Fr Vinh Do was 24 years old when he commenced his studies and formation for the priesthood. His first day at Corpus Christi College in Carlton, in Melbourne’s inner north, was Sunday 14 February, a date he will never forget. ‘That was the best day of my life,’ he says. ‘Firstly, because I’d found my true calling and I responded with a “yes” to God. And secondly because I knew this was the vocation that God wanted for me, for my fulfilment, and it does fulfil me and give me happiness.’
Seven years on, Fr Vinh—now 30 years old—was one of three priests ordained at St Patrick’s Cathedral on Saturday 19 November, along with three others who were ordained as transitional deacons. He has been appointed to the parish of St Anne and St Bede in Balwyn North and East Kew.
Baptised Francis de Sales Vinh Hoang Do, but now known as ‘Fr Vinh Do’, he credits the Holy Eucharist as fuelling his desire to become a priest. He was 10 years old when he received First Holy Communion. That was on a Sunday, and the following day, and each morning thereafter, he rose at 4am to attend Mass at 4.30am with his mother in their local parish of Phuong Lam, near Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. ‘That Monday I received Holy Communion for the second time, and from there I found my desire to enter the priesthood,’ he says.
His parents and grandmother, who are devout Catholics, supported the young Vinh’s decision. And though his father ‘didn’t say much or show a lot of emotion’, he supported Vinh’s decision by supplying him with an array of books on the lives of the saints and on other topics related to the Christian faith. The first book he received from his father was The Book of Genesis for Children, which Fr Vinh immersed himself in. ‘That really drew me, more and more, into the mystery of God,’ he recalls.
I kept wondering and reflecting on how great God is from that book and how much I was blessed to be in this world. And that kept my fire within me burning.’
Throughout his teens, the desire to become a priest grew ‘every day and every year’, and as events and his life unfolded, the desire only strengthened. At one point it was suggested that he might enter a local religious order in Vietnam, but his parents decided to allow the young Vinh to complete his schooling and to have a normal childhood. In Year 10, he was invited to stay with his grandfather in Melbourne to attend high school. While he was grateful for the opportunity to travel abroad and ‘receive a better education’, he intended to return home when his studies were complete so he could become a priest and ‘help the people in Vietnam’. However, God had other plans.
Having finished a science degree at Swinburne University, Fr Vinh knew that he still wanted to become a priest, but now he needed to discern whether he’d return to Vietnam or stay in Australia. He was ‘on the fence’. He kept ‘asking God for more signs’, but eventually, with the help of his spiritual director at St Joseph’s Parish in Springvale, he discerned a call to serve as a priest in Australia.
In the seminary, Fr Vinh studied philosophy and theology and was also placed each year in a different pastoral setting. He is grateful that the study and formation he undertook in his seminary years was ‘for the whole person’ and not just academic. ‘We have the human formation, to learn how to become true human beings. Then we have the academic—we need to know our tradition, our theology, about our faith, and about the knowledge of God. There’s the spiritual formation—we need to talk to God, and know how to connect with God, understand God’s will and learn how to discern where God’s leading us and our world. And finally, we have the pastoral formation, where we went out to primary schools, high schools, nursing homes, hospitals and prisons. We really do have a great extent of pastoral work.’
Ordained a diocesan priest for the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, a role he’s looking forward to, Fr Vinh has a particular desire to serve in prison chaplaincy. The motto chosen for his priestly ordination comes from Mark 6:34: He has compassion for them. ‘I think that is at the heart for me; that is the thing that keeps me going strong in my ministry. Because I have actually felt the love of Jesus and God, I also want to bring that love to others,’ he says.
‘I understand that many people in our parishes and churches also need to experience that love, but somehow I am drawn to those in prison. I think those in prison due to their choices or situation in life really need to experience love so that they can start their life anew, and I think they really desire to start a new life, but someone needs to be there to help them in society, and I’d like to be the one who can help them with that.’ Having said that, Fr Vinh will be led by Archbishop Peter A Comensoli.
At my ordination, my hands were held between the Archbishop's hands, and I promised him obedience. So wherever he wants me to be, I will be. My wish is one thing, but it is that the Archbishop wishes me to do that—that’s the important thing.’
Since his ordination in November, Fr Vinh has been based in Carlton, serving as a full-time hospital chaplain in the Parkville hospital precinct, including at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, the Royal Women’s and Children’s hospitals, and the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. ‘It is a beautiful ministry because it brings such peace for the patient to have a priest come visit,’ he says. ‘Even though they are in pain and suffering, they are delighted and light up. It really does bring them comfort, and also that I give them Holy Communion to strengthen them spiritually.’ There have also been times when he’s needed to prepare and comfort patients who are facing death, offering whatever solace he can to the person and to their family.
Fr Vinh has been appointed to the parishes of St Anne and St Bede in Balwyn North and East Kew. He is looking forward to being a ‘witness of faith’ among the people and hopes to make the love of God ‘real’ in the lives of those he encounters. ‘I will continue to preach the word of God; I will continue to celebrate the sacraments, helping people to recognise the true meaning of the sacraments. But for me, as a minister in the parish, I hope to spend more time going out to people, visiting them in their homes, getting to know them, especially in their own situations. I should become like an ear for them where they can really talk and share their stories and concerns. I want to help them to find where God is in their life, and I think from that, everything else will come.’
Fr Vinh explained that his experience back home in Vietnam was one where people’s lives and sense of community were very ‘parish-based’. So he hopes to encourage and create that sense of parish and community among those he serves here, especially younger people. ‘I want to help young people really understand the value of community and to help people to get to know one another, and to know God.’
Prayer is also central. Throughout his life, Fr Vinh has always set time aside for prayer—throughout the day, and as events unfold in the moment. It is a practice that sustains him in his ministry, but also a key to helping others discern their calling from God.
Reflecting on the meaning of vocation, Fr Vinh says, ‘It boils down to God’s calling to a particular state of life that will bring fulfilment and happiness. If we follow God’s call, then we should be happy, and then we should have the fulfilment from what flows after that.’ He recommends taking time to reflect on our life experiences and searching deep within our hearts to discover ‘what we most desire from God’.
‘I think that’s what I have found. I have always searched for what God wants me to be, what God wants me to become. And so, starting with this spark of desire when I was 10 years old, I stayed with that, and I continued to think about it, to pray about it and then, with the eyes of faith, I can see the way that God’s hand has been leading me up until now. Every single point, every single event.
‘And I think it's the same thing with the other vocations too—the vocation to married life, to the consecrated life as religious brothers and sisters, or the single life. It starts with our desire and our discernment about that desire.’ Importantly, he says the desire and questions must come from deep within, and not from external factors or anybody else.
In his own life, Fr Vinh’s deep desire to be a priest has given him strength, meaning and purpose in life. ‘From that desire, I have the strength to overcome everything and anything,’ he says. ‘No obstacles or difficulties can hold me down.’ It is a life, and a call that Fr Vinh is grateful for: ‘I am grateful that God has given me the strength to say “yes” to this vocation. I know that I am doing God’s will, and that is the most blessed thing to do.’