattle, whose own grandparents were imprisoned and killed for their faith, recalls everyone escaping from Vietnam in a boat into the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. All were praying in the midst of a storm.
“That [memory] has always been a part of my life, of how special that was,” Father Phuong said. “When we lost everything — we didn’t have anything — we still had our faith.”
Father Phuong explains why Vietnamese often hold religion in such importance.
“Those born in Vietnam have been through a lot of sacrifice and difficulty,” he says. “When they suffer so much and see things passing so fast, they have to find some kind of permanence, and religion seemed to assure that.”
He adds: “The stronger the persecution, the stronger the faith gets. I think that’s a unique experience of the Vietnamese family.”
Rich Shively, director of vocations for the Archbishop of Seattle, is integral in the training and development of many Vietnamese seminarians. He believes the Vietnamese American experience has enriched the Catholic Church with “this incredible life experience, incredible commitment to faith, our depth of understanding what family is all about and what tradition is all about.
“Those things can really enliven a community.”
Respect for the priesthood
Vietnamese Catholics hold the priesthood vocation in high regard and consider it a successful position in society, as many European Catholic immigrants did a century ago. It is common for members of the Vietnamese community to sacrifice money to assist those who cannot afford to go to seminary schools.
But despite this high regard, the vocation has suffered an overall setback in enrollment.
Father Duc explains that in light of the “growing materialism and individualism of American society,” fewer American Catholics are expressing an interest in entering the priesthood.
“A lot of young people imagine you can get a better job,” says Father Duc, “better pay, vacation, a family, a lot of money; whereas a priest doesn’t have that. It takes eight or nine years to become a priest, same as a doctor. But do you know how much doctors make? I don’t know, but I know how much priests make.”
Father Phuong describes that when a priest tells the average parents that their sons may end up as priests someday — that they’re identifying a “calling” — the parents often protest. They either want grandchildren or want their child to have a “normal life.”
To become a priest requires a long and thorough education, training, and a change in lifestyle. Not many are open to this, whether for themselves or for their children.
For Vietnamese families, however, Vietnamese parents would love to have a son or daughter in the ministry.
“Vietnamese entering into the priesthood and into American churches are in leadership positions, “ Father Duc explains. “It seems that they are assimilating well and are showing that they have a voice, a place in the larger community.”
Good role models in the Vietnamese community rise out of these positions and offer guidance to those considering the vocation, as well as spiritual development for the youth. The success of local Catholic youth programs offers hope to any concerns of declining Vietnamese Catholic faith due to assimilation or degeneration.
The calling to priesthood offers Vietnamese an opportunity for an elevated status in American society. It’s a sense of pride for the community. Whereas Vietnamese are considered a minority in America, they are in leadership roles in the Catholic Church.
Vietnamese priests with a parish of diverse cultural backgrounds, such as Samoan, Filipino and English speakers, are able to easily relate to a wide range of people, even though they themselves may not be multilingual. They bring in a broadness in their ability to serve and are more willing than others to serve in very diverse communities.
“We are more visible,” says Father Phuong. “And we make a difference, because we have more priests — there’s more visibility in the Catholic Church. We will publicly speak on behalf of a lot of dioceses. It’s our turn to carry the torch, so to speak.”