By Theresa Carson
Spring 2020 promised to be a memorable season for Divine Word Father Triệu Thiên Cao’s family. Like generations of priests before him, he was schedule to be ordained in May.
Shortly thereafter, he would travel to Vietnam for the traditional post-ordination family visit and officiate his younger brother’s wedding. Of course, COVID-19 changed their plans.
Ordination was postponed until August 15, and in a recent conversation with his father, he learned that his brother and future sister-in-law would probably find another priest. For the time being, travelers from the United States cannot enter Vietnam, and flights between the two countries are suspended. Father Triệu is trying to not feel like a priest without a country.
He has cousins who live in the United States, but his immediate family resides in Buon Ma Thuat, Vietnam. Fortunately, Father Triệu, who is the fifth of six children, talks frequently with his parents.
Father Triệu first became acquainted with the Divine Word Missionaries shortly after he graduated from high school. One of his cousins suggested that he get to know the Divine Word Missionaries, so he enrolled in a university in Saigon and lived in a house with Divine Word candidates. In 2007, the Divine Word Missionaries sent him to Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa, to learn English. He professed vows six years later.
Since then, he has completed his graduate studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and fulfilled his Cross-Cultural Training Program (CTP) in Bolivia.
Nothing could prepare him for the past six months, but his CTP gives him insights. “All is on hold,” said Father Triệu, whose first assignment as a priest eventually will take him back to Bolivia. “I’ve had difficulty preparing a visa to Bolivia. The consulate is still closed. Bolivia is on lockdown, and there are no international flights.”
He is grateful for his Divine Word confreres. Instead of the customary 500-600 ordination attendance of people from multiple countries, this year’s class was limited to a local guest list of ten per ordinand.
“I’m still struggling, praying for patience and strength in order to deal with it,” he said. “At least my brothers from the Theologate can come to ordination. That’s the best thing that could happen at a time like this.”
This time in quarantine gives him a chance to reminisce on his time in Bolivia. He especially enjoyed working with the people. He said he loved experiencing their culture, attending festivals with music everywhere and dancing on the streets, and working with the youth.
“They are a very energetic, dedicated part of the Church in Bolivia,” he said.
He emphasized the importance of meeting people where they are. “The way that they practice their faith is quite different than in the United States or Vietnam,” he said, recalling the surprise he felt the first time he saw a fortune-telling shaman outside of church.
“The people try to combine Catholic practices with their cultural tradition,” he said. “Even though I was educated here at CTU, I was shocked to see it happen.
“They practice syncretism—taking one practice from here and one from there. They put it together and mix cultural belief and faith,” he said. “The way that we understand faith might not make sense to them. We try to find logos—the word of God—within the culture.”
He also could feel the change in altitude. La Paz, the world’s highest administrative capital, sits at 12,000 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains. Two of his confreres gave him advice: ask for cocoa tea, take a jacket, on the first day do everything slowly, walk slowly and eat slowly.
During his CTP, Father Triệu was assigned to parishes. One site was rural and remote.
“It was two hours from Cochabamba City,” he said. “Many younger people had moved to the city, looking for jobs. The population in the village was no more than 100. However, there were many outstations, small communities scattered around the area.”
Not many people come to Mass at the parish, he said. On Sundays, they were fortunate to celebrate Mass with ten people. Weekdays typically drew one or two. “One day, only the neighbor’s dog came to Mass,” he recalled.
Parishioners more often came to the rectory than to Mass. They came in search of their baptismal certificates. The government often requires a baptismal certificate before issuing a driver’s license or other official documents. “It’s an old system, the best system for them,” Father Triệu remarked.
He described how the village—government offices, homes and the church—are built around a park, where children would sing and play games. One day as he sat outside the church office, a child approached him.
“A little girl in second or third grade, came to talk with me,” he said. “I asked her what she was going to do in the afternoon. She said she was going to Mass. I said, ‘What?’” He fully expected her to say that she was going to play at the park.
“That encounter struck me,” he said. “Even though we don’t have many attendants at Mass, we still have people like this little girl. We really don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but as long as one person is going to Mass, the service will be fulfilled. There’s still hope.”
When Father Triệu returns to Bolivia, he knows that he will have to do more than deliver lectures and train catechists. He will need to be able to resolve community conflicts, fix mechanical malfunctions and appreciate small moments like the encounter with the little girl.
Before the pandemic, he served as a transitional deacon at St. Bede the Venerable parish on Chicago’s Southside. Through a virtual ceremony, he graduated from CTU.
“Everything is unknown for us right now. We [he and his newly ordained confreres] don’t know where we can go,” he said. “Being patient is how to deal with the uncertainty. I’m looking forward to starting a new chapter of life.”