Vocations in Vietnam, a Sign of a Living Church

Fr. Eduardo Emilio Aguero, SCJ

Last week, I had the opportunity to travel to Vietnam and visit our communities of the Priests of the Sacred Heart. Our congregation began its presence there in 2004, and it has since grown to include more than 100 members counting the brothers, deacons and priests.

Our superior, Fr. Francis Xavier Tran Duc Thai, SCJ, took me to his native place, a small village called Cam Hoa located 400 kilometres north of Ho Chi Minh City. The village is home to approximately 3,500 Catholics including 38 priests who were born there. Fr. Thai holds the distinction of being the 33rd priest from Cam Hoa.

We went there to attend a celebration of the silver jubilee of 24 religious’ sisters, seven of whom were his high school classmates. In fact, he told me that in his batch of 43 students, 13 became religious sisters and three became priests. That’s almost 40 %!

These sisters belong to the congregation known as the “Lovers of the Holy Cross”, which was founded in North Vietnam by French missionary Bishop Pierre Marie Lambert de la Motte in 1970. Today, the congregation has over 600 sisters, establishing over 60 communities across Vietnam.

When we arrived at the parish church, I was surprised to see so many young sisters, priests and lay people in an atmosphere full of joy and faith. We were more than 100 priests concelebrating with the local bishop.

In that context, I interviewed Fr. Thai:

O Clarim: Why do you think that a little village like yours can offer so many vocations to the Church?

Fr Thai: There is a well-organized vocation promotion in our diocese which is carried out by the catechists of our parish. The sisters, who serve in the parish, also encourage the parishioners to support young vocations. Seminarians, priests and sisters of our parish, upon returning home, conduct activities for the adolescents. They are encouraged to participate in the liturgy as altar servers, both boys and girls. They even have a T-shirt that identifies them as candidates for consecrated life or the priesthood.

Also, the parents of these adolescents are very proud if their children decide to follow the call of the Lord. Therefore, they support them in all vocational activities like seminars, outings, campings, liturgical celebrations, etc.

O Clarim: Can you tell us something about your call to the priesthood and religious life?

Fr Thai: I was very young, about 12 when I was attracted by the seminarians and young sisters who led us to participate in interesting activities. Our parish priest encouraged us all, boys and girls to participate in the Holy Mass as altar servants. He didn’t mind how many we were, we were all welcome!

It was back in 2002 when the first two Vietnamese candidates went to the Philippines to embark on the formation program of the Priests of the Sacred Heart. I am part of the second batch of three candidates. We are all priests now. Four of us are in the leadership of our community in Vietnam. We now have 118 Vietnamese brothers, deacons and priests. We now have all the formation stages here in Vietnam: Aspirancy, Postulancy, Novitiate, and Scholasticate.

O Clarim: What is the service that the Priests of the Sacred Heart offer to the Church and people of Vietnam?

Fr Thai: Besides helping out in some parishes, we have a “Charity School” with 190 children of migrant workers who come from different parts of the country. Many of the children belong to broken families and they are very poor.

We hired professional teachers to teach them. Our religious brothers help them on Saturdays with English and computer classes. Every Saturday afternoon, the brothers go to visit the families of the children to learn about their situation and encourage the parents to continue sending them to school. Without the “Charity School”, most of these children would not be sent to school. The administration of the school secures all the official documents needed for each child to be part of the educational system of Vietnam.

This is a very unique school because we, the Priests of the Sacred Heart, are approved and encouraged by the government to do this service. All our activities are in complete compliance with the local educational system. We keep the government well informed about all that we do and plan. Ours is a school recognized by the government. After the five-year elementary school level, they have to take the exam for high school together with the other students from the public schools.  Every year, over 80% of our students, and in some years, even 100% pass the entrance exam for high school. That’s why the government is more than satisfied with our work. Even though our students are poor, we are proud of them because, in the end, they are able to attain an excellent level of education and knowledge.

O Clarim: You are also a missionary community…

Fr Thai: Yes, now we have sent brothers and priests throughout the world: we have two brothers in Spain, two in Venezuela, two in Hong Kong, 15 in the Philippines, two in Brazil, three in Ecuador, three in Rome, three in the US and we are soon sending one to Finland.

O Clarim: What factors contributed to the rapid growth of your congregation in Vietnam?

Fr Thai: The first Dehonian missionaries arrived here in 2004. Because our first members were formed in the Philippines where the congregation had an international community, we were able to open our minds to different cultures and managed to adapt to a changing society. The local congregations in Vietnam tend to be strict and closed to outside influences and that makes them less attractive to the local youth.

Our missionary spirit leads us to reach out to people for dialogue and mutual cooperation. We learn a lot from the simple folks, even those who are not Catholic. Wherever we go, we have good relationships with our neighbors and local authorities. We cultivate friendships and harmony.

Our brothers here are sent to different schools of theology managed by different orders like the Jesuits or Dominicans.

The vocations now are slowly decreasing in Vietnam because families have fewer children and have a better standard of life. Even so, we continue with our vocation promotion with many young people applying to our congregation. We treat our brothers like our own family, and encourage them to live as brothers, concerned with one another: friendship, mutual respect, and sharing whatever we are and have, are our values. We send our brothers for missions within the country but always in groups: They need to pray and work together. This community bonding is the special mark of our spirituality. Our mission comes from God. As members of His church, it is not a personal business.

During Covid, we shared our food with our neighbors, both Catholic and non-Catholic. The local officials appreciate our attitude. This fraternity and joy in living out our vocation is the best vocation promotion!