Truc Quoc Phan SVD
Five years ago, during the time of discernment for the first assignment, Fr Tim Norton asked me whether I was willing to name Thailand as one of my choices. He insisted that I was needed there. I was not prepared for that at the time. It was venturing into unknown territory. However I took on the challenge! Yes, I have encountered some difficulties, one of which was learning a language that, when written, looks a bit like worms. Buddhism is the highly respected national religion, making it difficult for Christianity to have any impact. I was not sure what I was expected to do.
After one year learning the language in Bangkok, I move to the North-East and on the very first day of my ministry, I was put into one of the furthest parishes of Udon Diocese. I had responsibility for four churches on my own because the parish priest had gone home on leave. I struggled to say Mass, to give a homily, to lead novenas and to discuss matters with my people because of my level of language usage. Anyway, I survived! After nearly three months, the parish priest came back and I handed the church over to him. To my surprise, within a few weeks I was asked to be the parish priest of three small parishes in the countryside, along the Mekong River, which had not had a resident priest for years.
Once again, I was called to go venturing into unknown territory. Lots of queries came to my mind such as, “Am I going to survive?”, “Do people accept me as a Vietnamese priest to be their leader?”, “Can I do any good over there?”. I did not have a clear-cut answer for any of my questions. The only thing I knew was that people there needed a pastor. Following a sincere discernment and with total trust in God’s providence, I said yes to the new challenge and was assigned as a new parish priest.
At times, I felt as though I was walking through a dark night, but as time went on, night after night “stars” appeared. I got to know the people and they got to know me. They started coming back to church in greater numbers; even some Buddhists came. They helped me to renovate the churches and make them more useable and they helped me build a new church which was opened last year, the fourth church in my care. This year they have helped me rebuild another one to replace the wooden church which was in very poor condition.
We do not have conferences about interfaith or inter-religious dialogue. We are living it out. My parishioners and the Buddhists are living in harmony with each other. When we have celebrations, they all come and help with preparations. Some Buddhists even contributed money for building the church and organising different activities. One most touching experience for me was when one day, a poor elderly
Buddhist lady, who very often attends Sunday Mass, gave me a bag of coins and said “This is my contribution for you, Father, to build the church”. “Where did you get that many coins?” I asked. She answered “I have been collecting for many months by selling vegetables”.
Reflecting on my ministry, I believe that missionaries at times need to “venture into unknown territory” in which we are needed, not with blind eyes, but full of trust in God’s providence. God will be the one who makes the venture fruitful.