Working with Vietnamese candidates in vocation discernment

Working with Vietnamese candidates in vocation discernment

By Fr. Binh Nguyen S.V.D.

In recent years, a number of media outlets have noted the increasing number of Vietnamese men and women who are becoming Catholic priests, sisters or brothers. This trend is particularly true within my own religious order, the Divine Word Missionaries. Between 2000 and 2008, out of an average of 10 ordinations each year, seven to eight of these new SVD priests were born in Vietnam. This phenomenon triggers the question of why Vietnamese vocations are increasing so rapidly, and how can vocation ministers work effectively with them. Some may give quick answers, but they could not possibly be complete because this is a complex phenomenon. To understand the Vietnamese vocation boom—and, even more importantly, how to work well with Vietnamese candidates—one must begin with this group’s culture, religion and history as the foundation.

Cultural foundations

Vietnam was ruled by the Chinese for one thousand years, and Chinese culture is infused with Confucianism. Therefore, Confucius’ philosophy and teachings are the most prevalent principles in Vietnamese culture. In Confucius’ philosophy, the value system is based on four basic interrelated tenets: allegiance to the family, yearning for a good name, love of learning and respect for other people. (See these concepts developed further at articles-18-6/The-Vietnamese-Value-System.aspx.)

Family allegiance The most important element in the Vietnamese value system is allegiance. No individual lives for his or her own benefit but rather for the well-being of the whole family. Accordingly, an individual’s success is always attributed to the family, which takes pride and honor in it. Likewise, an individual’s failure or misconduct is borne in the name of the family. The shame of a family member, therefore, is the shame of all members of the family. It is always the case that parents are responsible for the misconduct of their children and blamed for not having taught their children adequately. Thus children, single and married alike, are to consult with their parents in every situation, including career and education decisions. In addition, since parents are seen as people of wisdom, children are expected to come to them out of respect and to learn from their life experience.

Good name The Vietnamese are extremely concerned about having a good name, both in terms of reputation and in terms of what one is called. The name of an individual is very important to that person’s character and destiny, and all names bear some meaning. Girls’ names are chosen from the names of flowers, while boys’ names signify happiness, great power, success, or eternity. Girls’ names signify feminine images, and boys’ signify masculine figures. A good name is considered more valuable than material possessions.

A good name is also closely associated with a good reputation. A rich man with a bad reputation is looked down upon, while a poor man with a good reputation is more greatly admired. Again, one’s name is connected to one’s family. An individual who has bad behavior certainly destroys the reputation and the face of his or her parents and the whole family. On the contrary, the one who achieves higher education certainly brings pride and esteem to the whole family, which is considered a great blessing for the parents.

Love of learning The third point in the Vietnamese value system is the love of learning. Due to the significance of the good reputation and the good name of the family, the Vietnamese strive for higher education. Parents are proud to have their children complete higher studies and pursue an important position in society, such as a doctor, teacher, engineer or pharmacist. For the Vietnamese a person with more knowledge enjoys social status and prestige. Therefore gaining knowledge is considered more valuable than wealth or material success. As a result the rich who lack knowledge are looked down upon and shamed. In the Vietnamese social system scholars are ranked first, then farmers, artisans and tradesmen. (Religious rank at the top, alongside scholars.)

Respect The last but not least component in the value system is respect. Respect is the very first sign that tells whether an individual comes from good parents and, therefore, a good family. This respect is expressed when greeting another by words, gestures and body language. Thus, respect is a virtue of utmost importance. It is the very first lesson taught to an individual while he or she is still an infant. Parents and older siblings assist an infant in putting hands together as a gesture of gratitude and respect. When an infant becomes a toddler, he or she is taught to bow the head toward parents or older brothers and sisters every time he or she is given a present, including food. A child has to get permission from his or her parents or older siblings when getting anything in the house, even food that is on the table. Children are to ask permission from their parents or older siblings when leaving the house for any legitimate reason. In returning home, they politely inform their parents by using words and gestures of respect. These rules of respect are strictly applied in all circumstances. Failure to show respect may cause punishment. The basic principle is that children are to show respect to parents, older siblings, cousins and other relatives. They should also show respect to any elders they have contact with in public places. In principle an individual pays respect to people who have social status, such as teachers, clergy and religious, supervisors and people in high positions.

Persecution of Catholics

In addition to these four cultural foundations, religion is an important part of the Vietnamese world. Formerly there were three main religions in Vietnam: Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. In modern days, however, Buddhism is the most well known and recognized. Only about 8 percent of the population of Vietnam is Christian. The faith was initially introduced to the North of Vietnam in the 16th century by missionaries from Spain, France and Portugal. With many initial difficulties due to language barriers, political conflicts and stereotypes, the missionary work proved slow. But the work was carried on faithfully until the beginning of the 19th century, when the first wave of persecution began to emerge and endured for the reigns of several kings. As a result, thousands of Vietnamese Catholics were persecuted before they were granted religious freedom with full respect and dignity.

Then came the second wave of persecution, which occurred in 1945 under the control of the Communists in the North. This persecution led to immigration and refugees within the country. In 1950 over a half million Catholics fled to the South to escape the Communists. Those who remained in the North continued to practice their faith but under strict control. Others gave up their faith due to the lack of shepherds. The Northerners had no choice but to endure their lives under the rule of Communism until the present time.

In April 1975 the Communists took over control in the South of Vietnam. This victory of the Communists became a horror for the Southerners in general, but particularly for those who joined the first exodus wave in 1950. All civilians suffered under the Communists, but Catholics suffered the most because they were one of the main targets of attack.

Many churches, seminaries, convents and other properties were confiscated. Seminaries and convents that were not confiscated ceased to function. Catholic schools were turned over to the government by force. Professors were relocated to the so-called re-education camps. Thousands of priests, nuns and catechists were imprisoned. The people of God were scattered and prohibited from going to church or attending catechism classes. This severe oppression led to a second exodus for the Vietnamese.

Exodus in search of freedom

The victory of the Communists in the South of Vietnam served as the main catalyst for a second major exodus that has taken place in several waves since 1975. The first wave occurred as soon as the former regime surrendered to the Communists in April, 1975. This wave involved mostly officers, who knew of the political turmoil to come. These people made their way to safe destinations with the protection and assistance of American soldiers. The second wave alarmingly arose about three years later. Thousands of Vietnamese poured out to sea, often in makeshift boats, regardless of the danger of storms and pirates. Some 600,000 “boat people” risked their lives to seek freedom. They kept fleeing the country until 1992, when the United Nations closed the refugee camps in Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines.

In addition to these waves of refugees, three programs were initiated in 1989 to allow immigration to the U.S. One allowed in immediate family members of U.S. residents; another granted visas to Amerasian children; and a third allowed political prisoners to immigrate.

Religious views and orientation

This history of persecution and exodus has strongly shaped the religious views and orientation of Vietnamese-American Catholics. So too, have the four cultural tenets of the Vietnamese: allegiance to family, desire for knowledge, value for a good name, and the primacy of respect. Vietnamese Americans tend to be loyal to the church and its teachings, obedient to bishops, priests and religious, concerned about the good name of their church, and highly respectful of church leaders. In a social context, the church serves as the liberator for the Vietnamese.

Traditionally Vietnamese Catholics pray morning and evening prayers. Family members often pray the rosary every morning and evening, followed by the litany of the month. Many families in the United States are still able to practice this pious tradition. Children are typically all sent to church and catechism classes. A child is initiated into the religious formation as soon as he or she reaches the age of seven and continues the program for approximately 12 years. Adults and children alike are well motivated to faithfully attend daily and Sunday Masses. Many stay after the Mass for special devotions. Priests and religious are considered spiritual leaders who are called and chosen by God to serve the church. Accordingly they are given both worldly and heavenly power. To Vietnamese Americans they deserve respect and admiration.

The constant persecution and hardship that formed Vietnamese-American Catholics definitely contribute to their zealous devotion. Their faith has been tested through persecution and deprivation. This tested faith affirms and strengthens their bond with God. Religion is seen as a peace provider. Many young people find happiness and value in sacrificing themselves to serve the poor and the church. This great awareness of the value of self-sacrifice is gradually assimilated in the mindset of young people who recognize the call to the priesthood and religious life. The Vietnamese people are convinced that devoting one’s life to the kingdom of God is a true blessing, not only for oneself but also for the immediate and extended family. Accordingly a young man or woman who follows a calling to priesthood or religious life normally gets 100 percent support from his or her family and from the Vietnamese community. According to the Federation of Vietnamese Priests and Religious in the U.S., in 2004 there were 450 Vietnamese-descent priests in the United States and about 1000 Vietnamese-descent sisters.

The delicate issue of sexuality

While sexuality is a sensitive issue for most cultures, sexuality in Vietnamese culture is perhaps more delicate than elsewhere. In Confucianism, marriage is a relationship of the two extended families. It is definitely not the sole business of a man and woman who get married. In addition, an individual’s misconduct yields shame for all family members. Therefore, dating is extremely prohibited. One may be severely punished for sexual behavior outside of marriage. In this culture, sex is generally considered a sin rather than a gift. Thus sexuality is not a topic to be treated in conversation either at home or in public, including school.

As a vocation director, I restrained from asking my candidates a direct question about sexual orientation. With older candidates, I had to be even more sensitive still in treating the issue. With younger candidates, however, the question of dating, sex and relationships is a common part of the interview.

One should be aware that cultural differences and language certainly contribute to the environment of an interview. For instance, some Vietnamese candidates may feel more comfortable with non-Vietnamese interviewers in regard to sexuality. Though this was not a common situation in my own experience, it is good to be cautious.

Another related issue here is celibacy. Since self-sacrifice for the sake of the church is valued by Vietnamese-Americans, celibacy, generally speaking, doesn’t seem to be a major hindrance for Vietnamese in the process of discernment. Though it is hard and challenging, celibate life is seen as admirable and worthy of esteem.

Family support for vocations

Here is an example of the tremendous support that Vietnamese families give to vocations. I began in vocation ministry as soon as I was ordained in June, 2002 and finished my second term in June, 2008. During those six years, it is not an exaggeration to say that 90 percent of my time was spent living out of my suitcase. It was both a rewarding and challenging experience. During this time, I stayed in motels eight times, no more, no less. Where did I stay the rest of the time? I stayed with families that I was already acquainted with prior to my ordination and with the families that I met in the line of duty. I rarely stayed in rectories, even though I could choose to. Instead I wanted to have more contact with people who could entertain me with their life journeys, people who enriched me tremendously. This experience clearly proves that family and vocation are interrelated in the Vietnamese community.

Another story illustrates my point. An Irish priest in his 70s was allowed to take a vacation in Orange County, CA, the family home of many Vietnamese sisters, brothers and priests. This was the chance he had longed for so as to visit the families of the seminarians he had been zealously teaching and mentoring for approximately 20 years. Friendship and exploration set the tone for his trip. He was booked almost every day for lunch and dinner and was amazed at those meals, lunch and dinner alike, with the abundance of tasty food on the table. He counted a minimum of five courses for each meal. He never spent a penny for meals during his vacation. He truly enjoyed the friendship and respect from the families of the seminarians he taught. Prior to leaving Orange County, he joked, “In the next life, I will choose to become a Vietnamese priest.”

Include families in discernment process

As these experiences with Vietnamese American families show, the link between family and vocation is very strong. Indeed, family is the first step in the vocation discernment process for Vietnamese Americans. “Family is the first seminary” is the way one Vietnamese bishop puts it. I am convinced of this truth. For this reason, every single Vietnamese candidate is compelled to share his or her discernment process with his or her parents. There are, of course, exceptions for individuals who are more westernized. However, in the long run, even these individuals may find they have restless hearts until they share their vocation exploration with their folks. Because family allegiance is so important, a vocation director should never skip this essential step. By all means, a vocation director should look for a chance to meet in person with each candidate’s parents, even if the vocation director doesn’t speak the same language as the parents. The meeting between the vocation director and the parents empowers the discerning process of candidates.

There are also cases in which individuals—out of self protection—don’t want to let their parents know of their vocation interests. Parents take serious pride in adult children who enter the priesthood or religious life. Discerners who are still uncertain about entering a community or seminary may hesitate to share the idea with parents who will likely express certain and ecstatic joy in the matter and will hastily share it with the larger community. Likewise, there are pastors who customarily announce the news when their parishioners engage in the discernment process. Again, some discerners feel uneasy with this approach because they are concerned about the embarrassment of changing course.

Immigration concerns reappearing

While families are generally enthusiastic, immigration officials may not be. From 1975 until just recently, most Vietnamese discerners had few problems in regard to immigration status. Unlike other ethnic groups, the Vietnamese had few troubles attaining legal status in the U.S. Sadly, this good fortune is fading away. A new wave of exodus from Vietnam is underway right now, but in this post-911 world, the doors to the U.S. are not wide open. Growing numbers of Vietnamese candidates are disqualified for application to religious orders due to invalid immigrant status. And increasing numbers of young men and women enter the United States with either a tourist or student visa. These visa holders may not be up-to-date with federal regulations. As a result, their immigration status can be a problem when it comes to joining religious communities.

In spite of these recent immigration problems, young Vietnamese men and women will likely continue to investigate religious life. Their families will continue to nurture and support them. The vocation ministers who take into account the rich history, traditions and cultural sensibilities of this group of committed Catholics will be in the best position to minister effectively to them.


Resources for working with Asian candidates
Asian Pacific Handbook This 35-page book provides an overview of Asian culture and gives recommendations for screening and interviewing Asian candidates. There are sections on Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, and Filipino cultures. The handbook was produced by the NRVC Asian Pacific Standing Committee.

Time for Tea This 62-minute VHS video relates the experiences of five Asian Pacific men and women as they respond to their call to priesthood or religious life. It comes with a study guide for helping communities prepare to welcome Asian Pacific candidates. This resource was produced by the NRVC Asian Pacific Standing Committee.



Father Binh Nguyen, SVD is a priest of the Divine Word Missionaries. He currently serves as associate pastor at Resurrection Church in St. Louis, MO. Born in Vietnam, he came to the U.S. when he was 23 years old. Father Binh was a vocation minister for his community from 2002 until 2008, during which time he worked primarily with Vietnamese discerners.


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