“Mr. Nguyễn was called to the House of the Father this morning,” I messaged to some people the morning of April 23rd, 2018.
I learned that a beloved teacher, friend, and mentor of mine, Thầy Tuấn was diagnosed with rectum cancer on October 14, 2018 as parishioners of both St. Cecilia’s and Vietnamese Martyrs Parishes were celebrating the centennial of the Fatima apparitions. I went home after having a celebratory dinner. My dad told me that night that Thầy Tuấn was diagnosed with cancer. I was shocked and was very sad.
Thầy Tuấn was noticeably thinner as the weeks went by. Despite his health, he still continued his usual parish duties, as a book keeper, catechist, music director and other administrative tasks. He did all the things he loved and did not let his health get in the way. From time to time, I still had a little laugh or talk with him, exchanging some thoughts.
Mid-February, I did not see him, probably days before the Family Day weekend this year, I did not see him at the Church. That was about the first weeks of Lent. I saw his wife coming by the sacristy after 1pm Sunday Mass with a pyx to bring the Eucharist to him on several occasions. The St. Cecilia Band, a band that he founded a little more went through the major Liturgies of the Paschal Triduum without his direction as it was during this time that his condition worsened.
I sent an e-mail to Thầy on Easter Sunday. I will never know if he ever opened it. However, just a few days after Easter Sunday, April 3rd to be exact, I learned that his condition has worsened and that the cancer has spread to the bone. It was a pain to learn of the news, knowing that he might not make it.
A day after Divine Mercy Sunday, Monday April 9, 2018, the Solemnity of the Annunication of Our Lord, I went with my dad to visit him at Sunnybrook Hospital. On the car ride there, my dad said that it would be likely be the last encounter I would have with Thầy Tuấn. I was heartbroken and sobbed on the way, asking my dad, “What do I say to someone who I am seeing for the last time?”
My father and I go into the room where Thầy was residing. His wife, cô Phương was accompanying him. Some parishioners and a Vietnamese school classmate was there before me. I went immediately to him and put into his hand a small holy card with the image of Divine Mercy. I recall him greeting me with the ever familiar greeting, “Hi Việt!” Thầy Tuấn was one of the only people in the parish to use my actual Vietnamese name. Besides, others used the name “Vinh” which was a nickname our Pastor used to refer to me, or by Vincent. It made sense that Thầy used Việt because his youngest son, a classmate of mine at Chaminade was also named Vincent.
It was very a very emotional visit that I will never forget. His wife mentioned that Thầy has already read a letter I wrote to him, that I asked a close friend he visited him very often to hand to Thầy. His wife said that Thầy was very proud of me. Thầy Tuấn with all his strength said that again to me and it was very humbling.
All present said the Divine Mercy Chaplet, the prayer that coincidentally, was on the Holy Card I gave him.
I cried for much of the visit since I just couldn’t contain my emotions. I did not know what to say but to thank Thầy for all that he did for the me on a personal level. He has helped me so much to put me in where I am today at the Parish. I assured him that his work has bloomed.
A promise I made to him that night was that: no matter what happens, I, along with the youth at the Parish will get the Youth Pastoral Plan completed. Early February when Thầy was still around, I talked to him how I will start to compose a Youth Pastoral Plan to keep the youth of the parish alive for the years to come. He agreed, saying that eventually, the current generation will be going off to University and for him, his health may no longer permit him to do what he was doing.
I made the promise to Thầy, and he said that God-willing, if he would be healed, he would help me 100% in its completion.
Before I left him, I asked him to pray for me and vice-versa, I would pray for him. I told him, “Let us all be happy”. That moment, I was referring indirectly to Archbishop Paul Đọc’s motto, “God is my happiness” (Archbishop Paul died early March during the Ad Limina visit of the bishops of Vietnam. I wrote a column about his death and that column was published The Catholic Register’s April 8th, 2018 issue).
As the days went by, I heard nothing about Thầy, except for the fact that he transferred rooms. I continued to keep him in my prayers and prayed to the Venerable, Francis Xavier Cardinal Thuận Nguyễn. In the letter I gave Thầy earlier before the visit, I included a second-class relic of the Venerable.
The evening of Saturday April 14, my dad said during dinner that according to his wife, Thầy only had a week left to live. I was heavy-hearted. Throughout the week, I prayed and thought of Thầy every moment. Wednesday of that week, April 18, two friends of his son, Vincent, two Chaminade student from the parish and the two chaplains of our school gathered in the chapel to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet, the same prayer myself and others gathered at his bedside said during that visit on April 9.
Saturday April 21, 2018, First Communion Mass at our Parish. As Mass was being celebrated, our pastor found out that his mother has passed away. In the sacristy, some people were expressing condolences to him. The pastor mentioned that the parish would likely be facing not one funeral, but two because Thầy Tuấn’s day was likely nearing.
The pastor was right. A little past 7:00am the morning of April 23rd, 2018, the phone was ringing. My parents were prepared to go to work. My mom picked up, and it was Thầy Tuấn’s wife. Thầy Tuấn passed away about 6 am. I quickly went down to ask my mom who was on the phone at such early of a time. She said that Thầy Tuấn just passed away. I didn’t cry right at that moment… absorbing the information.
I quickly sent out messages to my friends, some of Vincent’s friends and some teachers at Chaminade. I did not want to use the term death, or passed-away. Instead, I used the terms, supposedly used by John Paul II as he neared death, “called to the House of the Father”. As I wrote an e-mail, I cried.
Then, I quickly filtered through my picture archives and found a picture of Thầy handing out ice cream during one of the parish’s Ice Cream Sundays. I wrote, “Labourer in the vineyard of the Lord,” because that is what I believe Thầy Tuấn was at our parish.
I left my home at 8:00 am to head to school. On the bus ride with sunglasses on, I opened my Breviary, not reading the regular Easter Morning Prayer, but the Morning Prayer of the Office of the Dead. Throughout the day, my phone was flooded with messages about Thầy’s passing.
This past week, I just couldn’t keep my thoughts straight. All of my thoughts were about the memories I had with Thầy. I was so blessed to be in his Level 2 Vietnamese Credit Course class. His lessons that he taught I will treasure. Interestingly though, it was during this same time that Thầy talked about the theme of death as the Church reads the Gospel of Lazarus during a Sunday of Lent (I don’t remember).
Tuesday, a day right after Thầy’s passing, there was a Memorial Mass for him. The Mass was a weekday Mass but about 100 people showed up. The pianist was a close student of Thầy. The hymns were sung so beautifully by the congregation. I did not serve that Mass because I wanted to recollect myself.
On Thursday, my dad and I went to the Funeral Home for the viewing. I went up to the open casket and was a little sad that he did not look like the Thầy I knew so well. I went to the left and embraced his wife and his sons, along with the other family members.
The next day, Friday, I had an appointment after school but tried my best to make it to the Funeral Home to see Thầy for the last time. I led some of the prayers as I did on some Saturdays at the parish and I saw it as an honour.
Yesterday, Saturday was the Mass of Christian Burial (Funeral Mass) for Thầy Tuấn. I served this Mass as I do for major solemnities and Sunday as Vietnamese Martyrs Parish. It was honestly the saddest Mass I have ever served and the first time I shed tears of sadness while serving.
The front door of the church opened as Thầy’s casket was being carried by the pall bearers. That would be the last time Thầy would enter the Church that served for over three decades. Then, the altar servers and I went back to the sacristy to process down with the deacon and priests down to welcome Thầy like the day he was baptized.
I have served some funeral Masses, but this one was one that I put my whole mind and heart into its texts and rituals. The celebrant sprinkled Holy Water on the casket and draped the white pall on the casket, symbols of baptism.
The hymns as I was told, were chosen by Thầy before he passed away. These were not the generic hymns used at our parish’s funeral Mass. I sung to the hymns as Thầy’s band, the St. Cecilia Band played with their whole heart.
The Liturgy of the Word was interesting at Thầy’s funeral Mass. It was probably Thầy’s intention to have a reading be proclaimed in English so to be inclusive to all present, especially the youth. The Responsorial Psalm used was not Psalm 51, as generic for our parish’s funeral Mass, but rather a joyful setting of Psalm 23 (The Lord is my Shepherd) that he taught the band to play for many years. The Gospel was the story of Lazarus’ death (cf. John 11:17-25) which I still remember vividly Thầy teaching my class about the meaning behind this specific Gospel. Msgr. Peter Bá Phạm was the homilist and spoke so well of all the themes of the lectionary readings with Thầy’s life.
Thầy Tuấn and I during a Choir practice, playing song, Lắng Nghe Lời Chúa. (Credit: Martha T. Nguyễn)
Thầy’s son, Vincent, read the General Intercession. I teared up each time he said, “…bố con,” Vietnamese for, “…my father”. I was heart broken.
The Liturgy of the Eucharist was celebrated reverently, as I recalled all the part of the Eucharistic Prayer that Thầy taught the class last year. I knelt right behind the celebrant at that Mass, listening very carefully to all the prayers, realizing that this was the last Mass with Thầy Tuấn in the Church he loved.
The rite of Final Commendation followed the remarks by the family. This rite was presided by Bishop Vincent Nguyen, whom Thầy Tuấn served faithfully for him when he was still a priest, administrator of then, Mission of the Vietnamese Martyrs, during the young priest’s one year term with the community. It was touching as the Bishop sprinked Holy Water and incensed the casket.
The procession, led by the cross and candles processed out the church. The clergy sprinkled Holy Water for the last time on the casket of Thầy. Then, the pall bearers carried the casket out the Church. That time, would be the last time Thầy would step down those stairs of the Church which he had known so well.
The Rite of Committal and interment was at Assumption Catholic Cemetery in the area reserved for the Vietnamese people. Many attended the burial as Msgr. Bá presided over the Rite of Committal, bidding farewell to Thầy.
His band, the St. Cecilia Band was present to play last songs to him. Then, members of the youth choir and band stepped up to the area of interment as one of the youth represented all the youth and promised to continue to continue the mission of the Band, to (1) Serve the Sacred Music at Liturgical Services, (2) Be a place where youth can spend time together. Myself and many others cried our hearts out, knowing this would be the last time we would be able to gather around our dear Thầy.
The president of the Pastoral Council, bác Tạo, before departing said to the youth, that to the very end, the youth was in the heart of Thầy Tuấn. I cried at this, knowing that Thầy Tuấn loved the youth very much. Bác Tạo said that if we love Thầy, we should continue to be like Thầy and continue to listen to our parents so to be the future of the parish.
The Rite of Committal concluded with the singing of the Peace Prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (Kinh Hòa Bình). I saw a two fold meaning in the prayer. First, it was the fact that Thầy Tuấn lived out the prayer so well. He was so selfless and always at the needs of others. Secondly, the prayer was for the youth and those present, that we, like Thầy Tuấn can serve others selflessly.
This past week has been a very sad week for me personally and certainly the case for many who have known Thầy Tuấn.
I have been so blessed to have worked with this great man of faith. He was a faithful husband, father, teacher, catechist, friend and mentor. Whenever I approached him to ask for something, Thầy would find all the means to obtain for me what I needed. This even went to the extent of obtaining the Jubilee of Mercy banners at the church. I asked Thầy what happens to banners at the Church once an occasion is completed. He said that they usually just store them away. Thầy probably understood my intention. My dad went to the Church one night to assist in the taking down of the Nativity Scene. When my dad came home, his hands were full with two banners. I opened them up, to see that they were the Jubilee of Mercy banners that hung for a year at the parish. The next week, I thanked Thầy, saying that they are great souvenirs of the Jubilee, especially because this was an extraordinary Jubilee Year.
One day during summer about 2/3 years ago, I had to go to the Church to do something per a request. That person left me at the Church without any arrangements to go home. Thầy Tuấn was there, and said he would drive me home.
I was very blessed to be a classmate of his last year in his Vietnamese Credit Course class. He told many stories and learned so much from him, not only about Vietnamese culture, but life lessons. He only handed back two of my assignments, but the comment on one still sticks with me, can be translated as, “Very well done. Let’s talk about it when we have a moment” (Hay lắm Việt. Lúc nào rảnh nói chuyện thêm). Yes, I have talked to Thầy on uncountable number of occasions.
Thầy Tuấn was a very kind and humble man. He undertook very important roles at the parish. He was once the parish secretary. Then, he undertook another job but still continued assisting the current parish secretary, doing administrative tasks. He took care of the taxes and tax receipts of the parishioners. I have been able to learn much about the parish administration system, and the history of St. Cecilia’s Church.
Thầy always took time for me. I recall the day after Lễ Bế Giảng last June (2017), Thầy was in the Parish Office drawing plans on a form for the Annual Vietnamese Martyrs Shrine Pilgrimage. He was busy, but when I walked into the Parish Office, he said, “Hi Việt”, can explained some facts about the Lễ Bế Giảng the day before. Then, I asked Thầy in Vietnamese, “Thầy, did I do bad on the Vietnamese exam?” He said, “Certainly no! But why did you think so?” I answered that earlier that day, I went to check on MyBlueprint to see my Vietnamese Course mark, and saw that it was an 85. He quickly left everything and went to the other office to open his laptop to verify the mark he gave me was a 99. I was at relief. Then Thầy dug through the report cards, and noticed that my mark was somehow put on as an 85. He promised to change it. The following school year, September 2017, Thầy assured me that he will change it. He kept his promise and that was fulfilled in November.
Thầy Tuấn, I love you a lot as a teacher, friend and mentor. Thank you for all you have done for me. You have helped me be where I am today at the Vietnamese Martyrs Parish. I will keep my promise just as you have kept all the promises you have made to me: to complete the Youth Pastoral Plan, in the path you have envisioned as you have told me on numerous occasions during your lifetime.
Thầy, you stayed true to what you taught. Your life proved that. You were faithful to Christ until the end, even in pain and suffering, especially during the last six months of your life. Yet, even in death, you were giving others life as you donated your eyes, heart and liver to those who needed them. You are model of selflessness. Pray for me, for the youth and our parish when you are in heaven.
Requiescat In Pace, Thầy Tuấn.