Fr. Khoa Nguyen, OFM
A native of Nhatrang, Vietnam, Fr. Khoa Nguyen, OFM, was received into the Franciscan Order in 1989. He wrote this reflection before he professed solemn vows in 1994.
I was raised in the Vietnamese Catholic tradition during the war. Educated by Christian Brothers, Franciscans, Salesians and Jesuits, I lived in a safe environment in a country being torn by idealism and division. I had everything I needed and wanted, while the majority of the people in Vietnam did not have those advantages. All of those blessings and privileges I received without a drop of sweat. That was the first gift I unconsciously received from God through my country, my family, my teachers and my friends.
I automatically was Catholic without needing to meet any requirements because my family is Catholic. That privilege led me to plunge into the richness of the Franciscan way of living. My family’s involvement and association with Vietnamese friars put me in touch with the Franciscans. My family’s desire of seeing me become a Franciscan priest planted the “mustard seed” of a vocation in my life, which I am only aware of now. It took time for that seed to grow and for me to acknowledge its fruits.
The second gift that profoundly affected my decision to stay in Franciscan life was the Communist victory in Vietnam in 1975. That event turned my life upside down. All of my financial security and familial class advantages were used against me. Books were left behind on the shelves. My previous education and critical thinking became disadvantages in the new life. I experienced what it means to sleep consciously because of my “illegal” living — what it means to eat in the evening without knowing what to eat tomorrow, what it means to be poor and powerless. And finally what it means to love and to be loved.
I was now in touch with the real world, the world of injustice and social sins which I would never comprehend in books, articles, lectures and readings. My conscious second gift shed light on my unconscious first gift.
The second gift was so important for my Franciscan journey that I will never fully understand it. Francis embraced and kissed the lepers as his way of living the Gospel. My second gift enabled my “mustard seed” to grow into a Franciscan plant. I believe that without experiencing suffering, I would not have been able to comprehend who I am. My escape by boat from Vietnam to the Philippines in 1 983 and the experience of being a refugee without a single right except the right to breathe was the third gift which I have received from God. Time spent in the refugee camp allowed me to be in touch with my tears, my frustration, my anger and my questioning of God.
The experience of escaping by boat allowed me to grow in faith. I had to leave Vietnam without saying goodbye to my family, drifting in the Pacific Ocean without knowing where or when the journey would end, and having only water and sky as my companions. All of that opened for me in the eye of faith. There must be God.
The last gift I value the most: God planted the seed and is now watering my garden. That is the advantage of living in a first world country, and of plunging into the community of Holy Name Province, without any experience of living in a Western community.
My education at the Washington Theological Union offers me the chance of reflecting on my own experiences of where God is. The generosity and openness of formation directors, and the support, the laughs, the jokes, the sharing, and the listening of other friars give me the opportunity to be who I am.
To be a Vietnamese means to inherit the history of 4,000 years of being torn by wars, suffering and poverty. To be a Catholic is to share the experience of 2,000 years in which sinful and holy men and women have tried to love and be loved. To be a friar means having roots in the “brown” history of 800 years of choosing to walk with the powerless, the marginalized and the underprivileged. And to be a Holy Name friar, for me, means to put on the history of 100 years and of 675 deceased friars who laid down their lives, their faith, their sweat, their education, their nationality, and their struggle of being a friar for the sake of others and the Kingdom of God.
— This essay was written while Br. Khoa was Holy Name College in 1994 and appeared in the September issue of The Anthonian of that year.