For two weeks in December Novices Henry Nguyen and Paul (Phong) Hoang traveled to the District of Vietnam with Fr. Ed Kilanski, SCJ, provincial superior of the US Province. Fr. Ed went to Vietnam to give a retreat and to meet with Fr. Francis Vu Tran, SCJ (district superior), about collaborative projects for the future. Fr. Ed invited the novices to join him so that they could learn more about the SCJ congregation (Dehonians) outside of the United States.
For Henry, it was the first time that he visited the country of his parents’ birth. While there, he met relatives, including his grandmother, for the first time. During his first week in Vietnam he wrote a reflection that was published on the province website. Click here to read it.
Back home, Henry reflected more fully on his time in Vietnam:
During our trip to Vietnam I often allowed myself to be “moved by the Spirit” (Constitution #23). Not only was this trip an intercultural experience for me but also an interreligious one as it reminded me of my time in my “Religious Experience in Context” class at Catholic Theological Union.
As we traveled around Vietnam, I saw how religion and culture intertwined. An experience that I had while at my Bác Yến’s house was praying for our ancestors by lighting incense and praying for them at the family’s altar in the living room. This is where I connected religion and culture as I was a Vietnamese Catholic and this was more Vietnamese with perhaps a Buddhist influence.
As I was mentally preparing to depart from Vietnam my family asked when I was coming back to see them. I can’t help but reminisce about the limited yet well-filled time that I had with my family. I am really thankful for the experience. I do not know when our paths will cross again, yet I know that although separated by an ocean, we are still very connected through prayer and God.
Aside from being immersed in my own culture and religious traditions, I continued to have the opportunity to be immersed in something unknown to me. As part of my novitiate year, I wanted to explore more of God’s wonder and beauty, and I was able to do just that as we visited northern Vietnam. We went to Hồ Hoàn Kiếm (Hoàn Kiếm Lake), which was filled with radiant beauty and a rich history of Vietnam. I visited Vịnh Hạ Long (Ha Long Bay); being there reminded me of the natural beauty that God bestows on all of us. Nhà Thờ Chính Tòa Phát Diệm (Phát Diệm Cathedral) was a destination that tourists often visit to see the architecture that is a blend of Vietnamese and European styles. We stopped by Hỏa Lò Prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton, to see a glimpse of American history in Vietnam.
As I was visiting “someone else’s garden” I found comfort and security as no one questioned who I was or where I came from as long as I paid my respects and acted accordingly. It was a continued sense of welcome and hospitality at places like Chùa Một Cột (One Pillar Pagoda) and the Perfume Temple. We also had the chance to visit the largest Buddhist temple in Vietnam, Chùa Bái Đính (Bái Đính Temple). We saw visitors from all over the world there.
Candidates Huy and Thanh took me to our Dehon 2 community where I had an experience similar to what my dad had while growing up in Vietnam, which was having a fresh coconut that was just cut down from a coconut tree. Thank you, Thanh, for allowing me to experience that. As Dehon 1 was preparing for a Christmas gathering, the Dehon 2 community was getting ready for their own Christmas event that included neighbors joining them in their festivities.
Just before we left Vietnam (literally hours before we got ready to leave for the airport) the Dehon 1 formation community hosted a Christmas gathering for neighbors and benefactors. Over 100 people showed up for the joyous occasion. Dehon 1 – thank you for inviting me to sing and dance with you on stage, although I did not practice as much and as hard as you guys did. I was and still am amazed at your time and dedication in bringing this annual event to the community.
As we headed back to the United States on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, I reflected on the readings for the day. The Prophet Isaiah said in the first reading, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me” and I truly believed that the Spirit was with us as we journeyed through Vietnam, a place that quickly became familiar to me.
As a closing note, I reflected on the second reading, St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, to “Rejoice always.” Although I was sad to leave Vietnam, including its good food, and especially the people whom I met and bonded with, I must rejoice for having had this encounter with them. As I “retain what is good” I take this back with me as I continue my novitiate year.
I am now back at the Sacred Heart Novitiate, recognizing the three distinctive identities that I carry (Vietnamese, American and Catholic). I know that it sometimes can be hard to carry these identities together, but as long as I am willing and open, I can continue to be moved by the Spirit. I believe that it will help me to discern and do God’s will.
I do again want to thank Fr. Ed Kilianski, provincial superior of the U.S. Province, for his invitation to us novices to accompany him on his first trip to Asia.
And, thank you to the District of Vietnam for your hospitality! Một ngày nao, chúng ta sẽ gặp lại nhau, nhưng bây giờ luôn trong cầu nguyện. (One day, we will meet again, but for now, in prayer).
I can certainly say that my first trip to Vietnam will not be my last!