Vietnam: A Franciscan Friar Tackles the Improbable – Part I

Howard Duncan

Imagine finding yourself in a hostile land. It has a history of being violently hostile to everything Christian –  person and property. What do you do if you are a Franciscian friar?

If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!  (NRSVCE, 1 Corinthians 9:16)

The Place

In the early to middle 1960s, when the United States began to escalate it’s military aid to southeast Asia out of fear that the communist ideology adopted in the U.S.S.R. and China would spread throughout the rest of Asia, the countries of North and South Vietnam were unknown to the American public.  I remember newspapers printing maps and explaining to their readers how to pronounce the unfamiliar names of cities, places and people of Vietnam. These names were Hanoi, Saigon, Dien Bien Phu, Ho Chi Minh, Vietcong, and Haiphong that in later years would become all too familiar.

Beginning with control of the Red River Delta and then the defeat of the French in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu by the Northern Viet Minh, followed by France’s abandonment of Vietnam as a colony, the National Liberation Front, or Viet Cong, in the South went on to successfully defeat America as it won major battles working it’s way to the South Vietnamese capitol of Saigon. The support for the war in America had then diminished to the total withdrawal of troops and abandonment of our embassy in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City today).

Vietnam Was Not Unknown to the Catholic Church

From early writing, it is certain that at least a few years before 1533 Catholic missionaries existed in the area. The first Vietnamese priest was ordained in 1668 from a seminary established there by Catholic missionaries. The Franciscan Order of Friars Minor was a part of bringing the Gospel to Vietnam from the earliest days. For over four centuries the Vietnamese Catholic Church has suffered an estimated 130,000 martyrs, 117 of these were beatified by popes starting with Pope Leo XIII and ending with Pope John Paul II.

The tortures these individuals underwent are considered by the Vatican to be among the worst in the history of Christian martyrdom. The torturers hacked off limbs joint by joint, tore flesh with red hot tongs, and used drugs to enslave the minds of the victims. Christians at the time were branded on the face with the hieroglyphics , for heterodox doctrine, while their families and villages were destroyed. (Vietnamese Martyrs)

Since 1975, the two Vietnams are united into one country that has this year moved up to number 18 from 21 on the Open Doors World Watch List of countries that most persecute Christians. Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar on this world map are a grouping of countries huddled together like the persecuting Arab countries of the Middle East, and with the same intensity of persecution ranking – extreme.

It is in this background that life began in 1961 for Brother Anthony Pham Dinh Tuyen OFM Conv, not as a Franciscan Brother, but as a Vietnamese baby.

His Story

Recently, this story was told to me by Fr. Francisco Nahoe OFM Conv, who is just beginning his new task as Mission Promoter for the Franciscan Mission in Vietnam.

During the early 1990s while studying in Rome at the Franciscan International Collegium, Fr. Francisco became aware of an increasing number of Vietnamese entering Franciscan Provinces as friar candidates. He studied with one from the Australian Provence and another entered his own Provence in Orange County California. These men were entering in Poland, Switzerland, and particularly Australia and California. When Fr. Francisco returned to Southern California, he became closely associated with one of these men by being the man’s Superior in the community in which they both lived.

Pham Dinh Tuyen was this Vietnamese in Orange County California who wanted to be a Franciscan priest. He was born in Saigon in 1961 after his family had fled their village to the south from the north of Vietnam after the Communists defeated the French in 1954 at the battle of Dien Bien Phu.  French Indochina was then divided by the Geneva Accords as a way to institute a cease fire in the conflict. When the Vietnamese communists took over the governing of North Vietnam, active suppression of Christianity became a governmental pursuit. The village in which they had lived was small, but had a Catholic church. When the Communists took over, they burned the church to the ground, and as we are familiar in the case of the Russian revolution, years of Christian oppression followed – a vicious deadly oppression.

Years of war followed. When America pulled out in 1975, and Saigon fell, Br. Anthony’s family fled the country like so many others, sailing precarious boats in the South China Sea. Unfortunately, during this attempted escape, the two oldest brothers were on-the-spot conscripted into the North Vietnamese Army. After three days afloat, the family were picked up by an American Cruiser and taken to Subic Bay in the Philippines. From there, they continued on to a refuge relocation center in Guam, sponsored by a Presbyterian church in Spokane, Washington, then after a while relocated to Orange County, California, where the largest settlement of Vietnamese in the U.S. were located.

Although religious liberty has improved today in some regards in Vietnam:

Despite several confirmed reports of police harassment and beatings of unregistered believers belonging to unrecognized religions, Protestants across the north reported improvement in most officials’ attitude towards their religion, and in general Protestants were allowed to gather for worship without significant harassment. Restrictions on the hierarchies and clergy of religious groups also remained in place, and the Government maintained a prominent role supervising recognized religions. Religious leaders encountered greatest restrictions when they engaged in activities that the Government perceived as political activism or a challenge to its rule.

(U.S. Dept of State, International Religious Freedom Report 2006)

Brother and his Novitiate

In the early 1990s, Br. Anthony during his novitiate, discovered that he had bone cancer and was forced to leave and concentrate on treatment. This was a very serious cancer requiring his leg to be amputated and then six cycles of chemotherapy and radiation. During the sixth cycle he began to experience phantom pain from the amputated leg and tinnitus, or ringing to the ears.

After months of rehabilitation learning to walk, kneel, and genuflect, he returned to the novitiate and eventually professed his vows and entered the order as a Franciscan Religious, Brother Anthony Pham Dinh Tuyen OFM Conv. But, his desire to become a priest could not be realized. His short term memory was found to be affected and the tinnitus and phantom pain interfered with studies. He was once again forced to drop out of a program. He settled into Franciscan life as a Brother promoting Franciscan spirituality and vocations among the Vietnamese in Southern California.

Brother and his Health

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will. The second death can do no harm to them.

(from Canticle of the Sun, a song written by St. Francis of Assisi)

Even as his work among the Vietnamese proved to be very successful, by 1999 “sister cancer”, as he referred to it, reappeared in his lungs. More surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments followed until, three years after his profession of solemn vows, he was told that the cancer had begun to spread throughout his body and there was little to be done to retard its progress.

As Fr. Francisco relates, “Brother Anthony declined further treatment and turned to the Minister Provincial and asked, “Can I go back to Vietnam?””

To be continued . . .

Part II will finish this amazing story of determination and inspiration.

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6 thoughts on “Vietnam: A Franciscan Friar Tackles the Improbable – Part I”

  1. Pingback: We Like Messages, Don't We? - Catholic Stand : Catholic Stand

  2. Pingback: Leprosy: Vietnam and The Franciscan Order - Catholic Stand : Catholic Stand

  3. The U.S. Dept of State, International Religious Freedom Report 2006 was a fascinating read and the diversity of sects, religions and cults prevalent in Vietnam bear witness to the struggle to feed ‘sheep’ in many different ways. A Sunni Muslim in black pajamas is hard to get my mind around. In any case, Brother Anthony pray for us.

  4. Pingback: Vietnam: A Franciscan Friar Tackles the Improbable - Part II - Catholic Stand : Catholic Stand

  5. Pingback: Best Images of Pope Francis' Trip to Korea -

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