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Spiritual Doctor
Fr. Peter Khuong Huynh

Fr. Peter Khuong Huynh LC.
Fr. Peter Khuong Huynh LC.

The Doctor Dreams

I dreamt of being a doctor. God dreamt me of me being His priest.

After nineteen years, both of our dreams became reality.

When I was a boy, I was fascinated by doctors. Medics would rush a dying patient into the ER and the only hope the patient’s family had lay in the hands of a doctor. Doctors could tear people apart, extract their illnesses, piece them back together, prescribe medicine afterwards, and all the while, assure the recovering patient they were going to be just fine. It was a career where one could actually use his knowledge to heal others physically. I liked the idea of that, though admittedly, I was also attracted by the other benefits that came with being a doctor: big house, stable income, those cool white lab coats and the power of an illegible signature.

The Dawn of a Doctor

I am the oldest of three boys, all born within three and a half years…too close in age to be friends growing up. In a family with three competitive and rambunctious boys, our home was anything but peaceful and quiet. Report cards, distance off a bike ramp, round-house kicks, quantity of uneaten vegetables at dinner, street basketball, dodge ball with baseballs, Legos… every activity presented an opportunity to prove oneself superior to the others and to claim bragging rights, whether expressed verbally or physically. Our individual talents developed naturally and distinctively, under the threat of fraternal humiliation.

Jason became a talented athlete, quick at self-defense. John developed a businessman´s mind and a politician’s tongue from all the practice he had proving his innocence to our parents, while simultaneously convincing them of his two older brothers´ guilt. In constant competition with the talents of my younger brothers, I excelled in academics and arts. Strangely enough, it was ultimately through these perpetual fraternal rivalries that we formed the strong bond we share as brothers today.

My brother Jason´s story is somewhere in the book you are holding now because God actually called both of us to serve him as his priests, and now he, too, is a Legionary. John, our youngest brother, was at one time a teacher at Pinecrest Academy; today, he serves as the youth minister for the Archdiocese of Atlanta.

My parents’ sacrifice and trust

God knew what he was doing when he put three highly flammable and intense personalities together in the same household, and he did so under the patient and generous care of my parents. My parents are saintly people. It would have been impossible to raise us three boys if they weren’t saints (or at least saints in the making).

Our parents knew what sacrifice and trust were. Born and raised in Vietnam, they were devout
Fr. Peter Khuong Huynh LC.
Catholics in a country torn apart by war and Communism. As the Red Army and Vietcong rolled into Saigon with armored tanks in 1975, they were forced to flee, independently from one another. My mother escaped as one of the “Boat People”, while my dad fled with the South Vietnamese Navy to the Philippines.

During their flight, they saw families being brutally torn apart; they witnessed lives being taken; and they heard the howls of many horrors and true hopelessness. In their most desperate plight, they turned to and trusted in God—and He was there. He must have been there; otherwise, what were the chances of them meeting again on the small island of Guam – surrounded by thousands of miles of the salty Pacific Ocean? What was the likelihood of them finding their way onto a U.S. commercial airplane, together with hundreds of Vietnamese refugees making the flight to Philadelphia to start a new life as Americans? What were the odds of them getting married and giving birth to and raising these energetic boys?

There were too many seemingly random reunions, casual coincidences, and mini-miracles to claim that God was absent or oblivious to such meaningful events. My parents knew firsthand how trust requires sacrifice, and we learned from them how sacrifice requires trust.

Me, a priest? But I’m normal...

Growing up, my two younger brothers and I would often serve mass as altar boys. My pastor, Monsignor Kiernan, had a great altar boys´ system set up that involved military rankings. Every mass that a boy served would earn him points. Once enough points were gained, we were given promotions. The higher the rank, the more responsibilities we had and the more opportunities we were given to command and assign roles to lower ranking altar boys. Monsignor himself was the 5-star general, and the associate pastor, a 4-star.

My youngest brother, John, enjoyed altar serving so much that he decided he wanted to be a 5-star general one day – a pastor. He began playing mass at home, which Jason and I found to be childish and annoying. For most 10-year-olds, church is a drag. Even though I was an altar boy I found the mass to be long and boring. Sunday was supposed to be a day of rest and joy, but instead, it became a dark and dreadful experience. A perfect week that consisted of good grades in school, sprinkled with fantastic birthday parties and pizza nights, was always wrecked with an unpleasant function right in the middle of the weekend. Every week my parents had to endure the same drama starring my brothers and me. “Do we have to go? We don’t want to go. It’s boring!”

So when John conducted "mass" at home, our mother would force us to sit down and "attend". He would take Wonder Bread, pound it flat with the bottom of a cup, and then cut out a host with the top of it. He poured out a cup of apple juice to be wine and ruined his bed sheet to make it into a chasuble. A mixture of fraternal hostility and boredom fueled my dislike for John´s mass. I already dreaded Sundays since it meant attending a long ritual and sitting through long discourses that I was never able to relate to, so being forced to participate in the reenactment of this in my home was not at all welcome to me.

Jason and I mocked and laughed at John, commenting on how boring his homily was. We tried to find every possible way to disrupt or destroy John’s mass. We purposely read the incorrect readings, turned the communion songs into a rap, and ran into the kitchen to put peanut butter on the flattened bread we received at communion. Before long, our frustrated little brother excommunicated us. I was happy that I didn’t have to go to "church" anymore. In spite of our simply being jerks, though, I actually admired John’s zeal, his steadfast dedication, and his openness to becoming a priest one day.


As we were leaving our parish church after one excruciatingly long Sunday mass, my parents stopped and began chatting with the pastor. “Here we go again,” I mumbled under my breath (but loud enough that my younger brothers could hear). Seeing that the conversation was not going to end any time soon, we migrated slowly over to the votive candles and began playing with the flames and hot wax. After a time, the pastor gave a good hearty laugh at whatever my parents had just said; then, he paused and, in a more serious tone, said “Your boys would make great priests.”

“Really?” exploded my youngest brother. John’s excited response made my hot-wax-finger-dipping stop abruptly for a moment. I pretended that I had not heard anything and continued entertaining myself. Before I had time to put another coat of wax on my finger, though, the pastor turned to Jason and me and asked, “What about you two?”

Jason’s response was a series of incoherent words, followed by several incomplete phrases – a response typical of an embarrassed 9-year-old. I said nothing. I forced an awkward smile and hoped that Mom would come to my rescue.

My thoughts at that moment were, “I am too young to die…I am perfectly normal…why should I be a priest?”   I had my own preconceived notion of the priesthood. I thought men who became priests were ones who were unqualified to be anything else in life… that they had no option other than the priesthood.

For me, it was quite clear: I was not going to be a priest – period. I assured myself that with the grades I was getting, I would grow up to be a successful doctor. I would find a pretty girl to be my wife and we would have a huge family and live happily ever after…like normal people.

The fake smiled worked, and Mom began talking again. Although I was able to escape the pastor’s interrogation unscathed, the inquiry haunted me for weeks: “What about you?”

The first Legionary priest I met

Weeks turned into months and the pastor’s question slowly faded away…mostly. When it did resurface, it was only a faint, feeble whisper that was immediately drowned out by my cold “forget it!”. My response was resolute – until the day I met a Legionary priest.

A new kid and his younger brother came to the sacristy one day to serve at mass. I eyed them and looked for their rank. They were new altar boys who had just moved from Chicago. Since I had been recently promoted to corporal, my words carried some weight. “You guys can be candle-bearers.” That’s how the Gannons and the Huynhs met. Their older brother was a Legionary seminarian studying somewhere far, far away.

The Gannons organized great parties in the summer. The kids would hang outside in the pool, while the adults would meet inside and socialize. One day, with flip-flops on my feet and a towel slung over my shoulder, I was making my way through their house to the pool where my buddies and their sisters were. I was surprised to see a tall young priest among the adults in the kitchen. He was dressed all in black from neck to toe. He had a smile across his face and lemonade in his hand. Mrs. Gannon saw me and called me over to meet this new priest. “Hi, I am Father David Kluk,” he said, holding out his huge hand for a shake. My hand barely fit in the palm of his, but we shook. I noticed that the priest and all the adults were smiling and looking at me. Since I was a naturally shy kid, I wanted out. I mustered just enough guts to ask my mom, who happened to be standing nearby, if I could go out to the pool. She nodded and I zipped away. As I left, I said to myself, “Man! That is the youngest priest I’ve ever met!” Soon, though, the familiar sound of joyful cheers, girls screaming and giggling, and splashes from the guys playing chicken reached my ears, and I thought no more about the priest.

One afternoon several weeks later, my mom asked my brothers and me to go outside and wait for a guest she was expecting. She wanted us to be there to welcome him and invite him inside. Sure enough, a car rolled up and parked in front of our house. It was Father David! We invited him in and after he sat down, we began asking him what he did besides saying mass. He talked about his youth work, retreats, and summer camps. Pulling out a photo album, he showed my brothers and me pictures of a boarding school in New Hampshire for boys thinking about the priesthood. “That’s funny,” I thought, as I looked at a picture of a bunch of students rushing into the lake in pursuit of a duck, “these boys are going to be priests!? But they look happy and they’re having a lot of fun!”

As the summer began, Jason and I decided to attend a weekend retreat led by Fr. David. I don´t remember exactly how he convinced me to go, but I am certain that a weekend without my youngest brother played a significant part in the decision.

I never had so much fun in my life (that did not involve lighting aerosol cans or throwing a neighbor’s cats off the porch!). This priest was the first person who showed me that learning about Christ and having fun were compatible. His virtue talks and homilies were engaging, funny, and interesting. When we had a competition to see who could bring the biggest stick for our bonfire, Fr. David hauled in a 12-foot tree. I could not believe he organized and played capture-the-flag in the woods with us. I saw in this priest a new side of the priesthood which I had never considered. “This priest is cool!” I shouted at my parents when they came to pick me up.

He was gently overturning my misconception of the priesthood. Those called to be priests are normal people. They are not freaks of nature or angels incarnated. They have their characters, defects, and personalities. Even Christ chose his apostles from a smorgasbord of characters and personalities. Four fishermen, a tax collector, two zealots, a scholar, and an accountant. They were ordinary people – chosen for an extraordinary mission.

From Medical Doctor to Spiritual Doctor

I remember thinking as a child that the most generous people I knew exuded natural warmth and love in their cheerful smiles, while the meanest people I knew were the most selfish ones. I recall being aware that many seemingly successful people, over time, became rather self-centered, and I even knew of some who ended up sadly contemplating suicide. They appeared to have everything—but everything they had was ultimately for themselves.

In the summer of 1993, I went to visit the Immaculate Conception Apostolic School, the school in New Hampshire that Father David had mentioned to me. It was not exactly the way he described it: it was better! There, I was surrounded by guys my own age who felt called to give of themselves and serve the Lord. Personally, I was beginning to understand where God was directing the yearning that He had planted in me to be a doctor. I was certain that He wanted me to fulfill that dream, but I could see now that the path He had in mind for me was not the one I had expected…He wanted me to be a spiritual doctor. God was redirecting my passion for helping and curing others physically, toward helping those battling spiritual sickness and restore themselves to spiritual health. After that amazing summer program, I decided to stay for the whole year.

Looking back now, I can see clearly how God has been with me all along, guiding me and channeling me towards "our" dream. He placed instrumental people in my life, all of whom have played key roles in guiding me along this path: my parents, my two younger brothers, Monsignor Kiernan, the Gannons, Father David, everyone who has spiritually adopted me throughout these years, and those who have constantly supported me and prayed for me.

It has been nineteen years since I made the decision to attend the Apostolic School and join the Legionaries of Christ. I am here now as a priest because God wove my own dream of becoming a doctor into His dream for me, and He created for me a unique avenue through which I am able to heal and serve. "Our" dream took years to become a reality, and I have not regretted a single day of my long formation.

As a new spiritual doctor, I am awed by the way God – the true Physician – has chosen to work through me to bring spiritual well-being to all those I encounter.

FR PETER KHUONG HUYNH was born in Belleville, New Jersey, on March 5, 1981 and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia.  He is the oldest of three sons; his younger brother is also a Legionary of Christ priest. In 1993, he entered Immaculate Conception Apostolic School in Center Harbor, New Hampshire. He entered the novitiate in Cheshire, Connecticut, in 1998, making his first vows in 2000.  He studied two years of humanities in Cheshire, Connecticut. For three years he did youth work in the Heartland; taught and mentored at a Legionary school in St. Louis. He earned a master’s degree in philosophy in 2009 and a bachelor’s degree in theology in 2012 from the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum College in Rome, Italy. He currently serves as the youth minister in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 



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