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.
Born and raised in Saigon, 41-year-old Hai Ngoc Pham first thought of becoming a priest at age 6. That’s the age at which he began training as an altar server.
In Vietnam, altar server training takes three years and is a demanding process, requiring the children to begin their days at 4:30 a.m.
"You are proud because you are chosen from a lot of kids," Hai said. "That’s my image of how to be a priest. I loved that."
Given the family into which he was born, being drawn to the religious life is natural. His mother’s example greatly impacted him.
She taught him to be aware of God’s presence, especially during difficult times—a lesson that she herself exercised during a very difficult time of her life. During the war in Vietnam, she was a nun. Conditions were especially hard for women in the convent. They constantly stayed on the move because their status as women and as religious put them in peril. Some of her fellow nuns were killed during the war, he said.
His mother left the convent during the war and shortly thereafter met Hai’s father. "She influenced the person I am," he said. "She was the person who taught me how to pray [in general] and pray the Rosary. She took me to daily Mass. I want to be like her."
But, life went on and the thoughts of religious life went by the wayside as Hai entered college. When he graduated from high school, he had little chance of entering the seminary to become a priest because so few were granted admittance. Instead, he attended a public university and studied economics, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in 1998.
"The University of Economics was the best choice for me because medical school was too costly to pursue and would take about ten years to complete," said Hai, who has two younger siblings.
After graduation, he applied for a position with the Southern Airport Corporation, a firm that supplies airports with goods and services needed to operate them. He landed the job.
"Those types of jobs are usually given to new graduates with connections," he said. "I applied but didn’t put stock in it, no hope. I took the test and three months later I received a phone call and was offered a contract."
As time went on, he earned a master’s degree in finance, continued "working like a machine" and became deputy chief of finance.
After 15 years, his thoughts turned to working internationally. He chose to study English at Humber College in Toronto, Canada. That’s where he came to know the Society of the Divine Word.
He was involved with a parish near his home in the Toronto area, but when it temporarily closed for remodeling, he sought out another parish and found Cristo Rei in Mississauga, Ontario. There, he met Divine Word Fathers Carlos Macatangga and Michael Do.
In fact, Father Macatangga asked him if he was a priest. When Hai said no, the priest gave him brochures about the Society of the Divine Word.
Simultaneously, his cousin who leads a prayer group in Toronto also encouraged him to reconsider the priesthood. After much thought and prayer, he entered Divine Word College in Iowa to study English, philosophy and theology.
Before entering the novitiate last August, he worked in ministry among a Vietnamese community in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
One of his ministries this year has been teaching religious education to third graders at Queenship of Mary parish in Joliet, Ill. He taught children who are of Vietnamese descent but don’t speak the Vietnamese language.
He said that experience taught him how to be more patient and that presence is the most important aspect of teaching.
"Third graders don’t want to study catechism. They just want to play," he said. "When I was their age I was obedient. I followed directions and was disciplined. When you think about disciplining American children today, you have to think in different ways—find a way to encourage them to study. I try to help them to be more independent.
"When I finished the year, I thanked God because I really loved it," he said. "I realized that I know how to work with kids and people in general even if they are from different cultures."
That work will continue as he moves into Divine Word Theologate and begins studies at Catholic Theological Union.
"I have been blessed in my life and am grateful to God for His abundant love and graces," Hai said. "When God calls, He never stops."