By Renee Hubka
2 June 2010
For most of us, even those of us who were raised Catholic, it is hard to imagine the life of a priest. Often we see their lives as restricted and boring or we make judgments based on the scandals of the day. More often we just have no idea what their life entails or we are just not interested – their lifestyle seems removed from our own.
A religious life has become something negative or, at least, not as respectable as in the past to some people, especially those people coming from developed countries which are becoming more and more secular. As an American woman who grew up going to Catholic school and attending Sunday masses throughout my childhood and teen years, I must confess that I hardly had any idea just what the life of a “Father” is all about until I started to volunteer here at St. Michael’s.
Over the years I have been happy to meet priests on my travels as I often found them very willing to discuss issues in an open manner and they come across more educated than some ministers I know and have met. But I have never worked or lived near the house where a priest lives. As a child, to visit the priest’s house or the nuns’ convent would have made me very nervous, although I did go for lessons in the convent when I was very young and have published a story about that experience.
So, when Father Anthony accepted me to come and volunteer in Nong Bua Lumhpu (NBL), I admit that I was nervous. It is hard to shake the impressions you get from your childhood. Father had only spoken with me once on the phone, yet when I arrived, I was welcomed as a full member of the staff and got to work. We had long and frank discussions about many things right away: how to raise and discipline children, the scandals affecting the church and how it affects both of us, a life lived without a partner (I can identify all too well to that one), how to be a father figure to many young people and not just a priest, how to live on less money, how to get funds for projects, and the many aspects of American life, Asian life, and African life. We have had open and often deep conversations and have found ourselves alike in many ways. I believe we have found true friendship.
Everyday I went to the priest’s house and worked on the computers, joked with the young migrant workers who Father is helping and advising, interacted with any people who are working on their own projects, shared time with the young Brother (Bernard) who is also assigned in NBL as a nurse and generally just hung out with a group of young and dedicated people who are as human as the rest of us. In NBL, I have met other brothers from many countries and varying ages and find them very curious and interested in me and my life.
For Father and Brother and the other Brothers working here and at projects attached to the church, I can see that their lives are really rich, less complicated in some ways, but at the same time filled with regular human interaction that seems less “religious” but more caring. That makes a religious life seem more real to me. I think about what they don’t have to deal with: writing resumes, seeking a job, dealing with a complicated personal relationship, finding money for basic living expenses, having children that upset and frustrate them, being thrown out of their house or losing all to these hard times. I also think of what they have: a community that they will always be a part of no matter how they change or mistakes they make, a chance to learn languages and travel to foreign places, education that they do not have to pay for, work that is meaningful and rewarding, a spiritual life, and, to me, a kind of simpler and more “clean” life filled with less drama.
So, I asked Father a few questions (some I took from The Actor’s Studio) to try and know him a bit more.
Renee: Please tell us your favorite word:
Father: Balance. This was the word that I was told to reflect upon when I was in high school by a priest I knew. He told me it was fine to study and try to be successful in life, but it was important to achieve a balance in all aspects – social, academic, spiritual, etc… I always took this word to heart. And nowadays, I’m advising young people using this very same word.
Renee: Please tell us a story from your childhood that has stayed with you:
Father: When I was a child in Vietnam, about five or six years old, I had very vivid memories of my father riding on a motorcycle coming home to visit me, my brothers and sisters. I remember he brought us presents. But the irony is, I didn’t meet my father for the first time until I was nine years old. My mom was pregnant with me at the time when my father fled Vietnam for the U.S. near the end of the Vietnam War. It was years later that the family was reunited. I must have developed my own memory of my father from the stories that my mom and siblings told me. But to me, this is a very real memory.
Renee: Please tell us a song that always seems to be ringing in my mind:
Father: There is a Vietnamese church song that I often sing to myself when I’m walking alone or driving alone. Part of the lyric is like this: Oh God, let my heart be filled with love, so that no matter how bitter life becomes, I will always love You only, so that my life would not be lonesome.
Renee: What was your biggest challenge as a teenager?
Father: As a young person, one of my most challenging issues was how to reconcile my cultural identities – to be Vietnamese as well as be American. The other aspect was how to be proud and committed to my religion without being different from the rest of my peers.
Renee: Who has helped you in your youth?
Father: I think the friends I made were actually the most helpful. I picked friends that I knew were not so stuck on you having to be this way or that way. I also picked friends who were bi-cultural as I was. They were all very proud of being Asian or Vietnamese or whatever, but they were also very American as well. Of course, I also had lots of non-Asian friends. But my closest friends tended to be the hyphenated type (Vietnamese-American, Chinese-American, etc..)
Renee: Are you a reader and what books do you like to read?
Father: When I was in junior high, my older brother was preparing me for the SAT, so he gave me a lot of books to read. I remember reading War and Peace, Crime and Punishment as an 8th grader. Later I read a lot of 19th century English novels. I would say these classic novels made the most impression on me. I suppose the reason I like these novels is because it’s nice to see people speak to each other in a refined manner, even if they’re plotting against each other.
Renee: Who was your favorite saint growing up?
Father: I don’t know when I first heard about Fr. Damien the Leper (who was canonized last year), but his story made a tremendous impression on me. Fr. Damien came to Molokai, a island in Hawaii to serve the lepers who were made to live in a colony there. Eventually, he also caught the leprosy and died of the disease. Leprosy has deep meanings for Christians because of the many stories of Jesus curing people afflicted with leprosy in the Bible. Fr. Damien’s story ignited in my mind the thought I could go somewhere far to serve those who are ostracized by society. His life inspires me to want to model my life as someone who lives in solidarity with those on the margins of society.
Renee: What does your vow of celibacy mean to you?
Father: My own vow of celibacy means that I can afford to live out my priestly vocation with the greatest commitment to God and to those whom I serve possible. It is of course challenging, but it is also a source of great feeling of freedom.
Renee: What does your vow of poverty mean to you?
Father: My vow of poverty helps me to find a place next to the poor and the marginalized and can enter into solidarity with them. For me, this is a place of great privilege because God is most present in those who are suffering. Being in solidarity with the poor means being in solidarity with God Him/Herself.
Renee: What makes you happy?
Father: I’m happy when I can exercise regularly can keep myself in good shape.
Renee: What makes you unhappy?
Father: I’m unhappy when I let my hot temper get the best of me.
Renee: If you had contracted HIV before becoming a priest, what would you have done?
Father: Maybe throw myself in front of a moving train. But now that I live and work with people with HIV/AIDS on a daily basis and understand it in ways that I didn't understand before, I certainly wouldn't be so extreme.
Renee: What noise do you like to hear?
Father: I like sounds of dry branches falling to the ground in a quiet forest.
Renee: What noise do you dislike?
Father: I dislike sounds of motor vehicles honking.
Renee: What other profession would you have liked to do?
Father: It depends on what stage of life I was in. When I was younger, I wanted to be an astronaut. At that time I really enjoyed reading about the Solar System and the Galaxy. Then I thought about being a journalist or a writer because for a while I was really into reading books. I also thought about being a psychologist so I can help people solve their problems. In college I set out to be a doctor because I wanted to cure sick people, especially those who were poor. Now, I’m a missionary priest. But I still have options for the future. Being a priest doesn’t necessary prevent you from having other professions. In fact, it gives you even more opportunities.
Renee: What is the best thing about living in Thailand?
Father: Really delicious tropical fruits.
Renee: What is the best thing about Vietnam?
Father: Speaking and hearing your mother tongue everywhere you go.
Renee: What is the best thing about California?
Father: The weather
Renee: If you meet St. Peter at the pearly gates of heaven, what would you like to hear God tell you?
Father: “You have friends waiting inside.”