For Melbourne couple Hang and Vu Nguyen, attending World Youth Day in Lisbon was a no-brainer. Vu, an IT professional, saw the advertisement for the Emerging Leaders program aimed at Catholic professionals and immediately suggested the idea to his wife Hang, a teacher. ‘Just go for it!’ he said. Not wanting to miss out on the experience, Vu also applied through his local parish and together they experienced ‘the trip of a lifetime’, including time in Rome and Lisbon, and an intimate hour of conversation with Pope Francis himself.
Vu Nguyen grew up in the inner northern suburb of Flemington, one of three sons to Vietnamese refugees. ‘My faith revolves around family,’ he says. His family said prayer together and went to church every Sunday. ‘Back then it was just the five of us—my parents and my two brothers. It was quite small, so it felt like the Church and at least the parish was our bigger family, our extended family.’
He eventually became involved with the local chapter of the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement, which is focused on forming young people in the Scriptures and Catholic teaching to become ‘well-rounded individuals and excellent Christians’ who spread the Gospel and help others. Originally established in Europe during the First World War, the movement eventually made its way to Vietnam in the early 1920s. The first Australian chapter was formed in 1981 in Flemington, Melbourne. There are now six chapters in Melbourne and almost 20 chapters across the country, catering for ‘over 10,000 children for 40 weeks of the year,’ Vu explains, making it one of the biggest Catholic youth movements in the country.
It was through this movement that Vu met Hang. The pair have been married for six years and both play an active role in the movement as youth leaders. ‘As a young adult, my faith was there, but I think I didn’t take it seriously until I met Hang and saw how faith-filled she was, and I think it just gave me a different lens.’
It’s a sentiment shared by Hang who says she encounters Christ through Vu. ‘He doesn’t see it in himself, but I encounter Christ through him.’
Family has also played a large part in Hang’s faith journey. She remembers tagging along with her grandmother to daily Mass as a child. ‘She’d take me to church every single day and I knew the prayers, in Vietnamese. She kind of taught me—she would tell me about the Mass as it was going on,’ she says with a smile.
In contrast to Vu’s experience, Hang’s extended family is quite large, with most of her father’s side having migrated to Australia over the years. ‘I’m one of 35 first cousins, so our family is huge. And we gather a lot ... Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day—all those things. And often at those gatherings we pray together.’
Hang joined the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement as a teen. ‘I was 14, 15 [years old] … that interesting age when you are finding out your faith, and very similar to Vu, my faith was nurtured through the community.’ It was during one of the national conferences that she felt the initial calling to become a teacher. ‘I was entering Year 12 and all my friends said, “I’m doing this, I’m studying this,” and I was like, “Oh my gosh, that is not me. I don’t know what’s happening,’ she recalls. ‘I heard a testimony of a particular leader, which helped me understand what God was calling me to do. That’s where I found my vocation to become a teacher … God spoke to me in a very special way.’
Hang’s faith continued to be nurtured through the movement and eventually she met Vu and other friends who have helped to build up her relationship with God over the years.
This constant accompaniment and friendship in faith are strengths of the growing Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement, Vu explains. ‘We’ve obviously had some ups and downs in terms of each chapter, but I think it’s a way for us as a Vietnamese community to grow the faith of our young children,’ he says. ‘They [the kids] come and join us when they’re in prep and it’s really a lifelong thing. We’ve had people who were in their 80s or 90s still participating in whatever way they can.’
The couple recently helped to lead a youth camp called ‘Camp Exodus’, where hundreds of kids and youth aged 10–18 came together in an experience that Hang says ‘takes them out of their comfort zone’ by sleeping in tents and spending time away from screens. ‘At first, they’re like, “Oh my gosh”, but after a while they’re like, “We love it!”’
The movement’s national conference takes place every three years, with the next one set to take place in Perth in January 2024. ‘We’ve got about 17 leaders going from Flemington,’ says Vu, ‘and about 500 leaders from all around the country.’
Given her experience at gatherings like this and their recent attendance at World Youth Day in Lisbon, Hang disagrees with the notion that religion is dying in Australia. ‘It’s really inspiring because sometimes the media keeps telling us that the Catholic faith is dying. Well, it’s not! When you surround yourself with this many people in Australia and then when you go to World Youth Day, you’re like, “Whoa! Hello?!”,’ she says.
Hang’s passion for sharing the faith fits perfectly with her role as Catholic Identity Mission Leader at Bethany Catholic Primary School, where she’s been a teacher for the last 10 years. She recently completed her master’s in teaching and is passionate about sharing her love of Scripture with both her students and fellow staff. ‘I thought I understood Scripture until I did my studies,’ she says, ‘but studying the Bible more intentionally opened up ‘a whole different way, and I think that’s what I’ve brought to the kids at school and particularly the staff, but also to our youth group.’
She particularly enjoys planning the sacraments and Masses at her school with other staff. ‘Not everyone is Catholic,’ she says, ‘but to share their excitement, their enthusiasm, their questioning at planning sessions … that’s when I feel that I’m driven to do more and to give more because it’s so fruitful what comes from it.’
For Vu and Hang, it was a blessing to be able to participate in the World Youth Day Emerging Leaders program together, especially as they were both able to spend time with Pope Francis during a private audience with Melbourne pilgrims before World Youth Day week.
‘It was great because I think it nurtured our faith together,’ reflects Vu. ‘Being able to share [the experience] with someone, and the fact that it is your life partner … that’s a blessing. We went with 80 other people [on the Emerging Leaders program] and we’ve made friends from that as well, but I think to come home and to be able to talk about it—“we did this, we did that”—that’s a good feeling,’ he says.
The couple would debrief each night and reflect on the messages they had heard. ‘A reoccurring theme was just reiterating how present God is and his love for us in our journey,’ Hang says. ‘It seems very obvious, but when everyone’s encountering it at a different stage in their faith, they hear it with their heart in different ways.’
‘The first thing that the Pope said was that Christ never tires walking with you. And when he said that I was bawling my eyes out,’ Hang shares. ‘On a personal level, as teachers, sometimes we get so weary. At times, there’s many things that we encounter that can sometimes pull our spirits or diminish us, but to know that comfort that Christ is there [for us]. We know it, but to actually hear it from a different voice.’
Another key takeaway for the couple was how comfortable everyone was in expressing their faith while on pilgrimage. ‘It was really encouraging for us to see because that’s not something that’s common or that you see often in Melbourne,’ says Hang. ‘When we go out to eat, we make the sign of the cross and say grace before meals, but that’s not common [here]. But over there, it was just so outward facing. We need to share our faith in an outward way and be proud of it too.’
The couple is aware, however, that the confidence to express one’s faith publicly doesn’t always come easily. Building up a culture and community where faith is accepted and witnessed to is everyone’s responsibility. Hang says that as youth leaders, they continue to try to model their love for Jesus and their faith both as individuals and as a married couple. ‘We learn from one another, and the gifts that each of us has we try and share that with others.’
There is also much that the Vietnamese Catholic community can share with the wider church in Melbourne, says Vu. ‘I think there’s a lot more that we can do,’ he says. While on pilgrimage, he spoke with Archbishop Peter A Comensoli and Fr Nicholas Pearce (Senior Chaplain, Youth, Young Adults and Campus Ministry) about how to harness the strong sense of faith and family within the Vietnamese community and how to help create ‘one common identity’ as an Archdiocese.
‘I think there’s a lot of youth that are very faith-filled,’ he says. ‘And like Hang said, it’s amazing to see youth genuflecting, doing the sign of the cross [at World Youth Day] … but you don’t really see that here in Melbourne. I think we need to tap into the pool of youth that we’ve got here and give them an opportunity and a voice to share their God-given gifts.’
Vu says the experience at World Youth Day was life-changing, and he is particularly grateful that his parents, especially his father, encouraged him in his faith over the years. ‘I think the one thing that the Pope said that still resonates with me is that God is always with you.’ he says. ‘The Lord is always with you—always.’
Sadly, not long after their return from World Youth Day, Vu lost his father. He says the loss naturally made him doubt things but that he kept returning to the Pope’s words. While it has been a challenging time for Vu and his family, he delights in knowing that his father was closely following the couple’s pilgrimage to Rome and Lisbon.
‘My dad followed our World Youth Day trip from everything that [the Archdiocese] shared on social media, and what other people filmed he would just repost on his Facebook,’ Vu says with laughter.
It was special to be able to share the experience online with those who weren’t there, Vu says, and he is especially grateful that his parents followed along.
‘My parents, really, made me who I am.’
Melbourne Catholic17 July 2023
Melbourne Catholic26 July 2023