With great sadness, we share news of the death of Rev Tao Xuan Pham, Assistant Priest to the parishioners of Greensborough, Greensborough North and Diamond Creek.

Fr Tao passed away following a COVID-19 infection that complicated his already fragile health. Beginning in Vietnam and ending in Melbourne, Fr Tao’s story is one that has inspired many, bringing hope that no matter how deep our suffering, God is always faithful.

From a young age, Fr Tao was driven by a deep desire to be a priest. Many challenges presented themselves as he pursued this dream, including health conditions that proved almost fatal. Despite being told he would never walk again, undergoing 18 operations and spending 74 days in a coma, Fr Tao’s faith in God’s call never wavered and he experienced a miraculous healing through his reception of the Blood of Christ. He was ordained a priest in 2016 by then Archbishop Denis Hart.

Fr Michael McEntee, a good friend of Fr Tao, delivered the homily at his funeral, which has been reproduced here with permission. It shares some of the story of Fr Tao’s life, his suffering and his remarkable faith, which has strengthened the faith of so many others.

The homilist’s task is to express the faith in Christ that we all share so that we may entrust Fr Tao to his risen Lord. To begin, let’s hear a word from Tao himself that I heard in the promotional clip from his interview with Shalom Media.

If He asks you to leave everything to Him and entrust it all into His hands, then do it and trust Him. God will do things infinitely better than you.

As a result of being infected last spring with COVID-19, Tao’s health was severely damaged.

The global shock that was the COVID-19 pandemic played a revelatory role about our understanding of ourselves.

Everyone was aware that life and death are inextricably connected. These are not two separate spheres of our existence, two thresholds to be crossed one after the other. Life and death are two inseparable dimensions of each day of our existence. Death is our daily companion on life’s journey.

For Christians, the resurrection throws light on the meaning of this connection. If it’s true that there is no resurrection apart from dying, it is equally true that death doesn’t have the last word. [1]
‘Whoever affirms the resurrection, opts for the victory of life over death.’ [2]

By the gracious guidance of God, Tao lived this Christian conviction each day.

Indeed, as we heard from Wisdom, ‘The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God … In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died … and if in human eyes they were being punished, their hope was rich with immortality’ (Wisdom 3:1,3).

All of us, myself included, experienced the agony that our friend underwent in the final week of his life as, in some way, our own. We heard St Paul raise the victory cry on our behalf and on behalf of all creation:

I think that what we suffer in this life can never be compared to the glory, as yet unrevealed, which is waiting for us. … The whole … creation still retains the hope of being freed, like us, from its slavery to decadence, to enjoy the same freedom and glory as the children of God’ (Romans 8:20).

Later, I will read some of Tao’s own reflections about his personal share in this reality of a creation that is groaning for its freedom.

We proclaimed the text of the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes enable us to come to know Jesus and his attitudes to his living the same existence as ours. His self-portrait, so to speak. Thanks be to God, they are equally a portrait of the faithful disciple who was Tao.

Sct TS25 E
Fr Tao Xuan Pham on the day of his ordination to the priesthood. Casamento Photography.

Tao Xuan Pham was born on 17 June 1970, or, if you give credit to his first driving licence, on 10 May 1969, son of Loan Pham and Nghia Tran, the seventh of eight children, predeceased by his brother Sang.

He entered minor seminary in 1984; from 1992 to 1997 he studied literature in Saigon for the degree of Bachelor of Arts, knowledge he shared when teaching literature to seminarians in Vinh for the next year and a half. His own study of philosophy and theology was completed in 2004.

In 2005, the rector of Corpus Christi College, Fr Michael McKenna, now Bishop of Bathurst—who will preside the Mass of Christian Burial next week with Tao’s grieving family—met Tao in Saigon. This meeting led finally to his entering Corpus Christi in February in 2007 as a student for the Diocese of Sale. Two weeks before he should have received ordination as a deacon, he injured his hand, resulting in his contracting tetanus. Thus began 765 days of hospitalisation, 688 of these continuous, punctuated throughout by serious crises.

It was of critical importance that the transfer of his sponsorship from the Diocese of Sale to the Archdiocese of Melbourne could happen. Emeritus Archbishop Denis Hart phoned me to ask me to convey his condolences and his high esteem for Tao. ‘I could see that he was of such strong faith that I felt it only right to provide a pathway to priestly ordination’ were his words, borne out by the photograph that graces the cover of the liturgical program for this Mass. Archbishop Hart’s Vicar General, Mons Greg Bennett, was committed deeply to achieving this for Tao, as was his social worker at St Vincent’s Hospital.

After discharge from full-time hospital care, Tao spent a year and a half with the fathers and brothers of the Redemptorist order, before coming to reside with all of us at St Thomas in spring 2014. He was deeply grateful for every member of the parish office and pastoral team who welcomed him in the house, and to the community at large, expressed by his wish that his funeral rites be celebrated here.

As seminarian, deacon and priest, he served the communities of St Thomas the Apostle, Sacred Heart and, in a particularly generous way, St Peter for eight and a half years, as well as, for the past six years, taking his turn in celebrating the sacraments with parishioners of St Mary’s parish.

Worshippers at St Peter’s are particularly grateful that he volunteered to offer an additional Mass each month at 7.15pm on Saturday when he could have relaxed after earlier commitments. His selflessness was recognised when it became necessary for him to be driven to and from Diamond Creek or Hurstbridge. For once, Pat Guatta could draw up a roster from an oversubscribed list of volunteers.

The parishes were not enough to exhaust his zeal. A large circle of Vietnamese families and groups would visit the presbytery, as would dear friends from Gippsland. He would go off to hear confessions late into the night at the shrine of Our Lady in Keysborough, and I saw that he wrote a daily spiritual reflection on Facebook throughout the lockdowns.

The remainder of this homily consists of Fr Tao himself speaking with us through extracts from eleven autobiographical letters that he agreed to write for St Thomas the Apostle Parish magazine. In the letters, he reveals himself a faithful disciple who lives the Beatitudes in his own flesh and spirit and brings things new and old out of the treasure house.

My first memory of Tao, at the monastery of the Redemptorist community in Kew, is of his back, his polo shirt soaked in sweat as he pushed himself over and back across the oval, determined to walk unaided.

That was his gym, where he was in training to stand one day as a priest at the table of the Eucharist.

My second memory, after he came to live with us at St Thomas the Apostle, is again of his back as he would go each afternoon to pray for an hour in the beautiful chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. This was his spiritual gym.

In the second and third letters, he recounts two significant ‘eucharistic’ moments. He speaks of having been tormented by suicidal ideation. This coincided with a visit by his bishop. The bishop handed him a booklet by the late Cardinal from Vietnam Francis Xavier Van Thuan, who suffered a long imprisonment. Frustrated in his virtuous ambition to be about God’s work in his diocese, the young bishop heard a voice asking, ‘Have you chosen God alone, or his work?’

Tao writes:

If I will become a priest or not, is unimportant, the important thing is to choose God & carry out God’s will.

So whether I am disabled or able to walk again belongs to the will of God. Thanks to these words which Bishop Thuận wrote in his little book, they have helped me to be peaceful & the voice has not attacked me, tempted me & tormented me anymore.

After telling you this story, I would love to send to all of you two messages: firstly, trust in God’s confidence [‘providence’ would have been intended] & secondly, let’s try to be happy to accept everything which God asks us to do, even some difficulties in our lives.’

In the fourth letter, he recounts his hunger to receive Christ’s Body. ‘I was ready to die, however, I lacked something important and that was the spiritual food to strengthen me for the journey from this world to life after death. So, one morning, I said to the doctor: “Could you do me a favour? I want to see a Catholic priest.”’

That evening, Fr Peter Carrucan was by his bedside.

I asked him to anoint me and give me Holy Communion. He said: “I can anoint you now, but I can’t give you Holy Communion because you are vomiting.”

I said to him: “Dear Father, I have taken many medications but my illness is still there. Now I want to try a different medication I know I am in danger of death now. I need spiritual food to strengthen me for the journey from this world to life after death.”

He said: “You can receive Holy Communion in spiritual form, because you are vomiting.” I answered: “I can’t eat solid food, I can’t receive the body of Jesus now. However, I can receive the blood of Jesus.”

After receiving Holy Communion, I prayed: “Lord Jesus, please heal my disease and stop me vomiting.” I said to Father Peter: “Thank you very much for bringing Jesus to me. See you in heaven.” And I slept deeply.

Surprisingly … the vomiting stopped from that moment for ever. And another strange thing, the next day, the doctor took my blood test and the virus has gone … From that morning on, I was very happy. I was optimistic. I was very peaceful because Jesus’ real presence was in me.

In the eighth letter, he recounts visits from both his bishop and a priest from the seminary, each of whom advised him to give up the idea of his vocation.

The conversations with my bishop and the priest made me nearly crazy. I was really in the dark night of my soul.

That evening, when I was sitting in a wheelchair near the window looking outside, the nurse came and said, “You have a phone call from overseas.” It was from a close friend of mine in Vietnam. He is a blind priest.

This seminarian’s eyes were infected while on pastoral experience in Russia. He continued his studies in France. At one point he became very discouraged.

Tao recounts:

After a seminary function at night, he was alone in the street when he heard footsteps. He asked, “Can you help me to cross the road to the railway station?” That man said, “Yes”. He came closer and my friend asked permission to hold his arm. That man said, “Sorry, if you want to hold my arm, please come to the other side because I lost my right arm.” … My friend … reconsidered his decision … finished his studies in the seminary in France and was ordained 6 months before that evening when he rang me at St Vincent’s hospital.

What he shared with me in the dark night of my soul was what God wanted me to meditate on and to continue dreaming of becoming a Catholic priest for Australian people.

Hope and trust in God’s providence and never give up. God works through others and the grace of God is always enough for us.

One final story will fortify our own faith.

After being ordained in September 2016, Tao went at Christmas to celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving in his home village and parish. The first night in Vietnam was in Saigon in the diocese’s transit accommodation. Arriving there, he read a banner over the main entrance: ‘Welcome Father Lazarus Anthony Tao Pham back from death.’

In the village, many people came to see me and asked about my sickness and how I had recovered. They still did not congratulate me as a newly ordained priest.

Therefore, I must change my program (for the Mass) a little bit. I chose … from Psalm 30: “O Lord, you have brought my soul up from the grave; You have kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit. Sing praise to the Lord.”

My Thanksgiving Mass [had] 2 Bishops and 40 priests concelebrating with me and over 3500 people attending. Most of them came to see me because I was resurrected from the dead.

Dear Sisters and Brothers, my resurrection is the same as Lazarus’ resurrection. … I was resurrected and I am suffering a lot of difficulties and hardship now. I know I will die one day.

Jesus Christ … lives forever and will never die again. His resurrection is our hope. We are his disciples, why are we not happy? Our hope is eternal life. Trust in Jesus and sing praise to the Lord.

May the noble soul of Fr Tao Xuan Pham rest in peace. Amen.

Fr Tao shared his inspiring story with Shalom Media. The interview can be viewed here.

[1] Chiara Giaccardi and Mauro Magattti, La Chiesa nella supersocieta. Comprendere il cambio d’epoca, in Annunciare il vangelo nel cambio d’epoca e dopo la pandemia: il servizio dei vescovi. Corso annuale di formazione per I nuovi Vescovi 1–8; 12–19 settembre 2022, Vatican City State, Libreria editrice vaticana, 2022, p. 72.
[2] Dario Vivian, YouTube video FEDE, part 2, in the series Un altro mondo fuori del mondo? Centro Fede e Cultura ‘Alberto Hurtado’, Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, 15 November 2022, accessed 16 January 2023.