'Vietnam's faith is fierce'

Vu The Phong (right) shown with his family, will visit Philly. (FAMILY PHOTO)

VU THE PHONG raises pigs on a small farm in northern Vietnam about 200 miles east of Hanoi, close to the Chinese border.

But if all goes well with his visa application, Vu will be raising his voice with millions of other Catholics in Philadelphia this September for the World Meeting of Families and Pope Francis' visit.

"In [Vietnam] there is no big events," Vu wrote in an email to the Daily News. "Today, members of the family need times together to understand, sympathy . . . Therefore, WMOF is the place [for] people to meet and interexchange."

Tracy Purdy lives a world away from Vu, in a large home in Schwenksville where the light shines through the windows and warms the hardwood floors. There are no pig farms in sight, but the towers of the Limerick nuclear power plant are visible in the distance on the drive from Philadelphia.

The Purdy family worships at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Pottstown. When posters were put up there asking people to host WMOF attendees, Purdy offered her house, although she doubted any travelers would sign up to stay an hour's drive from the city.

But two weeks ago, she got her first reservation - from a man named Nguyen Van Thong in Vietnam.

"The question that occurs to me, after we got this guy booked at our house, is why would you come from Vietnam to see the pope in Philadelphia when he goes everywhere?" Purdy said. "I'm so curious to ask, 'Why are you coming here? Why Philadelphia?' "

Vu and Nguyen aren't the only ones who plan to make the 8,000-mile journey from Vietnam in September.

Right now, there are more people registered for the WMOF from Vietnam than from any other country outside of the United States, according Lizanne Pando, director of marketing and communications for the WMOF.

Of the estimated 7,000 registrants from 60 countries so far, 668 have requested Vietnamese translation services - and 209 of those people are coming directly from Vietnam, Pando said.

"I was surprised by the numbers in the beginning," Pando said. "But when you speak with Monsignor Trinh, you won't be."


Why so many?

Monsignor Joseph Trinh, pastor at St. Helena's on 5th Street near Godfrey Avenue and a native of Vietnam, is thrilled with the number of registrants from his home country and he's hoping that number will only grow.

"This is early for Vietnamese!" he said. "They are last-minute people."

Trinh, who is also president of the Vietnamese Federation of Catholics in the United States, is spearheading the efforts to accommodate the travel needs of the largest group of Vietnamese citizens ever to attend a WMOF, including 114 official delegates from Vietnam. Among those delegates are five bishops and more than 30 priests.

Trinh is even holding a Mass in Vietnamese on the Saturday of the meeting, which he has formally invited Pope Francis to attend. He expects about 3,000 Vietnamese at the Mass, which was originally to be held at St. Helena's but may be moved to the former Cardinal Dougherty High School to accommodate the crowd.

"This will be the biggest gathering of Vietnamese Catholics outside of Vietnam," Trinh said.

There are three reasons, Trinh said, why so many Vietnamese are attending this gathering: Many want to travel to the U.S., many others have relatives they will visit while here and, of course, many want to see Pope Francis.

"So, it is one stone for three birds," Trinh said.

Vu said he decided to register for this WMOF after the pope announced his attendance.

"It not easy to apply [for a] visa from Vietnam to the United States," Vu, 35, wrote. "But, I think here is an opportunity for people [from Vietnam to expand their] vision of international organizations."

Catholicism came to Vietnam via 16th century missionaries and took hold in the mid-17th century.

"When the missionaries from Spain, France and Portugal went to Vietnam, that's how we received the faith, from those missionaries," Trinh said.

According to the Central Intelligence Agency's World Fact Book, Catholicism is the second-most practiced religion in Vietnam, with 7 percent of the population identifying themselves as Catholics.

Vu, who belongs to Tra Co parish of the Xuan Loc Diocese, said when he's not raising pigs or spending time with his wife and two young children, he's helping at his local parish.

"It [is] very interesting for my life," he wrote. "Vietnam's faith is fierce. Me too, faith strengthen me to God."

In the United States, there are more than 1 million Vietnamese Catholics and more than 900 priests and 600 nuns, Trinh said. In Philadelphia alone, estimates for the number of Vietnamese Catholics range between 7,000 and 10,000. Eight parishes in the diocese offer Mass in Vietnamese on a regular basis.


A Francis fan girl

Securing visas is the biggest hurdle for those traveling from Vietnam to attend the world meeting.

"I am waiting my visa application," Vu wrote. "Please pray for me."

The Rev. Bruce Lewandowski, vicar for cultural ministries for the Archdiocese and chairman of the WMOF's visa and immigration committee, said most foreigners coming here are from countries where visas are required.

The visa and immigration committee, which is made up of attorneys and volunteers, is working to make sure registrants have all they need for their visa interviews, including a personalized invitation letter from the WMOF, Lewandowski said.

"It's make it or break it in that interview," he said. "You get one shot."

Once the registrants' visa applications are approved, securing housing for their visit is next.

"Right now, we are concentrating on homestays because there [are] no more hotels," Trinh said.

Purdy, who is opening her Schwenksville house to an independent traveler from Vietnam, said she volunteered her home to give her family exposure to a new culture.

"Also, everybody I know that's Catholic here . . . are Easter and Christmas Catholics," Purdy said. "So that there are people dedicated enough that they would come from Vietnam to meet the pope, it makes me so curious as to why."

Although not Catholic, Purdy said she does like Pope Francis.

"I'm kind of fan girl over him," she said.

The Vietnamese are fans of Pope Francis, too, Trinh said.

"Coming from his background [working with the poor], third-world country people can associate with him," he said. "He is down to earth. He speaks from his heart."

Vu agreed.

"The Pope Francis [pays] attention to the poor people, so that made me very impressed by him," Vu said. "I hope one day the Pope Francis [will] visit Vietnam. We love him."

After securing visas and homestays, the next step is working on translation and interpretation services for Vietnamese guests.

Since the WMOF is an international congress, there are five contractual languages organizers must provide to host the event: English, Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese, Pando said.

But Trinh and others are hoping Vietnamese will be included this year, too.

"Due to the number of registrants and the enthusiasm of the Vietnamese community, the World Meeting of Families has started to work toward doing interpretation and translations in Vietnamese," Pando said. "But nothing has been finalized."


Beautiful flowers

With Vietnamese natives traveling to Philadelphia from around the world, Trinh believes the best opportunity for all of them to gather will be at the Vietnamese Mass on Saturday, Sept. 26.

The five bishops traveling from Vietnam will be the celebrants and Trinh put out a call to the choirs from 200 Vietnamese Catholic parishes in the U.S. to participate in a choral ensemble.

Whether the pope will attend the Mass is unknown.

"I wrote to him, and said, 'This is the next best thing to Vietnam, this is the best gathering of Vietnamese Catholics,' " Trinh said. "A five-minute visit would be a blessing to us."

As Trinh looks to September, he's looking forward to not only hosting people from his homeland but seeing people from all over the world interacting with one another here in Philadelphia, his new home.

"It is beyond my imagination. The fact that people are coming together, their willingness to travel, to learn and to see different faces, it unifies the church that way. It's beautiful," he said. "Like in the garden, you see different flowers. I don't know how the flowers communicate or not, but it's beautiful."


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