To Father Hien Van Pham, helping the poor is more than a platitude

Pham,_Hein_Van_Ordination_2016By Theresa Carson

When then-Frater Hien Van Pham visited his family last summer, he organized a picnic for his parents. This picnic was far from pedestrian.

His parents, who are now in their 80s, lived and raised their family of eight less than 20 miles from the East Vietnam Sea, yet they had never seen the vast body of water that feeds into the South China Sea. For more than 60 years, his mother yearned to go to the beach.

"My dad had a stroke and couldn’t walk," Father Pham said. "They sold the land to pay for his treatments. Mom has health issues, too."

Knowing that time waits for no one, Father Pham prepared a picnic for them on the beach. He rallied his four sisters and three brothers and asked each one to bring a dish to pass. Getting their parents to be beach that day created memories that will last a lifetime.

Born in Baria-Vungtau in southeastern Vietnam, Father Pham was drawn to the priesthood as a child.

"My parents are rooted in the Catholic faith," he said. "My family went to church two times daily—4:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. My parents were disciplined," he said. "They said I ate three meals so I had to go to church twice."

As parents do, they encouraged him to help the local parish priest. The choice was an easy one for a boy of seven.

"My parents told me, ‘If you go to the church then you don’t have to go to the big rice farm.’ Plus, the pastor gave candy to his helpers."

The young Hien Van Pham took care of the flowers and plants inside the church and fed the fish. When he was eight, he chose to be an altar server. "I was close to the pastor," he said. "He nourished my spiritual life. I had a strong desire to be a priest."

However, life changed as he grew into young adulthood. He went to work part-time after completing middle school.

"We lived in a rural area, and my parents were poor," he said. "I had to work to earn money to support my family and pay for tuition. I worked as a construction worker for a year. I thought, ‘I need to develop my career, so I wanted to continue my studies.’"

At age 15, he worked during the day and attended classes at night. After high school, he applied for an entrance exam to get into the university. Around the same time, a dog racing track opened in his village. He applied, and the director hired him to do landscaping and care for the trees, plants and flowers.

"At that time, I was greedy," he said. "I just pursued money. I didn’t think of anything but money."

He saved money and bought a motorbike, which he used as a type of taxi service in the evenings. Then, out of the blue, his cousin who was a priest said, "I think you should be a priest."

Father Pham said, "I thought, ‘I don’t deserve to be a priest.’ I tried to keep the question out of my mind, but it stayed in my mind." He had not considered becoming a priest since he was a young child. The desire left him when he was 14 and had a misunderstanding with his parish’s pastor.

At the time, someone had locked his cousin in a room, and the pastor falsely accused the future priest. He still can picture the large stick with which the priest hit him. He held onto his anger for a long time.

Eventually, though, he shared his story with a Catholic nun. She asked him to forgive and place his focus on God. To enhance his spiritual life, she took him to a leper colony. Together, they cleaned the wounds of people with leprosy.

"Her manner struck my mind; some people sacrificed themselves for others. Why can’t I do that? It was a strong motivator in my becoming a priest and listening to God’s will," he said.

In 2000, Father Pham became a Divine Word candidate and professed religious vows in Nha Trang, Vietnam, in 2006.

As a young member of the Society of the Divine Word, the young man spent time in different parts of Vietnam—Kien, Giang and Camau—working with the poor.

"When I worked with the people I had a connection with them," he said. "The children didn’t have enough to eat. They would collect spoiled food that others had thrown in the lake nearby. The people didn’t have transportation to go to church." He could relate to their struggles because as a child he had known poverty. Their plight further motivated him to become a Divine Word Missionary.

He finished his philosophy studies in 2008 and was transferred to the United States and sent to Iowa to enroll in Divine Word College for English-as-a-Second-Language courses. In 2011, he began studying theology at Catholic Theological Union (CTU) in Chicago.

For his Clinical Pastoral Education, he served as a chaplain intern at St. Joseph Hospital in Atlanta. A year later, he fulfilled his Cross-Cultural Training Program at St. Nicholas parish in St. Louis. He worked in the preschool, shoveled snow, cleared trash, cleaned school rooms, helped prepare meals for the students, welcomed parents and assisted parish volunteers at the roller skating rink.

During Father Pham’s final year of studies at CTU, he also served as a deacon at Queenship of Mary parish in Glen Ellyn, Ill. He was ordained a priest in May 2016 and soon will begin his first assignment in the Society of the Divine Word’s U.S. Western Province.

"I look forward to working with the poor," he said. "I see them as God’s people."

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