Reflection After 20 Years
On the Occasion of the Diaconal Ordination of Vu Thanh An in the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon
Nguyen Van Hung
In the beginning of the year 1980, the winter was cold. It felt even colder when the series of gongs called everyone to enter their room to be locked in by the Communist cadres. The sounds of the big locks were rigid and cold. Those shivering fear sound, but the prisoners had over time become hardened to the sound of the locks and gongs, and paid no heed. Over the seasons, the prisoners had established for themselves some small evening joys for this time after the locks shut. They gathered themselves in groups beside cups of tea and coffee — the “cups” were recovered food cans. They shared cigarettes given them by their families during visits.
The prisoners told each other their stories: sad histories of their families or the stories of their own wandering lives. Each event that was related, big or small, represented a sadness or gladness, whether simple or great. Each story took its place in the hearer’s souls, whether flashed over like the winter wind or remaining in the soul of a fellow prisoner so that he would never forget. One evening, a night as bright as the starry sky we could see outside the window, our group shared in an overwhelming gladness: we were preparing for the Catholic baptism of Vu Thanh An.
Whenever any prisoner came back to any religion, it seemed to us that he received a divine revelation, something beyond what we were given to see. The conversion of Vu Thanh An was one of these situations. The Lord has been with him in his everyday life, starting from before his baptism.
Most of us do not treasure what we have had, and always regret what we have lost. An is not that kind of Christian. He is glad for what he has, because he understands that everything he has been given is from God. An understands that limited human ability cannot do anything without the grace of God. And, having realized this, An came to the Lord.
In Christ, he humbly approached some Catholics in the camp. Everyone opened wide their hearts to him. They received him, and shared in his happiness and joy. In turn, An was blessed with relief from his spiritual loneliness. The heartfelt love he had ached for was opened up to him, and it enlivened his heart after long suffering.
God had prepared the path for An becoming a Catholic, in an extraordinary fashion and in the most unlikely time and place. At the time, I wondered whether God had tested him. Since that time, the sacred songs which An has composed, beginning soon before his baptism and continuing until this day, surely show that how strong his faith is.
Twenty one years have passed since 1981, from the time An was baptized by his fellow prisoners at Ha Tay camp in North Viet Nam to the end of 2002, when he is now being ordained a Deacon in the Church. Those twenty one years have passed like the blinking of an eye. In those intervening years, An has done many useful things, especially things for Catholics and the Catholic Church.
Since the time of his conversion and baptism, An has written many sacred songs. In the summer of 1995, he published the CD O Therese!, and in the spring of 1996 the CD The Most Holy Mother Mary. In 1996 he vowed to cease writing love songs in order to concentrate on writing Responsorial Psalms used in the Sunday Mass. Also in that same year, An began to Diaconate formation program to begin a new life serving the Lord in a more formal way.
In the 20 years since that baptism with his fellow prisoners and friends, some present that night have since passed away. I am one who is fortunate to share in his happiness, both on that night so long ago and in his happiness on the occasion of his ordination. On that day long ago, my group assigned me to cut, in secret, a flower from the Communist cadre’s area for An’s baptism, and to cook a sweetened porridge pot, and to prepare my place alongside Mr. Do’s in the upper corner where the baptism was to be celebrated. I feared the interrogation I would undergo if the Communists ever discovered the secret of my participation in the event. Considering that An was even at greater risk, I knew and understood his courage and the strength of his faith.
Now in our new land, religion is not forbidden or oppressed. The material life is so abundant that people live lavishly. In such conditions, the trust in God that was once so strong in our people now seems to have grown cold, diminished over time. I myself must admit that I am not as wholehearted in faith as I was when I lived under hash conditions in prison. Vu Thanh An, on the contrary, lives a faith that has become stronger and stronger. I thank An for this opportunity to write this reflection for two reasons. First and foremost because he has given me the privilege of publicly and formally congratulating him on his ordination in this land of vast green pine forests. But also, for me, he has given me a gift: an opportunity to reflect on my own life, and the poor life I have made, so much in contrast to An’s life, from the gift of my own baptism.