Catholicism reached Vietnam in 1533, over 250 years before the first Mass in Australia. This ancient faith and culture is encouraged in the Diocese of Parramatta’s Vietnamese Chaplaincy, led by Fr Huu Duc Tran (Fr Henry).
The rich heritage of Vietnamese Catholicism includes the apparition of Our Lady of La Vang, Fr Alexandre de Rhode SJ’s codification of the Vietnamese alphabet and lexicon, and the testimony of the Vietnamese Martyrs.
Fr Henry escaped Vietnam as a refugee and has a personal connection to the Vietnamese Martyrs, having grown up during the start of the Communist persecution of the faith in Vietnam.
“Before I left home in 1984, I had a chat with my grandfather because it was so tough, maybe the toughest time of my life and I really wanted to go away, leave the country and restart my formation program hopefully.”
The Communists shut down his seminary and inhibited his formation.
“I had a chat with my grandfather. I said ‘Grandfather, I want to leave the country’ because the seminary where I lived was shut down and I was put into labour work manually every day.”
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Fr Henry was then threatened with conscription into the Communist army to fight against Cambodia.
“Guess what my Grandfather said to me: ‘You stay here, there’s no reason to go. Remember the missionaries; they went to death, they were persecuted and they wanted to bring faith to you, to our homeland and now you want to leave this homeland and go away.’”
“In a way, I disobeyed him because I made my own decision. He passed away before I was ordained,” Fr Henry said.
Most Rev Vincent Long OFM Conv, Bishop of Parramatta is also a former refugee from Vietnam and experienced the same profound distress in his pursuit of a vocation.
He was the principal celebrant of a Mass held at Holy Trinity Parish, Granville to celebrate the start of Tet, the Spring Festival, in February 2018.
At the end of Mass, Bishop Vincent commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Communist Massacre in Huế, which took place during the Tet Offensive.
Outside the Church, Bishop Vincent sang a popular mournful song Xuân Này Con Không Về (This Spring I will not come home).
Fr Vincent Phu OSA and Fr Thomas Hien are also Vietnamese priests important to the Vietnamese Chaplaincy, which has a pastoral committee for each community.
Vietnamese Catholic families are close-knit, hierarchical and very generous to the Church. Vietnamese Catholic homes have a large shrine in a prominent location, often including candles and a statue of the Holy Family.
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The Vietnamese Chaplaincy is faithful their patroness, Our Lady of La Vang, who appeared to persecuted Vietnamese Catholics seeking refuge in a forest. They are especially devoted to the Rosary in May, which is often sung in Vietnamese.
‘Golden Key for the Future’ is the charitable outreach of the Vietnamese community in the Diocese of Parramatta and has provided education for orphans for over 13 years.
Fr Henry knows the feeling of Xuân Này Con Không Về well. He was unable to visit his family for Spring Festival for 34 years, since he entered the seminary at the age of 12 and then became a refugee, settling in Australia.
Vietnamese music is an important part of the culture and Fr Henry has played the guitar since his seminary days.
“I was almost kicked out of the seminary for playing the guitar too much,” Fr Henry said, “I got hooked.”
The Seminary in Mỹ Tho was named after John XXIII, convener of the Second Vatican Council, who has continued to be an important figure in Fr Henry’s life. The historiography of the Second Vatican Council is one of Fr Henry’s key academic interests.
Decades after the Seminary of John XXIII was shut down, the oppression of Vietnamese Catholics still needs to end.
“You’ve got to be brave and courageous. You’ve got to be smart as well,” Fr Henry said.