|May 5, 2014 • VOL. 52, NO. 9 • Oakland, CA|
| Meet our soon-to-be-priests
Seeds planted early
The pastor said that he had seen him at Mass, he was from a good family, he was already following Jesus.
The young man persisted. "Father, I want to be a priest. I want to follow a vocation."
Father was cleaning his motorbike. "If you want me to write you a letter, you have to help me," the pastor told him.
One clean motorbike later, the young Le had the letter in hand.
He was told to take the envelope to a sister, who would take care of him. After two months of recollection, he took the exam to enter the seminary in his diocese.
"I passed," he said. With five others who were awaiting admission to the seminary, he stayed in a house. He began to study English, entered college, and spent four years attending Mass every day followed by a few minutes of study and reflection with the pastor.
"The government is so difficult with us," he said. Only 10 candidates every two years are allowed to enter the Diocese of Nhatrang' s Sea Star Seminary.
The 100 candidates were divided into five groups; he was in the last group. He would be waiting many years for his name to be called.
In 2001, the rector of the seminary told those who were waiting that a missionary order in the Philippines was offering an opportunity.
For eight years he studied and served with the Order of the Priests of the Sacred Heart.
As he approached the time to make his final vows, the call to be a diocesan priest remained strong.
He returned to his own diocese in Vietnam, where the prospect of becoming a diocesan priest was looking grim in light of the government restrictions.
His friend, Father Peter Ngo Duc Dung, who now serves at St. Anthony-Mary Help of Christians Parish in Oakland, brought his story to Father Lawrence D'Anjou, then the vocations director of the Diocese of Oakland.
"Father D'Anjou interviewed me by Skype," he said. Approval from the bishop of Oakland and a list of paperwork followed.
He told his superior in the missionary order that he would pursue the call to life as a diocesan priest.
He arrived in the United States on Aug. 1, 2011, 1 a.m. He was met at the airport by Father Kenneth Nobrega, who had succeeded Father D'Anjou as vocations director, and administrative assistant Cielo Barroso-Branco.
Because he had completed so much of the coursework in the Philippines, he went right into the pastoral year at Our Lady Queen of the World in Bay Point, followed by two years at St. Patrick's Seminary. This year, in addition to coursework, he is serving on weekends at St. Felicitas in San Leandro.
Since his arrival in Oakland, Rev. Mr. Le has not returned home. Family members in Vietnam are applying for visas to attend the ordination.
'Called to serve'
When asked when he knew he had a vocation to the priesthood, Rev. Mr. Alberto Perez Aguayo does not hesitate. "I was 15 years old," he said. "I went for a week to the seminary, like a retreat. After that, I decided to enter the seminary."
The seminary was in his hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico.
"I had been an altar server since I was 8 years old," he said, which influenced his decision to spend the week at the seminary.
At 16, he entered the high school seminary. He left after the first year of college.
"I worked as a receptionist in a hotel in Guadalajara," he said. "I wanted to go back to the seminary. I felt that that was my calling, something I like, and that I was called to serve."
A friend invited him to the United States.
He went to the University of Tulsa.
"In 2006, I joined the Diocese of Oakland," he said. He studied for three years at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon.
He has spent the next five years at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park, spending his pastoral year at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Concord.
During this final year, in the transitional diaconate, it has been a good experience to serve as a deacon at St. Joseph Basilica in Alameda on weekends.
"I am looking forward to ordination," said Rev. Mr. Perez, who is 32.
Rev. Mr. Perez is the eighth of nine children; he has a brother and sister who live in the United States. They will be at the ordination, and he is hoping his father, two of his sisters and a niece will travel from Mexico to join them.
After ordination, he said he looks forward to "being there for the people, offering the sacraments, just being there when they need it, listening to them."
"That's what I look forward to, being in the parish."
That also means listening to those who come to confront the priest, he said. "I think it's about listening to them, even if they challenge you."
Later you might find out that even though they yelled at you, they might thank you.
"They are in church because they are seeking God," he said. "If I don't show that God is there for them, they will not find what they want."
A 10-year wait
Half his life.
For 21 years of his 38 on this earth, Rev. Mr. Michael Nghia Pham has pursued his vocation.
"When I was 18 years old I went to Mass daily at 5 a.m.," he said. "I never thought about becoming a priest. One day, one of my friends, says, 'Michael, you want to become a priest?'"
His initial response: You are crazy.
He said he had never thought of becoming a priest. Only holy people can become priests, he believed.
He was a senior in high school.
But that thought of becoming a priest began to sprout.
He felt joyful. "Why don't I give it a shot?" he told himself.
He sought advice from a priest of a religious order, who invited him to a discernment group of 10 young men who were considering the priesthood.
After finishing high school, he applied to St. Joseph Seminary in the Diocese of Saigon.
"It's very hard to get in," he said. "The government wants to control all religion in the country. In order to control religion they have to control the number of leaders."
They allow just 20 to enter every two years.
Michael Pham would have to wait 10 years to enter the seminary.
He continued his education, graduating with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering.
"I worked as a civil engineer for five years until I could come to the U.S. to continue my vocation," he said. His parents had preceded him: His father came to the U.S. in 1995; his mother two years later. Michael arrived in 2003, with this mission: "This is my time to enter the seminary after 10 years."
It was not immediate. When he first arrived, "I worked as a welder for eight months."
He also needed to learn English. "I didn't know how to ask for a cup of water" on the flight to the United States.
He met a priest from the Divine Word Society, who invited him to study English and discern.
The rector referred him to Rev. Lawrence D'Anjou, who was then the vocations director of the Diocese of Oakland.
As he contemplates his upcoming 39th birthday, he is a man with a warm smile and trust in God.
He sees the passage of time in his friends. "My friends are married and have children, some are Buddhist, or non-religious. They look at me and think, 'So sad.'"
But he is not sad.
"This is a vocation. I feel happy. I want to help people. I will cry when they cry. I want to be part of their life, to share their suffering and their joyfulness," he said.
He has been inspired during the time he has spent at St. Edward Parish in Newark as a transitional deacon, where he finds Father Jeffrey Keyes, CPPS, "inspiring and relevant."
Michael Pham, the sixth of 10 children, will have many family members in the cathedral for his ordination. He will celebrate his Mass of Thanksgiving at St. Felicitas in San Leandro, where his parents are part of the vibrant Vietnamese community.
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