Updated: April 19, 2021 11:48 AM GMT
Father Peter Tran Thanh Truc offers rice to Mnong villagers in Tan Phuc subparish in Vietnam’s Dak Nong province. (Photo: UCA News)
On a chilly day in January, Father Peter Tran Thanh Truc got up at 3am to greet a group of 35 health workers from Ho Chi Minh City and showed them to tents where they were to sleep.
He celebrated morning Mass at 5am and then prepared a big breakfast for them before they offered medical check-ups and medicine to 400 patients from Tan Phuc Subparish based in the remote district of Tuy Duc in Dak Nong province bordering Cambodia.
On the previous day, he and local Catholics erected tents and prepared part of a wood-built chapel for visiting health providers to serve local patients.
Father Truc in casual clothes encouraged and showed how people have their health examined since most of them are Mnong people, children and old people who have poor education and speak little Vietnamese, the nation’s official language.
After the examination, the priest and locals dressed in traditional clothes and entertained the visitors with dancing, singing around a campfire, friendly conversation and making jokes with them.
“I often invite groups of health workers and benefactors from outside the parish to visit with humanitarian relief, clothes, school supplies, even scholarships for local people who live in poverty and suffer a lack of food all the time,” the 50-year-old priest said.
I must sweep and wash the chapel every day by myself to receive parishioners for Mass
The subparish, established in 2014, is home to 2,700 members, mostly Mnong people who cultivate rice, coffee and cassava with poor yields due to arid land and intense weather.
During the dry season, the 60-square-meter chapel is hot and covered with thick layers of dust from a rough road running past, while roads and paths become slippery during the rainy season lasting three months. People have to use rubber boots to travel to the chapel.
“I must sweep and wash the chapel every day by myself to receive parishioners for Mass,” Father Truc said.
His daily routine, starting at 4am and ending at 10pm, includes celebrating Mass, visiting and administering sacraments to patients and elderly people in villages, joining with villagers in reciting rosaries at night at their houses, cleaning the chapel, doing his own cooking and washing, and supervising the construction of a new church that started last October.
He is raising funds from outside the subparish to build a new church on an area of 1,000 square meters to replace the small stuffy chapel erected in 2007. Local people have volunteered to work at the construction site, 20-100 workers a day, and they are given food from benefactors instead of cash payments. Father Truc carries building materials and works hard at the site.
“I get into the swing of a daily strict routine so as to live among and serve the community well,” he said.
The priest, who was assigned to the subparish in 2018, said at first he had to stay in the room at the back of the chapel for one year until he erected a temporary house. One time the chapel was flooded with water and mud following heavy rain.
The first parochial vicar of the subparish said he has erected traditional buildings in the chapel compound as a school for some 300 children to study catechism and provide room for visitors as well. The subparish has still no parish house.
The priest, who previously worked at two other parishes, tries to improve Catholics’ faith life by founding lay associations of heads of households, good mothers, catechists and choirs. He had gathered children to learn catechism at villagers’ houses until he built houses at the chapel’s compound.
He also purchased two plots of land in other places to build chapels for Catholics who live too far away from him to visit in a day.
Many families have not had a square meal for months, always eating vegetables and salt
Father Truc said he will invite religious to form communities and train local people in faith education. In the past some refused to come due to lack of facilities.
The priest, who was ordained in 2010, has also installed water filtering systems at chapels to provide clean water for people as local rivers and streams are polluted or have run out of water.
Mary Thi Hen, who volunteers to work at the church site, said Father Truc spends time visiting and helping out villagers, especially those who lack food or suffer diseases. “Many families have not had a square meal for months, always eating vegetables and salt,” she said.
Hen, who had her eyes examined by visiting doctors, said the priest teaches them how to express solidarity with one another and live together in harmony by repairing one another’s houses in the rainy season and supporting one another to grow crops in difficult times.
“His great service brings about an undeniably profound effect on our lives. He keeps a fatherly eye on all of us,” said the 35-year-old mother, who earns 10 million dong (US$435) per year from growing coffee. “We are over the moon as we have such a marvelous parish priest.”
Peter Dieu Non, a subparish council member, said Father Truc fosters people’s religious zeal in faith practice by joining them in reciting rosaries in the evening at their houses and giving Christian statues to those who could not afford.
Non, 62, described how he values the priest for his dedication to his parish, how he walks with villagers and helps them out of long-term debt by encouraging them to abandon age-old customs such as thach cuoi — a woman’s family exacting wedding presents from the future bridegroom’s family and the medical treatment he organizes. Local people have given up customs of killing animals as offerings to gods during funerals and harvest festivals.
Being a busy missionary is a labor of love
“The priest wins the hearts of local villagers with his tender loving care and consequently the number of Catholics has increased from 1,000 when he came to 2,700 now,” he said.
French missionaries worked with ethnic villagers in the 1950s and baptized some families. Since they were expelled from the area after 1975, when the Vietnam War ended, local villagers had to travel to other places 120 kilometers away for Mass and other religious services.
In 1997, 60 families with 240 members received baptism thanks to the constant efforts of local Catholics, who attracted others with the example of their worthy lives. They had to gather to pray at their houses until they built the present chapel in 2007 since they were not allowed to erect a chapel by local government authorities. Priests from other places started to provide services for them.
“My vocation is to serve and live in harmony with my flock of sheep in severely disadvantaged areas. Being a busy missionary is a labor of love,” Father Truc said. “I try daily to be humble, listen avidly to people of goodwill and not to be the bee’s knees that will break their hearts.”