By Theresa Carson
On Aug. 5 at Techny, Ill., five men professed the religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and became members of the Society of the Divine Word. They are Quynh Thanh Cao, Edwan "Manie" Manuel, Hoang Quang Nguyen, An Thien Nguyen and Quang Ngoc Pham. In the fall, they will begin classes at Catholic Theological Union as they continue on their way to the priesthood. Part three of five.
There was a time when An Thien Nguyen SVD, 25, was apprehensive about answering the phone. Born in Thu Duc, Vietnam, An came to the United States with his father after graduating from high school. In Sacramento, Calif., they were reunited with his mother and three brothers who had arrived a few months earlier.
Since An had studied the English language in school since sixth grade, the family relied on him to communicate with the world beyond their home. He took care of household repairs, bills and the family bank account. During those early days, he worried that he might not understand callers and that they might not understand him.
Now he has been in the United States for seven years and those concerns have subsided. He said that moving to the United States has been life changing for him.
"There is more opportunity for education," An said. "I came here with a lot of motivation to be successful. Family is the core of my life. I learned how to love and live from my family."
From a very early age, An, whose name means "a special blessing, something that the hands of God touched, God’s grace," has known that his life has a purpose.
"My mom is very devoted to her faith," An said. "She was the one who nourished the idea of following Jesus as a priest or brother when I was young."
Perhaps those inklings began when she was pregnant with An. "My mom at that time had serious health problem and had to drink strong medicines to fight against the disease," he said. "Many doctors said the side effects of the medicine could cause a disorder for me as a baby, and they suggested that my parents should abort me. My parents were very worried, and they didn’t know what to do."
Fortunately, they met a Catholic doctor. "He told my parents that he was successful but the one thing he couldn’t have was having children. Everything that God gives you is a precious thing. Thus, they kept me, and I was born. God touches my life personally."
Unlike his mother, he said that before he arrived in the United States he was not a devoted Catholic.
"My parents wanted us to go to daily Mass," he recalled. "[other than Sunday Mass,] I would try to run away from that. I was not active in catechism classes."
Yet in school, life, and difficult family situations, he sought God. "God is always the person I’m reaching for," said An, who describes himself as an introvert.
As part of the novitiate, candidates go on a 30-day retreat in which they spend most of their days in silence. That time was not difficult for An.
In fact, some of his most cherished moments while attending Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa, were spent in the Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
"The United States opened my eyes to new things, such as the importance of God in my life. I searched more for my own meaning of life and thus I came closer to God and became more devoted," he said.
An’s devotion to God became even deeper when approached by a fellow parishioner, the father of a Divine Word priest. An said he is an unofficial vocations director of sorts.
His fellow parishioner encourages all who might have a vocation in religious life, An said. "He told me about the SVDs and the school in Epworth and contacted a vocations director."
That providential conversation led to An’s attending Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa. While study for a bachelor’s degree, An spend many hours in prayer at one of the school’s chapels.
In the chapel, there are two light switches—one that lights the Cross and tabernacle; the other the illuminates the whole room. He usually visited the chapel at night and would turn on only the light over the tabernacle.
"The light was a focal point for me," he said. "I would go, pray, open myself and share with God about my life and how my day went."
He said he enjoyed this year’s ministry of tutoring middle school children at the Life Learning Center, run by the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood.
What advice might he give his students or the novices who come after him?
"I’m still learning, growing, putting things into practice," he said. "I’m willing to try new things. If you are fearful, then you will not try and have new experiences. Be open to new opportunities to meet God in your life."