By Theresa Carson
On Saturday in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, Most Rev. Richard E. Pates, bishop of Des Moines, ordained four men to the priesthood. The newest Divine Word priests will serve their first assignments in Chad, Mozambique and Chicago. One wishes to remain anonymous because of lack of religious freedom in his home country. The others are Fathers Balonda Thierry Koula, Messan Sylvain-Franck Tettekpoe and Huy Khanh Tran. This article about Father Tran is the third in a three-part series about the newly ordained missionary priests.
Fifteen years ago, Father Huy Khanh Tran’s family prepared to leave their Vietnamese homeland. At the time, Father Huy was 19 and did not want to go.
"I had friends and was pursuing school [in Vietnam]," said Father Huy, now age 34. "My dad convinced me. Reluctantly, I went with him."
Father Huy and his father did not always see eye to eye, but fortunately, the son acquiesced to his father’s wisdom.
"I’m glad that I made that decision," admitted Father Huy, who is the eldest of four children. "I don’t know what would have become of me [if I had not gone]. My dad would never let that happen. He said, ‘Nobody stays behind.’"
Perhaps that philosophy comes from Father Huy’s father’s military training. The elder Tran fought in the war in Vietnam. After the fall of Saigon, the government put Father Huy’s grandfather in prison. He suffered in jail for ten years while Father Huy’s father spent three years in a Communist concentration camp.
"[My father] was angry about losing the country and being in prison," Father Huy said. "Sometimes he took his anger out on me. Growing up, I was a troublemaker, a hot-tempered personality."
The young man recognized, though, that his father loved him. "He really loved me and invested in me," Father Huy said, saying that in a village with only two pianos, his father had purchased one of them and hired a teacher twice a week so that his nine-year-old son could study music.
Life changed when the traditionally Catholic Tran family moved to Portland, Ore., where Father Huy studied English and French at a community college. Father Huy’s father’s demeanor also changed.
"He never wore his uniform [in Vietnam], never once," Father Huy said. "After moving to the United States, life changed. He would go through documents, photos and clothes—normal thing to do—he wore his uniform in the United States with his buddies. He talked about his experiences."
In Portland, Father Huy met Divine Word Father Michael Quang Nguyen at a Lenten retreat. The young man entertained thoughts of becoming a priest. From an early age, he thought about becoming a priest. In fact, he later vividly remembered the moment when he first thought about the priesthood.
Father Quang invited him to see Divine Word College, the Society of the Divine Word’s seminary in Epworth Iowa. The visit confirmed the growing vocation that had been calling him since he was a young child. In 2009, he graduated from Divine Word College and entered novitiate, a year in which candidates for the Society of the Divine Word focus their lives on prayer and discernment.
"The 30-day retreat during novitiate was amazing for me," he recalled about a part of the discerning process. The retreat renewed his devotion to Mary and he specifically remembered a time when he was a toddler in Vietnam.
When he was a little boy, his aunt took him to a nearby church that was under construction. She put him on her shoulders so he could look at the altar and the priest. From that point on as a boy, he imitated the priest. "His gestures, words, they came back to me during the 30-day retreat."
His time as a student also awakened his interest in African culture. He met missionaries from Africa who impressed him with their stories. "That stayed with me," he said.
When the time came for him to fulfill his Cross-Cultural Training Program, he requested missions in Africa and was assigned to the Republic of Chad.
"When I stepped foot onto Chad, I experienced my initial contact with poverty," he said. "It was right there in the capital, kids living on the streets, kids who had only one meal a day and looked after animals to earn food."
Other children harvested fields and were overworked. "We try to get them to school," Father Huy said. "Education is the only possible solution to eradicate poverty. It was the best lesson learned. I decided to devote my life to education, teaching or managing a school."
Through the parish in Chad, Father Huy began a computer class from the ground up. And he used the musical gifts that his father imparted to teach children how to play the guitar.
"The gift that he gave to me early [in my life], which was a big investment, came to bear fruit for the children of Chad," he said appreciatively.
He also came to realize that his father had given him another gift. His parents, who both have priests and nuns in their extended families, support his vocation. When he was about 16, his grandfather—who also knew the teenager’s desire to become a priest—sent for the entrance test to the seminary. Father Huy passed it on the first try when most fail.
His name then went on the waiting list that was controlled by the government. The list was long, and they annually accepted only about ten out of the 50 who pass the exam, said Father Huy, who at the time, didn’t realize that obstacle to his vocation.
"I didn’t see that coming, but my father saw it," Father Huy said. "That’s why my father insisted that I come [to the United States] with the rest of the family."
This past year, Father Huy served as a deacon at Queenship of Mary in Glen Ellyn, Ill. He will return to the Chad Mission for his first assignment as a priest.