Having escaped death four times, Thong Nguyen believes that he is still alive because God has a purpose for him.
“I believe there’s a reason why I have survived. Every day to me is a bonus of life and hope.
“Serving people is my passion, and every day I do whatever I can to live and serve people. I encounter God and I encounter people every single day.”
Thong, as well as Roderick Pirotta, Roque Dias and John Cinya will be ordained to the diaconate on 22 February 2019 at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta.
Thong and his wife Chi, who have been married for 37 years, met as Vietnamese refugees at the Pulau Bidong refugee camp in Malaysia. Thong and Chi have three adult children – Anh, Khaly and Don – and three grandchildren.
“We were both from the same part of Saigon [Ho Chi Minh City], but I don’t think we knew each other before,” Thong said.
“I escaped from Vietnam in 1979 and Chi left the country in 1980, and we met each other in the same refugee camp.
“We left the refugee camp together in 1981 and we were granted refugee status in New Zealand. We settled firstly in Hamilton for seven years, which is where we got married, and then we moved to Wellington for seven years. Then we came to Australia in 1995.”
Before his retirement in 2015, Thong had worked for the welfare department in New Zealand for 14 years with his background in social work, worked for Mission Australia for 14 years, six of those as business manager and a business manager for CatholicCare Sydney for six years.
Chi has been working as a consultant for an employment services company for 10 years and was previously at Mission Australia for two years.
Thong’s inspiration to become a permanent deacon came from Bishop Peter Vien Nguyen, the Auxiliary Bishop for the Diocese of Vinh in Vietnam.
“I was in the junior seminary in Vietnam in 1963 for seven years. In my blood, I’m always a priest, and in my heart, I’m always thinking about compassion.
“In 2009, I was working with the Vietnamese community when I was at The Good Shepherd Parish, Plumpton. Members of the community asked me to become an acolyte and I said ‘yes, that’s not a bad idea.’
“But then Bishop Vien, who was studying in Australia at the time, said ‘it’s better for you to consider the permanent diaconate. He introduced me to the registrar at CIS [the Catholic Institute of Sydney] and asked them to consider my study for the diaconate program.”
“It’s his passion,” Chi said. “He always told me stories from his time in the seminary. I knew that something inside him wanted to serve the church.
“When Bishop Vien asked him to enrol and prepare for the diaconate studies, I told Thong to go for it. I support him all the way.”
Thong’s family is also supportive of their father.
“All my children are supportive of my journey. My youngest son told me ‘it’s your passion, it’s your compassion, it’s your journey – go ahead’,” Thong said. “Because I struggle with English, during my Masters of Theology, I got my youngest son to double check the majority of assignments to make sure people could understand.”
Thong has been very active in parish ministry, whether it be at his local parishes or his assigned parish.
“A deacon is meant to work alongside the parish priest to show a unity in Christ.
“Being a deacon, I will be the bridge between the parishioners and the priest. I am bringing people together and I am trying to be a good witness of God in the church.
“We learn to listen and identify the needs of the community and serve them.
“I have been assigned to St Andrew the Apostle Parish, Marayong for the last two-and-a-half years. I am an acolyte, I’m a facilitator for the sacramental program, I visit the sick and elderly as part of my pastoral care service and I am a catechist at Quakers Hill Public School.
“At St Michael’s Parish, Blacktown South, where we have been parishioners since our arrival to Australia, I was a finance committee member, an acolyte, a church cleaner, a welcomer and a baptism facilitator.
“I have also been assisting my neighbouring parish of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, Seven Hills since 2016. I count the money for the parish every week. Chi and I are part of the choir on Saturdays and we take communion to the sick at Blacktown Hospital on Sunday as part of a roster.
“Because I do so many ministries, over the last few years I asked Chi if she’d like to do it together. She is passionate about singing. We used to sing at St Michael’s and she is comfortable singing and committing to music practice at Seven Hills.”
Thong is also part of the pastoral care team at Blacktown Hospital, visiting patients every Monday morning since July 2016.
However, Thong says that one of the challenges he faces as a deacon is balancing his ministry and his family commitments.
“Chi is always there for me. We have been working together during my formation over the past eight years.
“Away from my ministry, Chi and I play guitar together, we play table tennis together, and we swim together in the mornings.
“My ordination will provide happiness and a new hope for my family through the Holy Spirit. It will give me a new inspiration for our family journey.
“My ordination will not be the end, but the beginning of my new ministry challenge.”
When asked what advice he would give to other men wishing to join the permanent diaconate, Thong encouraged prayer and self-reflection.
“Don’t think that you enter the diaconate program to change the world. We can’t change the world if we don’t change ourselves first.
“When I got into the diaconate program, I realised that I had to change myself, my life, my attitude and my behaviour first.
“We need to be humble and patient when learning new things.
“We need to open our hearts deeper to receive God’s call.
“Pray a lot. Pray in bad times and in good times too.
“Make sure to balance your ministry and your family,” Thong said.
Chi adds with a smile, “keep smiling.”