By Tanya Connor
WORCESTER – Family, friends and “Father” are bringing people of other religions to the Catholic Church, people at Our Lady of Vilna Parish say.
At Saturday’s Easter Vigil, the pastor – Father Peter Tam M. Bui – baptized seven people. All received their first Communion and all but the 12-year-old were confirmed.
“As a pastor, I thank God for that,” Father Bui said. He said he thinks God is working on their community.
“I don’t ask them to become Catholics,” he said. “I just help them. I help anybody.”
That help included getting a funeral home to lower costs for a Buddhist’s burial, he said. And non-Christians are welcome at church – even just to sit in the sacristy, stand at the back or help with meals. At special Masses he tells them that, although they do not share the Catholic faith, he wishes them the blessing of the Risen Christ, the peace of Christmas, etc.
Four or five years ago Long Tran, who’d been baptized Catholic, came back to the Church, Father Bui said. A couple years ago he started bringing his sons – Bill, now 16, and Bush, now 12 – to church with him. At first he let them sit in the sacristy to observe Mass. Later, he got them to join in the activities of the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth and sit with them at Mass. Now every Saturday he brings his boys to help him clean the church.
Mr. Tran also brought his Buddhist wife to church to help with weekly food preparation, Father Bui said.
“The Catholic women treat her like a friend – very warmly,” he said. “Me too.”
She sat in the sacristy with her sacristan husband for Christmas Mass in 2010, and he explained what was going on, the pastor said. Several times since then she sat in the pews, he said, and she watched attentively as he baptized Bill and Bush Saturday.
“I’m kind of nervous, I’m kind of excited, but I’m happy about it,” Bill said shortly before receiving the sacraments.
He said he learned about God at Abby Kelley Foster Charter Public School, where they studied different religions in history class. His father brought him to church, and he wanted to keep coming, he said.
“I just wanted to learn more about God and Jesus and be closer to him and to be happy in life,” he said.
“I’m looking forward to getting closer to God,” Bush echoed. “My Dad asked me if I wanted to do classes, and I said, ‘Ya.’ I feel happy because I’m going to be a member of the Church.”
Joining the Church was quite an occasion for Ngoclien Pham, 62, also baptized Saturday. And for her 72-year-old godmother, Annette Nguyen, her elementary school teacher in Vietnam, who helped translate and tell Ms. Pham’s story for The Catholic Free Press.
Ms. Nguyen said her former student is the first person from her village to become a Christian, though they both live in the United States now.
When Ms. Pham asked her to be her godmother and sponsor, “It touched me,” she said. “I said, ‘I cannot resist.’” So she came to the Easter Vigil from Chicago, where her husband is a deacon.
Ms. Nguyen said the faith of Ms. Pham’s children brought her to God.
“My grandchildren too,” added Ms. Pham.
Ms. Pham’s grandchildren kept saying, “We are praying for you, Grandma,” Ms. Nguyen said. Her son in Connecticut married a Catholic woman and they became very religious.
Ms. Pham was a Buddhist in Vietnam, and continued to practice here, but was afraid to go close to the Buddhist altar, her godmother said. But when she saw the altar in the Catholic Church, it touched her. Whenever she looked at Jesus, present in the Eucharist, she felt something special, which she couldn’t describe.
Ms. Nguyen was also godmother and sponsor for Ms. Pham’s friend My Ly.
She said Ms. Ly belonged to the Cao Dai religion, officially established in Vietnam in 1926, which mixes elements of Christianity, Buddhism and other philosophies. She married a Catholic man in Vietnam and their children became Catholics, but she never wanted to be a Christian herself. But now she feels she has faith and joy.
My Phuong Quach, the other woman baptized Saturday, said she was Buddhist and left Vietnam for Worcester at age 8.
“My family wasn’t really religious,” she said. “So this (becoming a Catholic) gives me a chance to practice.”
She said at first she explored becoming Catholic for the family of her fiancé, Toan Do, but as she learned more she saw it was for herself.
“Now I know more about God and Jesus,” she said. “It opened up my mind.”
Father Bui said Ms. Quach’s Buddhist parents came from Connecticut for the Easter Vigil, and called it a wonderful celebration.
“Gradually we will invite them to come to the Church,” he said.
Luan Pham came in gradually – and was baptized Saturday. Father Bui said Father Phuong Van Nguyen, the priest who formerly served the local Vietnamese Catholic community, had baptized Mr. Pham’s sister and parents, who were not-very-involved adherants of ancestor worship. When the young man moved here from Vietnam a couple years ago, his parents invited him to church. His father told him how God had helped them and explained the Catholic faith, but did not push him.
“He usually stood at the back of the church” at first, Father Bui said. “Maybe through my words, God touched his heart.” He said a homily he preached made sense to the young man, who asked to attend classes and voluntarily mows the church lawn.
Hai T. Nguyen, who is from a non-practicing Buddhist family, was brought to the Church by his employers, faithful Catholics who treat him nicely, Father Bui said.
The pastor said he told the eight members of this initiation class, one of whom wasn’t baptized yet, that nobody was pushing them.
“If you become Catholic for somebody else, your faith will not be strong,” he said. “You make your own decision.”
For those still seeking, another class is starting.
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