By Theresa Carson
On Aug. 6, nine young men professed religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience at Techny, Ill., and became members of the Society of the Divine Word. They are Derek Nguyen, Zachary Smith, Carl Gales, Theodore Nguyen, Hoc Mai, Luke Henkel, Luis Panuco-Carmona, Hai Pham and Jorge Zetino. Three of them have chosen the path of the brotherhood and will pursue higher education in the fall. The remaining six will enroll at Catholic Theological Union as seminarians preparing for the priesthood.
Hoc Tien Mai, 26, grew up in rural Vietnam, in a farming family and in a home with his parents, grandparents and three siblings. They tended rice fields, fruit orchards and coffee trees.
"My mom gave me a vision of what it is to be a religious person," he said. "She gave me books about the saints and the Gospel for children to read."
His Catholic education began early. His parents sent him to a school that was operated by nuns, and he served as an altar boy.
When he was 18, he decided to go to school in Singapore to study English for a year. That experience whetted his appetite to see more of the world. A priest in Vietnam encouraged him to consider Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa.
"When I came to this country, I saw a lot of opportunities," said Hoc, who had considered studying engineering. With a student visa in hand, he enrolled at Divine Word College in 2010. He inspired his family, too.
While Hoc was in college, his parents and three siblings moved to the United States. An uncle sponsored them, and they now live in Ohio.
In 2015, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and began his novitiate year. "At the beginning I had a difficult time adjusting to the new living environment, everything was new—the formation program, the novice director, the people," Hoc said. But with time the people became familiar and he adjusted.
"I am growing in patience with myself and feeling more at peace," he said.
He is thankful for the opportunity to improve his English-language skills and said he learned much about theology, ethics and psychology through the Intercommunity Novitiate program.
"It has helped me to grow stronger, more knowledgeable and mature in my vocation," he said.
During his novitiate year, he found himself drawn to conversations with the brothers. In his culture, having a priest in the family brings great honor to the family. Through the Divine Word Missionaries, he came to realize that being a Divine Word brother is a noble calling, too.
"If [Divine Word Missionaries] respect the vocation of the religious brotherhood, then I think, ‘Why not become a brother?’" he said. "I respect the brothers for their commitment and dedication to the mission. They live simple lifestyles. They’re humble and talented. I want to be like them."
He said he also likes the flexibility that brothers have in how to serve others through the Catholic Church.
"I believe that I have a gift of practical knowledge," he said. "Through science, math and horticulture, I can contribute gifts and talents to society. "It is important that we emphasize that we are men of service, missionary first and foremost; being a brother fits with my gifts and talents."
As a brother candidate, he hopes to contribute to efforts to alleviate poverty.
"I prefer using practical knowledge and want to solve the problem of poverty," Hoc said. "You cannot preach the Good News to God’s people without satisfying their basic needs. It is in this way that God shows His mercy."
Hoc will begin the Hispanic ministry program at Catholic Theological Union in the fall.