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By Malie Hudson

In the U.S., “one out of every five Asian and Pacific Islanders is Catholic,” states the website by Asian and Pacific Island Affairs, a subcommittee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

In the Diocese of San Bernardino, the Asian Pacific Ministry has been advocating for the unique needs and supporting the spiritual formation of seven Catholic ethnic groups within the Asian-Pacific community. Among them are Vietnamese Catholics.

In November, the Department of Ministry Formation Institute (MFI) launched the Parish Ministers Formation Program (PMFP) courses in Vietnamese. The program ends in May and participants meet every Tuesday online. The basic theology program covers Christology, ecclesiology, Christian morality and sacraments, Christian discipleship and leadership. This year marks the third time since 2013 that the PMFP program was offered in Vietnamese.

Early Efforts for PMFP In Vietnamese

In 2004, the courses were offered as a combination in Vietnamese, Spanish and English. The introduction and prayer were in English, Spanish and Vietnamese. The participants were then dispersed into three smaller groups so that the remainder of the course content was delivered in their native language.

Sister Maria Jennifer Nguyen, Director of the Office of Asian Pacific Ministry, arrived in the Diocese in 2011 and launched the Vietnamese PMFP courses in 2013 and 2015. Uyen Nhu, parishioner and parish leadership team member at Our Lady of Hope Parish in San Bernardino and secretary for the Diocesan Vietnamese community, participated in the earlier PMFP programs that were offered in Vietnamese. She recalls that the combo class in 2004 was harder for the older Vietnamese participants to understand but she and other younger Vietnamese members helped translate most of the content. Overall, she says she felt distracted. However, when the program was offered completely in Vietnamese in 2013, she attended the courses with her husband, mother, mother-in-law, aunt and several younger and older friends. Over 30 participants joined the program that year.

“It was amazing,” recalls Nhu. “It was eye-opening for me because of the stories they shared, for me I was tearing up because I didn’t see that side of them before. So, it wasn’t just the content, it was the participants sharing about our faith and I saw another side of my faith, the one that was probably implanted in me as a kid.”

She added that hearing the perspectives on Catholic faith from different generations made a profound impact on her.

“I took the PMFP three times because I want to encourage others to take it and so that I can be in there with them as well,” she said. “The program provided both myself and my mom lots of opportunity to feel Christ in our lives. I know God, but through PMFP, I feel God.”

Faith, Family and Culture

Nhu’s mother converted to Catholicism when she married her father. Her parents were among the many Vietnamese people who escaped Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. She recalls a story that her mother shared in one of the PMFP sessions.

“She’s a convert but she never really had that faith. For her it really started when we were on that boat in Vietnam,” she said. “The very last night, the storm was really bad, and it was dark. There was an issue with the boat motor so there was no way to navigate anywhere.”

Her mom fell asleep and, in her dream, she saw the figure of a woman pointing in the direction of a beautiful island and saying “You are headed the right way, keep going.” When her mother woke up, she told everyone on the boat about her dream.

“A few hours later they saw a cloud and it was an image of the island in her dream,” recalls Nhu. “She said maybe this is a sign that God is telling her to really believe in Him.”

While her mother converted, it was only in recent years that her side of the family converted to Catholicism. Her mother raised her to pray constantly for her family to convert.

“It became part of our prayers for mom’s side. Now that I have my own kids, I teach them to pray for my mom’s family to be Catholic,” she said. “Four years ago my aunt was baptized Catholic. My grandma and grandpa went through the program and my grandma was baptized three years ago. And last June, my uncle was baptized.”

While her grandmother was baptized, her grandfather wasn’t ready to convert. Ancestor worship is practiced among the Vietnamese and it was something he struggled to let go of, Nhu said. However, Nhu and her family continue to talk to him about God and help him with his journey.

A Work In Progress, A Step In The Right Direction

Father Anthony Dao, Pastor at St. Catherine of Alexndria Parish in Temecula, has taught 11 classes for the Vietnamese PMFP program. He has worked with the Vietnamese community in the Diocese for 14 years and taught at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas before coming to serve in California.

“My concern, though now it’s better, is that the Vietnamese people in general and in San Bernardino, do not have direct contact or understanding with the American Church and American people here,” said Fr. Dao. “For example, they still want to follow the teaching and information they were given from the Church in their country. And, therefore, the contact between themselves and the local Church is limited. That is my biggest concern.”

He added, “my second concern is that people who are here do not have good information from their former churches in former countries. They have information from the Church in Vietnam and good information from the American church. They need to update themselves more often.

“This Diocese is doing a good job in the sense that the Church tries to help local people, including the Vietnamese, Korean and many other people to understand the teachings of the U.S. Church. At the same time, the Diocese strongly, especially under the leadership of Bishop [Gerald] Barnes and now Bishop [Alberto] Rojas, strongly encouraged the people to maintain their good culture. I think that is a real blessing.”

Fr. Dao says that the PMFP in Vietnamese is a part of that commitment from both bishops to support that plan.

“The Vietnamese people at the same time can maintain their culture, their traditions, their belief in God and also at the same time they could learn the teachings of the Church in this country but also learn how to live with other groups in their parish.”

Khoi Phan, parishioner and Parish Pastoral Council member at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Montclair, is a participant in this year’s program. Although he speaks English fluently, he sees the benefits especially among the older participants.

“I know the appeal of having a lot of older people being able to learn more just because I feel like some of them grew up kind of just following the faith but never got to fully practice and understand the different parts of our faith,” he said. “So having another time outside of Mass explaining all those intricacies makes the older generation really closer with their faith.”

Although he finds some challenges with taking the courses on Zoom, overall, he says he is finding it to be a fun and meaningful experience. He added that the Vietnamese people within his community are also interested in the program but feel that the six-month commitment is difficult for many working families.

“I feel as though it’s intimidating for them so I think that having them more spread out would be a lot better,” he said.

Sr. Nguyen echoed the same concern after a recent meeting with the community to obtain feedback on the current session.

“The interesting thing was that the people who are attending the workshop encourage the others to take the workshop,” she said. “So even though it’s long, they said it was very helpful.”

Minh Pham, a parishioner at St. Joseph Parish in Fontana and a participant in this year’s program, isn’t fluent in English and is finding that taking the courses in Vietnamese deepens his faith.

“Even though we read the bible, sometimes we don’t always comprehend,” said Pham. “In class, if we have a question, we can ask right away, and Father Anthony is really helpful and knowledgeable to answer in Vietnamese.”

Like Nhu, he also deeply enjoys the Q&A and sharing portions of the classes.

Fr. Dao begins every class with a prayer and scripture, usually from the upcoming Sunday’s gospel. Then he’ll go in depth about the gospels along with a discussion, followed by a video, usually from YouTube, about Vietnam. His classes usually end with Q&A, open discussion and personal sharing of faith experiences.

“When I taught in college I focused on education and knowledge. I tried to teach my students to understand about God and the bible. Their understanding of God and their education about the Church is important for them,” said Fr. Dao. “But when I teach PMFP, the focus is different and very important to me. I focus on formation, not education. Education is on knowledge. Formation is on experience and how to live as good Catholics. Experience means to love. You need to know God first and to love God after.”

Malie Hudson is a freelance writer based in Riverside.