Seminarian reflects on missionary life in Central America

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“If we are worth anything, it is not because we have more money or more talent, or more human qualities. Insofar as we are worth anything, it is because we are grafted on to Christ’s life, His cross and resurrection. That is a person’s measure.”

— Blessed Archbishop Óscar Romero

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Vinhson Nguyen is a seminarian for the Diocese of Phoenix in his second year of theological studies. He spent Christmas break serving in Central America. (courtesy photo)
Vinhson Nguyen is a seminarian for the Diocese of Phoenix in his second year of theological studies. He spent Christmas break serving in poor Central American villages. (courtesy photo)

As seminarians studying at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, we spend our first three Christmases away from home. It is a difficult reality to accept, however, it affords us some wonderful opportunities to go on missions and pilgrimages. This year, I had the amazing opportunity to take part in a mission trip in Central America.

Vinhson Nguyen, left, and fellow seminarians spent Christmas break serving in Central America. (Courtesy photo)
Vinhson Nguyen, left, and fellow seminarians spent Christmas break serving in Central America. (Courtesy photo)

We first settled into the mountain village of Guajiquiro, Honduras after a few hours in the back of a pickup truck, half of the time climbing up a hill on a bumpy dirt road. The instructions we received before heading out to the smaller villages consisted of being ready to offer ourselves in all of our weakness and to be flexible. Flexibility soon became the theme of the rest of our trip; however, we knew we were offering all of ourselves by our exhaustion at the end of each day.

The village of Guajiquiro is connected by dirt road with dozens of smaller aldeas, or villages, each under the care of the pastor of Guajiquiro itself. On our first day of work, we were up by five and out the door by six on our way to the first aldea. We split into three groups, one to work with the children, one to work with the young adults, and the third to work with the adults.

This particular morning I was with the children and what a joy it was. As the entire adult population of the village headed to confession, we sang, danced, and played games. We shared stories from the Bible and led them in a Eucharistic procession. Our time with them ended as the entire community came together to celebrate Mass. In the afternoon, we split up into three groups and each headed to different aldeas.

In each one of these villages, we put on roughly the same program except for certain special celebrations. By the end of the mission trip we celebrated each of the sacraments save for an ordination!

These children had some help from Vinhson Nguyen, a Phoenix seminarian, in preparing for their first reconciliation and communion.  (courtesy photo)
These children had some help from Vinhson Nguyen, a Phoenix seminarian (back row, right), in preparing for their first reconciliation and communion. (courtesy photo)

The most powerful moment I encountered in Honduras occurred in a small village that was not only getting ready for a group of youngsters to receive first Communion and reconciliation, but the wedding of a young couple as well. To prepare for these beautiful sacraments, preceding the Mass, we held a holy hour of prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament. As part of the holy hour, our deacon, with a veil draped over his shoulders, held the Blessed Sacrament in front of the altar, allowing folks to step forward and pray in front of the True Presence of Jesus Christ.

My simple work was to stand next to the deacon and the Blessed Sacrament and help people up off their knees as they finished praying. The raw love and faith in Christ was unlike anything I have ever witnessed in my life. The faithful began crawling on their knees towards the Eucharist, as tears welled up in their eyes and they cried out their prayers to the Lord. I saw mothers carrying their young children, kneeling in front of the Lord, placing the deacon’s veil on their child’s head offering themselves and their children to the Lord.

The faith of the people in this village and the offering of their powerful prayers hit me to my core. It reminded me of the poor widow who gives two small coins out of her need, her livelihood, rather than her surplus.

Vinhson Nguyen, a seminarian for the Diocese of Phoenix, reads from the pulpit (courtesy photo)
Vinhson Nguyen, a seminarian for the Diocese of Phoenix, reads from the pulpit in the home diocese of Blessed Óscoar Romero. (courtesy photo)

The last part of our trip we traveled to San Miguel in El Salvador. In this urban city, the home diocese of Blessed Óscar Romero, we stayed at the orphanage of San Antonio. A group of Franciscan Sisters runs this particular orphanage that cares for young children through high school age. In addition to this, they sponsor some of the same orphans who work hard enough to enter university. Each one has faced a life full of suffering, now transformed into a life filled with love from the sisters and one another.

One 8-year-old boy witnessed the murder of his father and grew up on the streets. The sisters welcomed him into the orphanage to work with him and help him adjust to life with a roof over his head and a place to lay his head.

When I first arrived at the orphanage, I asked myself what we could do for someone who has suffered so greatly. The answer was that we were to be present to them. Although the sisters do amazing work, the fact of the matter is that the children have little contact with men in their lives. The small amount of time that we spent playing soccer with them, eating Pizza Hut, and celebrating Mass, was impactful and will remain with them for a long time. In a world that is so dark, it helps to be a light in the life of others and to allow them to be a light in your own.

Vinhson Nguyen, second from right, poses with fellow seminarians and children he served in Central America. (courtesy photo)
Vinhson Nguyen, second from right, poses with fellow seminarians and children he served in Central America. (courtesy photo)

This mission trip was different from any other I have done. In the past, I would go to places to bring food, clothes, or money. Instead of bringing material things to these people that lack even electricity, we brought Christ to them.

These people of God did not expect us to bring money or clothes but rather they waited patiently, sometimes hours, for the holy Mass and for confession, something that they only get a few times a year. The reality of this caused me to reflect on what it is that we truly need, how we need to live, to keep hold of our dignity, to be holy.

I didn’t return to the seminary more thankful for all of the “stuff” that I have, but rather I came back pondering whether I truly need this or that thing. These communities taught me to ask, “How can I best love and serve the Lord?” To desire a true relationship with Christ for others and for ourselves is how we define love. However, it must not remain a desire; rather, we must put love into action. I ask myself each day, how am I going to bring Christ to my brother seminarians and those that I meet, how will I bring Christ to the people of Phoenix one day, how is my own relationship with Christ? In order to know ourselves and to know others, we need to know Christ.

Vinhson Nguyen joins Central American Catholics for Mass during a mission trip. (courtesy photo)
Vinhson Nguyen joins Central American Catholics for Mass during a mission trip. (courtesy photo)

We spent our last day in Central America in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. We visited the place where Blessed Óscar Romero gave his life for his people and his Church. In the midst of a country mired in violence and hatred, Romero knew that in the end, love wins out.

He taught that we find our worth not in earthly things such as money or talents, but rather we find our dignity in the person of Jesus Christ and our ability to live more like Him, in his life, death, and resurrection.

Meeting a people of God that have suffered so greatly and are still willing to walk hours for Mass and confession has greatly encouraged my vocation to the priesthood. We cannot wait around for others to bring Christ to us; we must act first and bring Christ to others. As I progress towards the priesthood, along with my brother seminarians in the Diocese of Phoenix, we not only ask for your prayers but we also ask that you encourage our vocations by living out your own.

— Special to The Catholic Sun by Diocese of Phoenix seminarian Vinhson Nguyen

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