by ESME O’RAFFERTY
Palmerston North diocese’s newest priest, Fr Vui Hoang, grew up firm in
the conviction that he would never be ordained.
Speaking to NZ Catholic before his ordination to the priesthood in Palmerston North on June 29, Fr Hoang said he was raised in Vinh diocese in Vietnam alongside his seven elder siblings — five brothers and two sisters — and the prospect of priesthood had not seemed that attractive during his upbringing.
“When I was younger, I didn’t think much about the priesthood . . . it wasn’t really attractive, living by myself and getting up early to celebrate Mass,” he said.
At age 11, his family moved to Ho Chi Minh City, where he went to high school. He said the boys at his school would often place bets on who would become a priest.
After leaving high school, he went on to study electrical engineering at university. It was in his first year of university that he began to feel God calling him to the priesthood.
“Initially I took the exam to enter the university and my purpose was to become an engineer, but in my first year I felt a fire within my heart that made me decide to go for the priesthood,” he said.
Fr Hoang’s faith was nurtured by his family during his upbringing. Family members would pray the rosary together every morning. There were very few priests available, so his village did not have Mass very often. People would say the rosary instead.
“Every day our family would wake up around half past five. Everyone was still in bed, but we would pray the rosary,” he said. “When I was young, I hated it. You can imagine a young boy wanting to sleep rather than say the rosary, but now I see. . . the fruits of the faith of my family, of the community. This is a gift.”
Fr Hoang first tried to enter the seminary in Vietnam, but due the number of men wanting to be priests, with around 400 applicants to the seminary every two years, he was required to wait.
Through the invitation of Bishop Charles Drennan of Palmerston North diocese, Fr Hoang came to New Zealand in May, 2012, to enter the seminary in Auckland.
The 32-year-old said the hardest part about coming to New Zealand was leaving his family and friends.
“You come to a new place, and you have no relationships . . . the Church here is quite different to where I come from. For example, more people go to Mass here, there are more young people at Mass,” he said.
At the beginning, he said, this was a challenge, especially when family back home had a big event or somebody passed away and he couldn’t be with them. However, the environment and brotherhood of the seminary helped him to settle into the New Zealand way of life.
“We come here and we all have the same . . . motivation that we want to
become a priest and want to serve God. Being here for seven years, we experience a really strong bond with our brothers,” Fr Hoang said.
Coming to New Zealand for the seminary was a blessing because it gave him a chance to learn about the culture and the language without pressure, he said.
“If I became a priest in Vietnam and then came here, it would be more challenging because then I would have to learn the culture, the language, the Church, and everything else,” he said.
Fr Hoang said he was both excited and nervous at becoming a priest.
“Excited because that’s what I’ve prepared for the last 12, 13 years. I can see
there is a lot of responsibility, being a priest . . . in New Zealand, we have very low numbers of vocations to the priesthood, so there is a lot of pastoral work,” he said.
The thing he was most looking forward to about the priesthood was working with young people. He said that young people struggling with discerning their vocation should leave it to God.
“ ‘Entrust your life to the Lord, trust in him and he will act’,” he said, quoting Psalm 37:5.
“We all have different vocations — marriage, priesthood, religious life —they are all beautiful and I would just encourage them to discern which way they want to serve the Lord the most.”