As a young boy in Vietnam, as a prisoner in Cambodia for running away from the Communist Vietnam, or as a refugee in a Thai refugee camp, Fr Henry could never have imagined that he would one day be a parish priest in Australia.
He started life on an island village in Vietnam. His first memories are of the simple routines of village life, including prayers at the village shrine to Mary each morning and evening. Even the Buddhists of the village would pray to Mary alongside the Catholic families. “They believe she is a powerful intercessor, generous and good,” he says.
Mary is special to Vietnamese people explains Fr Henry. In 1798, a group of Vietnamese Catholics who were fleeing persecution in the forests of La Vang, saw an apparition of Our Lady. Catholicism had come to Vietnam in the 1600s, but Vietnamese Catholics over the following centuries endured vicious persecution by their rulers. Those who saw her in the forest that day said Mary reassured them their prayers were being heard. Since then, Our Lady of La Vang has been an important figure in the Vietnamese Catholic Church.
Over two hundred years later, 12-year-old Henry was encouraged by the priests and nuns of his village to attend a seminary school on the mainland. He remembers the sadness each time he had to say goodbye to his mother as she saw him off on the boat that would take him back to school. “I would imagine her going to the markets after she dropped me off,” he says, comforting himself with familiar memories of her until he would see her again.
He thrived at the seminary school. “Study is something I longed for my whole life,” he explains. Sadly, within a few years, his training for the priesthood was interrupted by the political unrest in Vietnam and the war between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese Communists. The seminary was closed, and the seminarians forced to work as manual laborers. Those who could, including Fr Henry, secretly studied at night, again, like their predecessors in past centuries, in fear of persecution. He acknowledges how tough this was. Today, he is grateful for the experience. “It built my character and made me stronger and more determined,” he says.
Fr Henry was unwillingly recruited to fight the war with the Khmer Rouge by the Communists. He escaped to Cambodia and at one point was imprisoned. Alone, in prison, removed from those he loved, and thinking this was possibly the end of his life, he remembers that all he could do was put his faith in God. After a lucky escape on a boat out of Cambodia (which he is eternally grateful to a good friend for) he ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand, then finally Australia where he returned to his studies to become a priest.
In the mid-2000s, he was Assistant Priest at Holy Trinity Parish, Granville, before becoming Administrator at Our Lady of Lourdes (OLOL), Seven Hills. When Monsignor John Boyle, then Parish Priest at OLOL was appointed to Domus Australia in Rome, Bishop Manning appointed Fr Henry as Parish Priest in 2006.
“I couldn’t believe it,” says Fr Henry, still in the role 16 years later, amazed at how his life has played out and seemingly come full circle. “Our Lady of Lourdes always reminds me of the grotto in my village where my family used to pray.”
Today, he urges parishioners to consider how the Gospel translates to contemporary life. He writes excerpts from his own experience in the OLOL Parish Bulletin. “We need to reflect on scriptures from our own personal experience, and how our story is a living witness to God’s providence,” he explains.
Today, several families are blessed with children after praying for the intercession of Mary at the Church. “Mary is generous, a good mother and really answers people’s prayers,” he adds, although clarifying: “Our Lady doesn’t really care about where we pray, as long as she has a place in people’s hearts.”
This article first appeared in Catholic Outlook Magazine 2022 Easter Edition. You can read the magazine here.