Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Put on a cheerful face

Do not let anyone steal your joy!
I am not sure if it still exists, but I remember for some time, the fashion trend among teenagers was the “gangster look”. People walked around in baggy jeans, oversized t-shirts, and baseball caps. On their faces, they always wore an expression of toughness that seemed to say “You better not mess with me.”
Even though it was just part of the fashion statement that young people were trying to make to their peers, I can’t help but think that trying to look tough on the outside will eventually make you become tough on the inside as well. If you concentrate on making yourself look like you’re going to smash someone’s face in if they looked at you the wrong way, you won’t have a whole lot of time left to think about being a nice and cheerful person to people around you.
The reality is that many people walk around with angry or unpleasant looks on their faces even though it has nothing to do with making a fashion statement. Many people do not feel happy in their lives or do not know how to be joyful with what they have. Many people intentionally or unintentionally make themselves into uncheerful people that are unpleasant to themselves as well as to people around them.
Charles Evans Hughes, who was chief justice of the United States Supreme Court once said, “A man has to live with himself, and he should see to it that he always has good company.” One of the ways we turn ourselves into good company, not only to people around us, but also to ourselves is by being a cheerful person. Cheerfulness is not like when you do not have a good grasp of reality and become ditzy and everything is “Like omigod, how cool!” But cheerfulness is an attitude in which we reflect the joy we feel inside at all the good things that we have in life.
There are many aspects of our lives in which should make us feel joyful, but this isn’t happening because we are not aware of these good things. Sometimes, we even mistake a good thing for being a bad thing.
Let’s take the case of being stuck in traffic when we are driving on the highway. To most of us, this is really terrible, especially when we have some important place to go. But think again and we’ll find that we should be cheerful even when stuck in traffic because it means that we actually can afford to have a car in order to drive around, unlike many others in the world where even finding money for a bicycle is not possible.
Or let’s think about when we are stuck on a difficult math problem. We might be really angry at the teacher for assigning us so much homework, especially with math problems that are impossible to solve. Yet, if we think again, we’ll see that even now, we should be cheerful because being stuck on a homework problem means that we have opportunity to go to school and learn many things that are important to finding success in the future. In this world, there are millions and millions of young people who would love to be able to sit at a desk listening to the teacher explain lessons but cannot because they have to go out to find a job to make money for their family or for their own lives.
Despite the fact that our lives are full of occasions for joy and cheerfulness, many of us choose to go for the tough look every time we step out of the house. We look tough so that other people will afraid of us. We look tough so we don’t have to smile at the beautiful things that appear in front of our eyes. We look tough so we don’t have to show gratitude at all the blessings that have been bestowed on us by God, who is the most cheerful Being in the universe. According to American philosopher Dallas Willard, “We should, to begin with, think that God leads a very interesting life, and that he is full of joy. Undoubtedly he is the most joyous being in the universe. The abundance of his love and generosity is inseparable from his infinite joy. All of the good and beautiful things from which we occasionally drink tiny droplets of soul-exhilarating joy, God continuously experiences in all their breadth and depth and richness.”
Since God is joyful, God always wants each of us to be joyful. In the Gospel of John, Jesus himself prayed for our joy (John 15:11;16:16-24; 17:13). And Jesus wants to make it easy and joyful for each of us to come to him. As he assured us, “My burden is light” (Matthew 11:30)
Lastly, we must remember that to be cheerful and joyful is a decision that we make ourselves. It is not a result of something that happens to us. Just as we can make a choice to be angry and resentful, we can make a choice to be cheerful. The way to make that decision is by looking at our lives for signs of God’s presence. God’s presence is not only detected in the good things, but oftentimes, also in the hardships and difficulties. In fact, we are even more likely to find that God is walking with us in times of pain and suffering than in the good times. As a result, no matter in what state we are in, if we want to feel God’s presence and support in our lives, we will be able to feel joy.
Life is difficult and sometimes painful. In our modern society, there are many things that we can use to justify why we walk around looking angry all the time. Yet, it does not have to be this way. We can all be cheerful and joyful, if that’s how we want to feel!
Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps a singing bird will come.- Chinese proverb

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Modest Beginnings

July 2008

As of my writing this, it has been about a year and three months since I’ve studied and worked in Thailand. I spent a total of 8 months learning the language (5 months in school and three months on my own). I then moved to Udon Thani Diocese for a program of internship that was supposed to last six months. But three months into my internship, the church at Nong Bua Lamphu province found itself without a pastor because the present pastor was reassigned by his order to another part of the country. St. Michael Archangel church in NBL is a lovely small church that was built by Br. Damien Lunders, SVD and opened in 2002.
Although I haven’t finished my internship program, I approached the bishop and asked that I’d be sent to NBL to administer the parish, until Fr. Truc Phan, SVD who was still studying Thai in Bangkok was ready to take over the job. The bishop readily agreed because the diocese was already short of personnel. I moved my belongings to NBL in April, and now, I have been here for about three and a half months.
Looking back on the time that has gone by, I must say that it has been a very unexpected experience for me. Many things happened not according to what I had planned, but turn out to be the very things that speak of the great providence of God. I originally planned to study Thai for a year, but found out that I was itching to go into the “field” after six months into the experience. I felt I had enough language skills to do the work. So I asked my superiors to let me shorten the time of language program. They agreed, on the condition that I would take the Thai language proficiency exam given once a year in December. I took the test, and passed.
Once in Udon Thani, I also cut short my internship program because of an unexpected need in the local church. Through personal reflection and seeking advice from some people around me, I decided to take on the challenge.
Now, here in NBL, my aim is to help build this small parish into a meaningful place in the community and in the diocese. Because of the small number of parishioners and many changes of priest in a short time, the parish has been slow in developing, unlike the Mother of Perpetual Help Center and the children’s home, which have seen tremendous development in the past years. Catholics in the province still don’t go to mass regularly, and many do not attend mass at all. For various reasons, the diocese’s subsidy for the parish is rather modest, only 300 UAD a month for all church expenses including the pastor’s expenses. Sunday collections are also quite modest since over half of the church are children/orphans, teenagers, and manual laborers. The previous pastor managed to have a confirmation catechism class for a group of 5 teenagers, but the teacher is “on loan” from Udon Thani. The church has no organ, so the song leader uses a CD player to play recorded music to which the community sings along. The priest also has no altar servers.
Facing a rather unlively situation, my goal has been to do what I can in order to help the small parish become a place where people come to hear the Good News and to participate in enriching activities. People should know of the church as more than just “where the HIV/AIDS Center is located”. Certainly, the HIV/AIDS center is an essential and extremely significant part of our ministry in NBL, but the church itself needs to look for ways to serve other pastoral needs as well.
With this understanding in mind, I have taken some modest steps towards realization of this goal. First, I attempt to tailor my homily messages (which takes me quite some time to prepare in Thai) to help parishioners become more conscious of their Christian identity and mission so that they would take a more active role in the family, parish and in society as God’s witnesses.
Second, I have started programs that each parish must have, that is, catechism. Presently, the confirmation class continues to take place. The children’s catechism class has also been opened two months ago, with the help of another parishioner from NBL. This class has 19 students, who are from the children’s home run by the Sisters of Charity. Although, we encourage parents to send their children to this class as well. Two weeks ago, I have opened an adult catechism class, which I teach myself. This class has two adult women and one teenager. They are Buddhists but want to convert to Christianity. Beside catechism, I have also opened an English class for high school students in NBL in an attempt to put the church to the service of the greater community. My class now has 10 students, and I teach on Saturday and Sunday. More are interested in studying, but I have to restrict the number of students for practical reasons.
Third, I try to make small but tangible changes to way the church looks and feels by asking parishioners to be responsible for donating and setting up the flowers in the church each week; by having altar servers at every Sunday mass; by implementing correct liturgical practices in the mass, and by introducing people who come to mass for the first time or who has not been to mass for a long time to create a sense of hospitality. Hospitality is further enhanced after mass, in which snacks and drinks are served so parishioners have an opportunity for fellowship. However, the most important change to the “feel” of the church took place last Sunday when through some contacts with good-hearted Catholics in Bangkok, the church now has a second hand Yamaha electric piano that can replace the CD player as provider of music for the liturgy. For the first time, the community can sing their praises to God accompanied by live music played by the catechism teacher.
Finally, I am trying to work toward community building by seeking out parishioners. An ongoing project is registration of membership in the church. This project was started over a month ago, and will take some time to complete. I have made a number of visits to parishioners who do not go to church often, or at all. Since May, I have published a monthly parish newsletter that includes community news, articles and reflections. Lastly, being of Vietnamese descent, I am also seeking out Catholic migrant Vietnamese workers in the area who were unfamiliar with the parish. I hope that the church will become a place of support for these young workers who are trying to make a living far away from home.
As one can see, the situation of the parish is rather modest. And the work I am carrying out is also modest. With my limited Thai ability, it takes me longer to do many things, for example, preparing my homily, writing articles for the newsletter, or even writing a thank you letter to Thai benefactors. However, this is also an “excuse” or rather an “opportunity” for me seek help and collaboration from parishioners. But I have expressed to the parishioners that I am young, inexperienced, and I need a lot of help. However, I do hope and am confident that with every little thing done, it is done with God’s blessings and inspiration.
Soon, Fr. Truc will join me and take over the position of pastor of the parish. Fr. Truc has many talents and abilities that I lack in. I hope that with the bishop’s consent, I will be assigned as Fr. Truc’s assistant, and help him to make this parish into a small but lively witness of the Good News of Christ in NBL province.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

WYD: When the party's over

During the World Youth Day 2008, I watched with envy as youths from all over the world came together in Sydney to celebrate the Catholic faith, celebrate Christ, celebrate unity and diversity, and celebrate hope.

I did not have the luck to be onsite to breathe in the festive air of the Holy Spirit over the World Youth Day, but thanks to the internet, I was able to follow the major events live, from the Pope’s arrival on the boat-a-cade to the evening under the stars with the Pope. I was especially moved by the Stations of the Cross on Friday as the re-enactment of Jesus’ last moments took place on the streets of modern day Sydney.

I am sure that all the participants of the event have been deeply touched by what they have experienced these days. But all of us who follow on television or the internet also feel affected by what we see on the screen. This is the wonder and the grace of this tremendous event that our late Pope John Paul II started over 20 years ago.

Yet, as I was watching the wonderful images of young people smiling, hugging, praying, shedding tears, singing praises to God, and giving witness to God to their peers, I can’t help but think forward to the days following all the festivities.

Great, I said to myself, it’s fine to pray and talk about God when you’re among friends, among people who are like you. But what happens when you return back to your country, your house, your school, and your neighborhood?

What happens when you live in a house where your mom sometimes go to church and your dad refuses to ever step into one?

What happens when speaking about faith and God to your friends is like speaking about a taboo subject?

What happens when you go to Sunday mass where there is not even a choir, much less a whole orchestra like that at the World Youth Day?

What happens when you go back to a neighborhood where people don’t greet you with hugs and smiles like they do this week?

Many other situations come to my mind that represent the reality in life, a reality that many young people face everyday in their normal environment. All these situations are contradictory to the spirit and actions seen on the streets of Sydney.

The World Youth Day only lasts a week, but these situations last for years, and even for a lifetime. It is easy to express and celebrate our faith in a utopia like the World Youth Day, but the real challenge for all of us is to live out and celebrate this same faith with the same spirit and zeal in the very difficult situations of our everyday life, where our faith confronts real obstacles.

During the WYD, we hear the Pope teaching about the danger of popular culture. In our every day life, we need to act according to this teaching by avoiding paths that lead to self destruction. Are we willing to be less obsessed about clothes, car, Ipods, and mobile phones? Are we willing to not run after the latest technological gadgets that are advertised on television and in the magazines?

During the WYD, we hear the Pope entrust the environment to us to take care and protect. In our everyday life, we need to make decisions about how we use resources that deplete the earth of life and beauty. Are we willing to take public transportation instead of demanding the convenience of driving our own car everywhere? Are we willing to separate the paper from the plastics and take them to the recycling center?

During the WYD, we hear about the virtue of chastity. In our everyday life, we need to make a decision of what to do when we are alone in the room with a girlfriend or boyfriend when the parents are away. We need to be not ashamed in telling our friends that we are going to wait until marriage before having sex.

During the WYD, we praise God along with hundreds of thousands of people accompanied by huge orchestra. In our everyday life, we have to be able to praise God alone, unaccompanied by any musical instrument except for the beating of our heart.

During the WYD, we make the sign of the cross in front of tens of thousands of Catholics. In our everyday life, we have to make the sign of the cross before eating when all around us, there are only Muslims, Buddhists, or atheists.

During the WYD, we hug people who hug us, and laugh with people who are hapy to meet us. In our everyday life, we have to smile with peole who frown at us, and love people who want to harm us.

The surreal feeling of faith and zeal of the World Youth Day will fade as we all return to real life and confront with the cold reality of everyday life. How each of us live in this very environment will speak the greatest of what we truly got out of our experience of being taught by the Holy Father, the Bishops, and fellow young people at the event. How each of us do when we are alone will be most meaningful – much more meaningful than what we do when we are surrounded by people just the same as ourselves.

It is impossible to have the World Youth Day everyday so that we can live in this set up environment all the time. We have to return back to real life. We have to return to a life in which we are often surrounded by a lack of faith, a lack of love, full of temptations, and full of opportunities for evil.

The hope is that having been at WYD, or having participated indirectly through television, all of us have brought Jesus into our heart so that even when we don’t have friends around us, don’t have the Holy Father in front of us, and don’t have bishops and priests behind us, we still have Jesus inside us. It is Jesus, in the end, who will help us to stand up to all situations that put our faith to the test.

Let us remember that we did not come to WYD just for the Pope. We did not come to WYD just for the people. We did not come to WYD just for the spectacles. But remember that we came to WYD, first and foremost, for Jesus. If that’s what we truly came to WYD for, surely, we would have gotten him. And when we return to our home, school, and neighborhood, Jesus will follow us to all those places. On the other hand, if we did not come to WYD for Jesus, but only for the Pope, the people, or the spectacles, then we missed out on the greatest thing that WYD had to offer.

WYD comes and goes, but Jesus comes to stay. May each of us be filled with Jesus and His love in every difficult and challenging situation of our life.


Vietnamese Americans sound off to the Pope

This year the World Youth Day takes places in Australia, thousands of miles from the United States. Many young people from America have been doing fundraising and other activities in order to have the funds to join in the festivities in Sydney. However, many are sad that they will not be able to meet this Holy Father in person this year.

Modern Talkings asked three young people from California the following questions and here’s what they had to say:

1) If you could meet the Pope in person, what would you like to tell the Pope about life as a young person nowadays?

Ben Tran: These days and age, especially in capitalism societies such as America. Young people are faced with many challenges. Stepping into the world, we need to establish our own places in life. With so many different forces influencing us from all directions. It is very easy for us to go astray and set a priority that leads us on a dangerous path away from God and could potentially cost us our salvation. I have friends that are formerly devout Catholics who are simply too busy to attend Sunday masses or even go to confession once a year.

X.S.: I would like to tell the Pope that believing God and living the God's words have changed and continue to shape my life in a positive way. I think with God’s power, I can help out many other people who haven't had a chance to know about God.

Minh-Kha Michael: As I am only experienced in the life of American Western society, I can only speak about the youth in this society, even though most of the world is following in these capitalist countries' footsteps. The youths are exposed to so much of the "culture of death": drugs, sex, violenc, etc. A lot of youth cannot even fathom life without the internet, cell phone, cable TV, fast cars because life = technology.

As technology advances, a lot of youths become dependent on it and are often pulled away from what is serene. Lots of people cannot even sit in silence for they are too accustomed to being busy. On a more basic level, some youths are homeless and poor, and do not have the luxury of even "touching" technology. On a deeper level, youths are often confused about a lot of things. They struggle with internal identity issues, whether it is vocational, sexual/gender, religious, ethnic/cultural, or all combined simultaneously. They are also influenced by social agents like parents, religion, culture, and school. I'm sure the pope is aware of a lot of these factors that shape and form the lives of the youths today.

One important trend I see happening, from both personal experience of friends and acquaintances and from studying psychology, is that youths are learning to differentiate between their religiosity and spirituality. People claim that religiosity is defined by religious rituals, practices, dogma, and doctrine of a specific organized religion like Christianity and Buddhism, and spirituality is defined as a relationship with a higher Supreme being, whether that is God or nature or whatever. It is said that you can be spiritual without being religious, but if religious, you are most likely spiritual as well. Youths I see are tending to move towards the un-theistic spirituality, which I feel can be dangerous if they have no foundation and believe that they will waver and fall. It's hard though with so much busyness, temptations, and questioning of the faith, and I am no exception to at least being exposed to this trend.

I hope the Pope could address the needs of the youths. I know it most likely starts at the diocesan level because that's where most youths live and can be influenced at large. That means priests should integrate their homilies to address the youths and relate the readings to their issues at masses, and more religious should be involved more with retreats and other youth supported activities. I remember the late Pope John Paul II saying, "The youth are the future of the Church and the world." We are the true foundation of the Church.

2) If you could meet the Pope in person, what questions would you like to ask him?
Ben Tran: Living in such a society, I would ask the pope what is the best way to keep up with life and not losing your relationship with God and your chance for salvation?

S.X.: I would like to ask the Pope: What is the best way to approach most elders of the way think about God? Even though they heard some good things about God. Also, will God be listening to other who is not Catholic when they pray in the name of God? I am a newly converted Catholic baptized in March 2008.

Minh-Kha Michael: How will the Church improve it's training and focus on the youths needs? What will the Church do to keep the youth from falling or leaving the Church, if that is one of the goals of the Church? I know that the World Youth Day may be fun and exciting, but the youths may come down after the "high" when they go back home. How would the Church explain or help the youth maintain their faith and "highs" even when they have dry spells in their spiritual journey?

Given that the more mature youths become early career professionals, how does the Church and/or God expect/want/help us to reconcile the difference between staying true to our faith and Church teachings while also being morally and ethically bound to our professional stances? For example, a Catholic doctor struggling with giving an abortion, a pharmacist selling contraceptive pills, a lawyer arguing for a death penalty or divorce case, or a psychologist discussing with teens about sexual activity (abstinence).How can/will the Church tell parents to be the primary educators and instillers of the faith with their children? Because I see that most parents nowadays drop their kids off at catechism class and expect the religious education teachers to do that work. I don't think it's fair to rely and depend only on these teachers to teach about the faith. It must be lived out and encouraged by the parents.

(Ben Tran, S.X., and Minh Kha are Vietnamese Americans in their early and mid twenties, from the cities of Rosemead, El Monte, and Rancho Cucamonga in California. They are members of Thieu Nhi Fatima Movement, which is based in the archdiocese of Los Angeles).