By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published June 27, 2014
COLLEGE PARK—It isn’t enough to march in processions or fill the pews of a church. Catholics are called to leave their comfort zone to serve others.
That was the message scores of Vietnamese Catholics heard when they were encouraged to broaden how they live their faith by a keynote speaker, a De La Salle Christian brother, Frère Phong.
“We can’t be disciples without being sent,” said the 68-year-old bespectacled Frère Phong in his simple black robe and distinctive white collar. “The end of Mass and the end of Jesus’ life is always ‘go, you are sent.’ ”
The Archdiocese of Atlanta has two Vietnamese parishes. On the north side of metro Atlanta is Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Church, in Norcross, and on the south side is Our Lady of Vietnam Church, in Riverdale. There are approximately 6,400 members of the two parishes.
At the 2014 Eucharistic Congress, the community gathered for a daylong program in Vietnamese at the Marriott Atlanta Airport Gateway. The gathering also heard from Father Anthony Phong Kim Bui, an assistant priest at the Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Church.
Frère Phong is a brother of Dòng La San, known in the United States as De La Salle Christian Brothers.
The 300-year-old religious community began in France by St. John Baptist de La Salle, a French priest from a wealthy family. He is the patron saint of teachers. Its mission is to educate young people around the globe, especially the poor. His religious congregation is one of the few that does not have priests. In fact, Frère Phong has said that he never thought of becoming a priest because he likes to relate to others as a brother. (Frère in French means brother.)
Frère Phong’s story about becoming a brother at a young age is so simple he almost is embarrassed to tell it. It was a question from a teaching brother at the school he attended whether he would like to join and teach others. He said he got his parents’ permission to say yes. He made his final vows in 1963. He escaped his country after the Vietnam war to move to the United States in 1975. He lives in California.
The Vietnamese Catholic community is well represented at church events, but not often enough outside the community, said Frère Phong.
The Vietnamese Catholic community can be too insular, he said, uncomfortable to venture out because of cultural and language barriers. The culture esteems clergy so much it can stifle Catholics from fully practicing their faith, he said.
The planned trip of Pope Francis in the fall to Korea will be revealing to many Vietnamese, he said. They will see how other Asian Catholics live their faith and respond to the call of service, he said.
The emphasis on service he sees more among younger Vietnamese Catholics, the children and grandchildren of the immigrants. He said the American culture has shaped them in ways their parents don’t always understand. The youth embrace hands-on service and volunteerism in a way older Vietnamese never have, said Frère Phong, who is leading a group of nearly 50 students to Southeast Asia to help build schools in impoverished communities and serve people banished from their homes because of leprosy.
He said he wants to spur the community to live as “missionary disciples,” focusing outward to spread the message of Jesus.
Vietnamese communities need to understand that it is a mandate from Jesus, not just thewords of a religious brother, said Frère Phong.
The final words spoken at every Mass, in Latin, are “Ite missa est,” he said. That’s the instruction from the church to go and serve the community with the “joy of the Gospel.”
“This is the order of Jesus,” he said.