|Fr. Thanh Nguyen, LC (Vietnam)|
Neither Communism, nor the “Boat People” ordeal at
sea, nor its pirates could drown out God’s call. For
those whom he calls, he also paves the way. My
path began from the shores of Vietnam when I was
two weeks old. My family struggled for dear life in
our escape from the tyranny of our country.
Escape from Communist Vietnam
Before sunrise, in 1977, my mother rushed
frantically from our home to where my father’s boat was
waiting for us. She and some two dozen people of
our escaping crew took the raft hidden near the shore
and headed towards our boat, anchored a stone’s throw away.
I was two weeks old and tightly braced between her
arms. The boat departed with my parents, their six children
and friends. Our food lasted a day. The rest of
the week, our body reserves and three days’ ration of
a cup of watered down milk barely kept us alive.
A great sea storm was gathering. On the second
day of the journey, the winds and clouds released their
fury. Soon the boat’s compass failed. For three days, our
boat was tossed and drifted aimlessly in the open sea.
Ten days into the trip, the passengers were still
drifting about in the hope of finding land and nourishment.
The boat’s fuel was close to running dry, and its
passengers only barely surviving. Each person lay about passively to
conserve the little energy they still had in their bodies.
When land suddenly appeared on the horizon, everyone perked-up, relieved
from the desperation they had suffered.
Relief and Further
Ordeal at Sea: Thailand
The citizens of the island eagerly welcomed
us and kindly offered us food. After a couple of
days, we were given directions for the refugee camp in
Songkhla, Thailand. My dad had the boat’s compass and the
rotors fixed. Well nourished and invigorated, we set off to
our next destination.
That afternoon, however, our little boat
was overtaken by pirates. We watched them approaching. While we
shuddered with fear, the pirates pillaged and carried away the
scanty goods we possessed, taking all except our lives.
God protected us and led us safely to Thailand. What
a relief to have arrived at the shore! This relief
was quickly shattered when we were denied entry. My family
spent the next two weeks living on our boat tied
to the dock. Later, Thailandese soldiers loaded us into trucks
and ushered us to a location near their military camp.
Here, in this open forest camp, I was cleansed by
the waters of baptism. For the next four months we
awaited sponsorship from overseas.
Mom, Alone, Lays the Foundation
of Faith in the Home
Once we arrived to America, we
had no way of knowing that only three years remained
of my father’s life. In 1981, he passed away after
struggling with lung cancer.
My mother raised a family
of eight children all by herself: seven boys and one
girl. (The last one, a boy, was born two weeks
after my father passed away. His birth was quite an
ordeal: on the way to the hospital, the car that
was taking my mom to the hospital was involved in
a car accident, and my brother was born on the
side of the road.) She struggled arduously to satisfy all
our needs. Our faith took priority. For me, as I
look back, she stood as a solitary pillar of faith
immersed in a culture and mingled with a people whose
language remained foreign to her.
|Fr. Thanh greets the Holy Father in St. Peter´s Basilica after serving at the Easter Vigil in 2009.|
At my mother’s knees,
I learned and memorized prayers. Daily Mass was a joyful
obligation. She led by example. Not infrequently she attended two
Masses a day. Devotion to Mary had a special place;
we often prayed the Rosary together. This spiritual nurturing equipped
me for the more turbulent years awaiting me.
life was very lively. The parish youth group was numerous
and offered many activities. I remember attending one of the
summer camps when I was eight years old and thoroughly
enjoyed the dynamic activities and religious instructions that we were
offered. The zeal and self-donation of our parish priest, Fr.
Luong, had a positive impression on me concerning the priesthood.
From age ten until I entered the Immaculate
Conception Apostolic School (ICAS) in New Hampshire, when I was
nearly thirteen, I grew increasingly rebellious. I was filled with
restlessness inside. I sought fulfillment in something or someone, and
yet I could not discover what it was. I became
increasingly less docile and disciplined. Soon, I picked up on
smoking in private. I became involved in fun and pranks,
even occasional shop-lifting and fistfights, and these smothered my taste
for prayer or anything spiritual. One ember remained lit under
the ashes, however: my conscience. My mother had formed it
well, and it guided and protected me from tumbling into
more serious moral pitfalls.
Could God Be Calling Me?
the summer of 1987, I met my first Legionary priest,
Fr. Anthony Bannon. Coming home from summer school, I was
surprised to see him seated in our living room, in
a circle with some minor seminarians from ICAS, with my
mom and my older brother, who entered ICAS that summer.
A glow of happiness and peace radiated from this priest.
His demeanor captivated me.
The day my brother took
a plane to head to ICAS, I sat grim on
the living room couch. My mother had returned from the
airport and was now sitting on the other side of
the room with my older brother.
“I’d like Thanh
to try out the minor seminary in three years when
he’s old enough,” she said.
“I really doubt they’d
accept a troublemaker like him,” my brother shot back. That
made a big impression on me. Shortly after this, another
brother of mine came in the room. He said, “They
wouldn’t accept the wise-guy; even if they do, they won’t
put up with him for more than a year, Mom.”
My mother repeated the same thought to him. This showed
me that I needed to change. I resolved to prove
The summer of 1990 came around. Well,
I did change, though perhaps not all for the better.
I was, however, still resolved to try ICAS out. I
signed up along with some two dozen boys, took my
general knowledge test (although I felt horrible about it) and
spoke with Fr. Bannon.
My brother Vinh, by now
a junior in the minor seminary, served as Fr. Bannon’s
secretary during his visit to our parish. After the test
and interviews, my brother collected all the applications. There, on
our living room bookshelf, the white folders were neatly stacked.
Home alone and curious to see what chance I had
to be one of five to be invited to ICAS,
I decided to peek into the envelopes. My hands hurriedly
opened the first envelope and searched for the green report
card. The first was a straight-A student. Not bad. The
second and then the third report card from the stack
glared at me with the same results, and my heart
sank. What chances would I have? My curiosity died as
I realized that my low grade point average would place
me close to the bottom of the list of candidates.
Maybe this was not for me after all.
evening, I confessed to my brother what I had done
without hiding my disappointment and discouragement. No sooner had I
finished than he corrected my attitude. “All right, I will
be open to whatever God wants,” I said.
to the Novitiate!
Two weeks later, the phone rang at our
house. The voice told me to get ready to come
to ICAS. We were all surprised. Before two weeks had
passed, I was sitting nervously on a plane that would
fly me to New Hampshire.
I was twelve years
old. I had no idea what this whole new experience
would be like. All I knew and felt was that
this is where I felt God was leading me. Perhaps
for this reason my interior and exterior restlessness seemed to
abate, although I did not lack personal difficulties. God had
done a great job up in preserving my life and
faith. Amidst physical and moral storms, He had always been
I loved the sports and activities the school
offered. We were so busy having fun that I did
not even feel homesick.
Still, the habits I had
brought with me to the Apostolic School needed a lot
of sorting out and purification. Already during the summer camp
I got into a few arguments and fist-fights. One of
my older friends told me that if I did not
control myself, they would kick me out. The only place
that I remember not getting into a fight was the
Despite personal difficulties and disciplinary problems, I was
always sincere with my superiors. I loved my vocation a
lot and was very proud of becoming a Legionary. This
did not eliminate moments in which I felt like going
home. At such moments, I spoke very openly to my
superiors and was always relieved by their help and advice.
In my visits home, I defended my vocation when necessary.
My superiors were like brothers and fathers to me.
Though I sometimes rebelled interiorly when they asked me to
do something I did not like, I perceived that they
cared for my formation and for my own good. I
was moved by their example of prayer and sacrifice for
When I transferred to Cheshire, Connecticut, where the
high-school students used to live, Fr. Kevin Meehan became my
rector. He was like a father to me. It was
a tough period of interior purification, but the extraordinary team
of formators helped me through it. The fun activities and
competitions that they put together helped me to continue to
form virtues and motivated me to be generous with Christ.
When I moved to Cheshire, my brother Vinh was
studying at the Legionaries’ college of humanities, which was located
in the same building as the Apostolic School. Towards Easter
of my senior year, I learned that Vinh would be
leaving the Legion. My world caved in on me, but
Fr. Kevin helped me get through it.
- Despite the many difficulties that God allowed for the
purification of my soul, my last years at the Apostolic
School were a very happy period of my formation. I
really looked forward to the novitiate. For me it was
the continuation of the response that I had already made
to Christ and nurtured during these years.
The words once heard
by the prophet Jeremiah, often re-echo in my ears, reminding
me that my vocation and strength comes from God. “Before
I formed you in the womb I knew you, before
you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the
nations I appointed you” (Jeremiah 1:5).
God calls whomever
he wishes. I have been greatly blessed to be one
among them. Thanks to the providence of God, to the
loving formation I have received from my mother—centered on God’s
will no matter what—and to the zeal of Fr. Bannon
and so many other people, I was able to chance
upon a pearl invisible to human eyes. Unworthy though I
am, he gave me this gift and supplied the graces
I need to give up everything in exchange it.
Fr. Thanh Duc Nguyen was born in Phu Quoc, Vietnam,
on August 24, 1977. He entered Immaculate Conception Apostolic School
in Center Harbor, New Hampshire in August, 1990. On September
14, 1995, he became a novice of the Legion of
Christ in Cheshire, Connecticut, until September 2, 1997, when he
made his first religious profession. He did a year of
humanities studies in Cheshire, Connecticut, and studied philosophy in New
York until 2000. From 2000 to 2001 he did youth
work in St. Louis, Missouri, and Houston, and from 2001
to 2004 he was a dean of students at Immaculate
Conception Apostolic School in New Hampshire. He studied at the
Pontifical Regina Apostolorum College from 2004 to 2009, where he
obtained his licentiate in philosophy and his bachelor’s in theology.
He is currently a dean of students and a member
of the formators’ team at the Apostolic School in Mérida,
The vocation stories
of the Legionaries of Christ who were ordained on December
12, 2009 have been published in the book "I
Call You Friends". During this Year for Priests,
let us pray for all priests, so that their self-giving
to God and to people will bear abundant fruits of
grace and blessings.