My path began from the shores of Vietnam when I was two weeks old. My family struggled for dear life in our escape from the tyranny of our country.
Once we arrived to America, we had no way of knowing that only three years remained of my father’s life. In 1981, he passed away after struggling with lung cancer.
My mother raised a family of eight children all by herself: seven boys and one girl. (The last one, a boy, was born two weeks after my father passed away. His birth was quite an ordeal: on the way to the hospital, the car that was taking my mom to the hospital was involved in a car accident, and my brother was born on the side of the road.) She struggled arduously to satisfy all our needs. Our faith took priority. For me, as I look back, she stood as a solitary pillar of faith immersed in a culture and mingled with a people whose language remained foreign to her.
At my mother’s knees, I learned and memorized prayers. Daily Mass was a joyful obligation. She led by example. Not infrequently she attended two Masses a day. Devotion to Mary had a special place; we often prayed the Rosary together. This spiritual nurturing equipped me for the more turbulent years awaiting me.
Parish life was very lively. The parish youth group was numerous and offered many activities. I remember attending one of the summer camps when I was eight years old and thoroughly enjoyed the dynamic activities and religious instructions that we were offered. The zeal and self-donation of our parish priest, Fr. Luong, had a positive impression on me concerning the priesthood.
From age ten until I entered the Immaculate Conception Apostolic School (ICAS) in New Hampshire at nearly thirteen years old, I grew increasingly rebellious. I was filled with restlessness inside. I sought fulfillment in something or someone, and yet I could not discover what it was. I became increasingly less docile and disciplined. Soon, I picked up on smoking in private. I became involved in fun and pranks, even occasional shop-lifting and fistfights, and these smothered my taste for prayer or anything spiritual. One ember remained lit under the ashes, however: my conscience. My mother had formed it well, and it guided and protected me from tumbling into more serious moral pitfalls.
Could God Be Calling Me?
In the summer of 1987, I met my first Legionary priest, Fr. Anthony Bannon. Coming home from summer school, I was surprised to see him seated in our living room, in a circle with some minor seminarians from ICAS, with my mom and my older brother, who entered ICAS that summer. A glow of happiness and peace radiated from this priest. His demeanor captivated me.
The day my brother took a plane to head to ICAS, I sat grim on the living room couch. My mother had returned from the airport and was now sitting on the other side of the room with my older brother.
“I’d like Thanh to try out the minor seminary in three years when he’s old enough,” she said.
“I really doubt they’d accept a troublemaker like him,” my brother shot back. That made a big impression on me. Shortly after this, another brother of mine came in the room. He said, “They wouldn’t accept the wise-guy; even if they do, they won’t put up with him for more than a year, Mom.” My mother repeated the same thought to him. This showed me that I needed to change. I resolved to prove them wrong.
The summer of 1990 came around. Well, I did change, though perhaps not all for the better. I was, however, still resolved to try ICAS out. I signed up along with some two dozen boys, took my general knowledge test (although I felt horrible about it) and spoke with Fr. Bannon.
My brother Vinh served as Fr. Bannon’s secretary during his visit to our parish. After the test and interviews, my brother collected all the applications. There, on our living room bookshelf, the white folders were neatly stacked. Home alone and curious to see what chance I had to be one of five to be invited to ICAS, I decided to peek into the envelopes. My hands hurriedly opened the first envelope and searched for the green report card. The first was a straight-A student. Not bad. The second and then the third report card from the stack glared at me with the same results, and my heart sank. What chances would I have? My curiosity died as I realized that my low grade point average would place me close to the bottom of the list of candidates. Maybe this was not for me after all.
That evening, I confessed to my brother what I had done without hiding my disappointment and discouragement. No sooner had I finished than he corrected my attitude. “All right, I will be open to whatever God wants,” I said.
Two weeks later, the phone rang at our house. The voice told me to get ready to come to ICAS. We were all surprised. Before two weeks had passed, I was sitting nervously on a plane that would fly me to New Hampshire.
I was twelve years old. I had no idea what this whole new experience would be like. All I knew and felt was that this is where I felt God was leading me. Perhaps for this reason my interior and exterior restlessness seemed to abate, although I did not lack personal difficulties. God had done a great job up in preserving my life and faith. Amidst physical and moral storms, He had always been present.
I loved the sports and activities the school offered. We were so busy having fun that I did not even feel homesick.
Still, the habits I had brought with me to the Apostolic School needed a lot of sorting out and purification. Already during the summer camp I got into a few arguments and fist-fights. One of my older friends told me that if I did not control myself, they would kick me out. The only place that I remember not getting into a fight was the chapel.
Despite personal difficulties and disciplinary problems, I was always sincere with my superiors. I loved my vocation a lot and was very proud of becoming a Legionary. This did not eliminate moments in which I felt like going home. At such moments, I spoke very openly to my superiors and was always relieved by their help and advice. In my visits home, I defended my vocation when necessary.
My superiors were like brothers and fathers to me. Though I sometimes rebelled interiorly when they asked me to do something I did not like, I perceived that they cared for my formation and for my own good. I was moved by their example of prayer and sacrifice for us.
When I transferred to Cheshire, Connecticut, where the high-school students used to live, Fr. Kevin Meehan became my rector. He was like a father to me. It was a tough period of interior purification, but the extraordinary team of formators helped me through it. The fun activities and competitions that they put together helped me to continue to form virtues and motivated me to be generous with Christ.
The words once heard by the prophet Jeremiah, often re-echo in my ears, reminding me that my vocation and strength comes from God. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you” (Jeremiah 1:5).
God calls whomever he wishes. I have been greatly blessed to be one among them. Thanks to the providence of God, to the loving formation I have received from my mother—centered on God’s will no matter what—and to the zeal of Fr. Bannon and so many other people, I was able to chance upon a pearl invisible to human eyes. Unworthy though I am, he gave me this gift and supplied the graces I need to give up everything in exchange it.
Testimonial from: The vocation stories of the Legionaries of Christ who were ordained on December 12, 2009 have been published in the book “I Call You Friends”.
Note: The Immaculate Conception Apostolic School (ICAS) in New Hampshire later merged with Sacred Heart Apostolic School in Indiana.