Fr. Linh Ngoc Hoang, OFM
The owner of the small fishing boat, held at gunpoint by my father, was forced to guide us through the rough ocean waters. He would only take us to any ship leaving Vietnam. We were all nauseous and weary from the rough waters and more so from the uncertainty of our escape.
We were escaping the Communist takeover of South Vietnam in April 1975. My parents and we six children were living in Saigon during the height of the war in Vietnam. My dad was in the South Vietnamese army so he knew that we needed to leave or suffer under the machinations of the Communist regime. My family and about 30 other Vietnamese refugees, stuffed in this small boat, drifted for three full days before encountering an American naval ship heading for safety.
Though I was only four years old at the time, I remember vividly the escape and journey to America. I remember seeing people fall to their death. After our rescue by the naval ship, we trekked from one American army base to another near the Pacific Ocean for three months until we landed in a make-shift refugee camp in Fort Chaffee, Ark. Several weeks later, we were sponsored by a United Methodist church in a small, rural town — Lebo, Kan.
There were many difficulties at first with language, food, housing, and culture in general, but the people were very generous and patient with our adjustment. I began to understand the differences in religious expression and belief, because our sponsors were all Methodists who wanted us to join in their worship services. Both of my parents came from strong Roman Catholic backgrounds in Vietnam.
Religious vocations were encouraged there, not only by the parents but by the whole extended family, and many times the entire village. Thus, resettling into a predominately Protestant community, my parents searched for a Catholic community and church in which to worship and socialize. We found a church 30 minutes away staffed by Franciscan (OFM) friars. I remember these brown-robed friars to be very welcoming toward my family both personally and religiously.
They guided me through the sacraments of Communion, reconciliation, and confirmation. Our search for other Vietnamese Catholics took us four hours away to Carthage, Mo., where a congregation of Vietnamese religious men settled — the Congregation of Mary Co-Redemptrix (CMC). They are a congregation founded in Vietnam, and many came to the U.S. during the fall of Saigon in 1975. The Co-Redemptrix convened a Marian celebration that gathered together more than 200 Vietnamese three years later. My family attended.
During my first year of college, I started to reflect seriously on what I wanted to do with my life. I started talking to a diocesan vocations director at Kansas State University, where I attended for one year. He was very positive about his vocation as a priest and exuded this energy through joy and happiness by how he lived. He was realistic about the demands of being a priest — being present to people, celibacy, showing compassion and care for others, and developing a strong prayer life.
This seemed doable to me because I wanted to help others to know God. In a selfish way, I also wanted people to be attracted to me because of my desire for God. I would eventually learn that it is not about drawing people to me but drawing people to know and love God. This realization would not come until later in my process of religious discernment. This view led me to join the diocesan seminary at Conception Abbey College founded by Benedictine monks to train college-age seminarians.
After a year at Conception, I went to Leuven, Belgium to finish my study of philosophy at the Catholic University of Leuven. When I received my bachelor’s degree in philosophy, I went to Chicago to continue my theological studies. I attended Catholic Theological Union (CTU). Though I had a wonderful education, I felt there was something missing in my formation.
I had thought I wanted to be a missionary and work in a foreign country to help bring the Gospel to more people. That did not sustain me, and I left to live as a layperson.
I taught high school religion for two years; however, the religious calling kept tugging for my attention. I pursued my religious vocation this time with the Franciscans (OFM) of Holy Name Province in New York.
I am now a vowed Franciscan friar. I feel very comfortable as a friar. I believe that the lifestyle of the Franciscan is a process of trying to be relevant to the society at large but also helping it realize the love of God. My experiences with diocesan and religious formations assured me of the complexity of the process of following Jesus. I know now that my desire for people to be attracted to me solely as a priest has diminished. I feel that it is now really trying to draw people to a loving relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
— This essay was written in 2006 when Fr. Linh was an intern at Siena College. It appeared in the December 2006 issue of The Anthonian magazine.