A week with our SCJs in Vietnam

Fr. Steve joins SCJs in Ho Chi Minh for a meal

Fr. Steve and Fr. Wayne join SCJs in Ho Chi Minh for a meal

As noted previously, Fr. Stephen Huffstetter has been in Asia during the past few weeks visiting our SCJ communities in the Philippines and Vietnam. This morning we received several blog entries from him, starting with Fr. Steve’s travel from the Philippines to Vietnam:

Tuesday, September 16; Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Vietnam was large in my conscience during my growing up years, as we heard reports from the war every night on the news. Later, I learned more about the country when I served in formation; most of our seminarians then were Vietnamese immigrants. I’m sure this will be an eye-opening experience for me, though I know that six days will only be enough for a brief introduction.

Our SCJ community has begun the process of applying for official recognition to be able staff parishes and engage in other works. This will take several more years. For now what we are able to do is offer education for those men who wish to become SCJs. Most of the candidates have already finished college and are fairly sure about having a vocation to religious life as they enter the discernment process.

Students at the dorm

Students at the dorm

Forty students and SCJs live in neighboring houses in an area north of downtown. The main house is thin and tall, with the chapel on the roof, which offers a good view of the city. The students share dorm rooms with three sets of bunk beds. Some of the candidates arrived just over a week ago and their main challenge is to improve their English. I was asked the basics: “What is your name?” “Where are you from?” “How are you today?” Many times. The language in the house and at prayer is English to prepare them for philosophy and theology studies in the Philippines.

We took a taxi from the airport. The community owns no cars, only motorbikes. The ratio of motorbikes to cars on the road must be at least 20:1 and it is mesmerizing to see them weave around one another, especially around intersections and traffic circles.

My main purpose in visiting is to better understand the needs of the growing district and look at ways in which the U.S. Province might collaborate with it as the SCJ charism finds new expression in a new land.

Fr. Rino is the district superior, originally from Italy. Fr. Thai was ordained just a couple of years ago and is from the second group of professed Vietnamese SCJs. We sat on a balcony overlooking the neighborhood as they filled me in on how they developed these houses and programs, and some of their future hopes and plans.

Once the sun went down it was time for adoration and evening prayer. We took our shoes off to enter the chapel, as is the custom here. During the quiet time all the lights were turned off, and only candle light illuminated the monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament. It was a calm and peaceful chance to recollect after a full day. When the lights came on for the prayers and hymns I was pleased with the gusto with which the group sang and participated.


Fr. Wayne and Trung on the Mekong Riover

Fr. Wayne and Trung on the Mekong Riover

Wednesday, September 17; trip to the Mekong Delta

While in the Philippines I spent most of my time touring our SCJ apostolates. Since we haven’t yet developed such projects here, the community suggested that  I use some of my time to get better acquainted with the culture of the country. Today we took a bus and boat tour of the Mekong Delta, a couple hours south of Ho Chi Minh. Bat, a theologian serving his pastoral year, and Trung, a candidate, were guides for Fr. Wayne Jenkins and me. Fr. Wayne is helping the community set up its archives, and has also tutored English. His favorite classroom is in one of the neighborhood coffee shops where students can work on the art of conversation.

While waiting for our tour bus to arrive, we strolled around a park near the city center. The public space sprang to life with activity even in the early morning hours. Elders did more gentle movement exercises while another group did aerobics to lively music.

Once we cleared the metro area we passed acres and acres of rice fields. Most of the work is still done by hand. Scattered among the fields are family graves. Working alongside of the graves of ancestors strengthens the ties to the.

When we reached the Mekong River we switched to a boat. The area features a floating market, with many goods, especially fresh produce, sold from boats on the river. Many of the boats also serve as homes for the merchants. We pulled alongside a fruit boat and had fresh bananas and rambutan.

Fr. Wayne, told that the snake is "used to people," gets up close and personal with a python

Fr. Wayne, told that the snake is “used to people,” gets up close and personal with a python

We sampled green tea and coconut candy at a village shop where everything was made from scratch. I didn’t try any of the snake wine, but Fr. Wayne and I did hold a live python after reassurances from its handler that is was used to people.  There were many local crafts for sale, creatively using byproducts from coconuts in every way imaginable. These folks depend on tourist dollars for their livelihood, so I felt guilty for being more of a window shopper. I appreciate the work, yet try not to buy what I do not need.

Lunch featured local fish and produce. The restaurant was surrounded by orchards where we could see papaya, jackfruit, mangos and other fruits growing. Locals displayed their traditional music and dance, which told ancient stories of life on the river and in the fields. Around the tables we met some new friends, including a fun group of Malaysian women celebrating a 15 year class reunion with a girls road trip.

Back in town we toured the marketplace. A stack of U.S. $100 bills about three inches tall caught my eye. When I saw that they weren’t real I learned that when remembering deceased ancestors the custom is to burn items that they will need to ensure a good life in the hereafter. They also showed me paper houses, with cars and furniture that can also be used for the same purpose.

Members of the Apostolic Fraternity

Members of the Apostolic Fraternity

Back in the city, Fr. Vincent Dung invited us to his home for supper. Vincent and Fr. Joseph joined the SCJs through the French Province even before the international district began. He serves a nearby parish and oversees the Apostolic Fraternity, a house of discernment to develop the faith of about 30 Catholic men attending school. Several past students have gone on to become priests in the diocese. They prepared a speech of welcome, and also shared gratitude for the help the SCJs have given them.


Fr. Rino, Fr. Loc and Abbot Matthew Vu

Fr. Rino, Fr. Loc and Abbot Matthew Vu

Thursday, September 18

Today we traveled south to the coastal town of Vung Tau to visit the Cistercian Monastery. One of their confreres, Fr. Nam is in residence at our Chicago Formation house. When Abbot Matthew came to visit him last year he extended a warm invitation to me to see their community.

Fr. Steve at the Shrine of Vung Tau

Fr. Steve at the Shrine of Vung Tau

Vung Tau has two well known Catholic Shrines. First we stopped to visit the statue of the risen Jesus, which sits atop a coastal mountain, arms spread in welcome. We worked up quite a sweat climbing some 800 stairs to reach the top. In the last part of the ascent, inside the body of the statue, we were asked to take off our shoes. When we emerged at the top we stood on the shoulder of Christ, with a breathtaking view of the seas and city below.

The second shrine is dedicated to Mother Mary. The stairway leading up had life-size Stations of the Cross for pilgrims to pray and reflect at while catching their breath. While Catholics are less than 10% of the population, the people’s practice of the faith is quite public and strong.

We reached the monastery in time for midday prayer, chanted by about 60 monks. They have over 100 in their foundation, with 30 novices in the process of joining them. My Vietnamese language skills are non-existent. Fr. Loc was gracious to translate my greetings and prayers for each of them.

This evening I met up with an old friend and former member of the community, Ha Tran. We met outside the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and went to a nearby restaurant for a snack and drink. Ha now lives in California but was spending time in Ho Chi Minh. He says “hello” and thanks all the SCJs who helped him along the way.


Fr. Rino and Fr. Steve with school staff

Fr. Rino and Fr. Steve with school staff

Friday, September 19

I presided at morning mass for the students with instructions “to keep the homily short because the new guys won’t understand too much of what you say anyway.” Still, their faith and enthusiasm is an inspiration to me. Many come from agricultural backgrounds or fishing villages. All will finish college before going to study philosophy in the Philippines.

Frs. Rino, Vincent and Loc took me to St. Paul parish where the SCJs do help-out ministry and seminarians can do their internship. The diocesan pastor, also Fr. Vincent, has seen tremendous growth in the parish over the 39 years he has been assigned there. He started with 700 parishioners and now serves 13,000. More than half are recent migrants to the city looking for work in the many factories. Ho Chi Minh produces many products, but especially shoes and clothes in this area. One factory we drove by employs 50,000 workers!

The parish has a shrine to the Vietnamese martyrs. From some of the earliest days of Christianity in this part of the world, people have known the true cost of discipleship. It has produced a deep and enduring faith.

Parents wait to pick up their children from school

Parents wait to pick up their children from school

We visited the school the SCJs help sponsor for migrant children new to the area. Each of the three classrooms is about the size of a two-car garage, and seats 40-50 children. The dedicated teachers work two shifts, with younger kids in the morning and third and fourth graders in the afternoon. The materials are low tech, with chalk and blackboard and lots of group recitation. The youngest were taking turns with a pointer going through the letters of the alphabet. The children are motivated to learn.

We enjoyed a folk dance the youngest girls performed for us. Afterward we met some of the parents who were waiting by their motorbikes to pick up their children. Lots of smiles and words of gratitude to the SCJs for helping to provide a better future.

The school is currently in a rented building. The lease expires in another year-and-a-half, and the owner wants it back to expand his business. The community has found an alternate site, but it will require some significant money. In Ho Chi Minh City, like any major metropolis, the land is more expensive than the actual building. They have some local pledges of support, and the district asked me to see if the U.S. Province can also find ways to help.

When we arrived back at the formation house the students were busy with work period.  They were fencing in a garden to grow herbs and vegetables. I wasn’t much help with the construction project so I tried to increase their English vocabulary with words like “pliers,” “wrench,” “nuts” and “bolts.” I don’t know if that will be much help to them in their study of philosophy or not!

In the evening I was treated to a water puppet show, a beautiful, ancient tradition. The synchronized swimming of the puppets was worthy of an Olympic medal. Dragons, fish, farmers and kings paraded in color before our eyes. The music was enchanting even if I couldn’t grasp the lyrics.


Bishop's residence

Bishop’s residence

Saturday, September 20; Nha Trang

When Fr. Loc told me he’d arranged for us to stay at the bishop’s house I imagined something completely different than the six story, 200 room complex we pulled into. The rooms themselves are simple, with a bamboo mat on top of the bed frame, a desk and closet. There are enough rooms for all the priests of the diocese to stay for meetings, retreats and days of recollection. Nah Trang is a beautiful coastal city which has developed itself as a tourist destination. In addition to shoppers and sunbathers walking along the sidewalk, 100 seminarians gathered this evening in circles of ten in the courtyard, bibles in hand, for their weekly faith sharing.

When I took a stroll down the sidewalk, people passed out fliers for nearby restaurants. They were all in Russian, since that is where so many of the tourists this time of year are from.

A good number of our first SCJ vocations came from this diocese. The community arranged for me to meet several of their families to get a feel for everyday life and the role that families play in nurturing vocations.

Visiting the family of one of our Vietnamese SCJs

Visiting the family of one of our Vietnamese SCJs

Our first stop was at the boyhood home of Fr. Thai, where his brother and family now live. They have three-year-old twin girls. It was funny to hear Saturday morning cartoons like Tom & Jerry speaking Vietnamese. Fr. Thai’s brother works on a farm where mangos are the area specialty. He also crafts large clay pots that are used for trees and decorative floral displays. His wife runs a beauty shop, a small 10 x 20 foot concrete building next to their home. She only has one beauty chair, but works with care and attention.

Most of the homes I’ve visited have one room that proudly displays family pictures, especially placing deceased parents and grandparents in places of honor. There were also many statues and holy pictures. The room is used to welcome guests and for family prayer.

Next we saw a nearby monastery; it is a growing community with 15 new novices. The chapel was completed 10 years ago and has a wonderful cultural touch. The roof is shaped like a field worker’s hat, honoring the common laborer. Their garden held statues of Vietnamese martyrs set up in an “S” shape just like the country itself.

Fr. Loc’s family hosted lunch –– a fun and lively crew. Courses of the festive meal were punctuated with the local toast: “mot, hai, ba, zo!” shouted out with gusto. His father laughed and told many engaging stories that had everyone smiling, though I had to wait for the translation to get the punch line. Many family members and friends joined in as it was an occasion for all of them to get together. They were honored that I came to their home, while I was humbled and honored by their care and generosity.

Fr. Quang Nguyen (same name as one of our SCJs in the States) has been working in a parish here, but will soon be moving to Rome for advanced studies in psychology. While the district is young they already see the Importance of preparing this generation to assume local leadership. He invited us to concelebrate the evening mass. In another touch of inculturation we carried three incense sticks into the church to honor the Trinity, and placed them in a clay pot in front of the altar. Many of the common prayers have a chanted quality, which actually kept everyone together and made the mass parts much easier for me to follow along.


Parish carnival in Nha Trang

Children at a parish festival in Nha Trang

Sunday, September 21

The days begin much earlier here than back home. We got to “sleep in ” until 6 a.m. because we had the second parish mass of the day at 7 a.m. This was the start of the new catechetical year. Students wear different colored scarves to symbolize the levels they have achieved. When the students reach 18 or so, and know their catechism well, they receive red scarves and become catechists themselves, teaching the younger children. Today a half dozen of them were honored and took up the mantle.

Today was a parish carnival for the children. Over the summer each time a child attended daily mass s/he received a ticket good for one game, which included dart toss, spin the wheel, kicking a ball into a goal, and shooting baskets. Some of the kids had quite a fistful of tickets when the games began. Where we often have a ring toss around pop bottles, the most surprising game to me had a pen with six live ducks roaming around and the goal was to loop a ring around their neck to win a prize.

After breakfast and a conversation with the pastor, Fr. Dominic, we visited yet two more homes for a light snack and then for lunch. Fr. Quang and Fr. Phuong’s families again set a wonderful table. My only complaint about the food is that they feed me too much. My saving grace is that I’m very awkward using chopsticks, and that slows me down. Some of the crowd giggled at my style, and offered coaching. Lest I go hungry there was always a spoon at my ready!

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