“…and the greatest… is love.” – A Reflection on the COVID-19 Response of the Catholic Church in Vietnam

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthian 13:13

As Canada finds itself in the start of the fourth wave of COVID-19, looking at the brighter side of things, we at least have over 60% of Canadians fully vaccinated (as the time of this writing) and that will certainly mitigate the effects of this fourth wave. While health protocols will not be let down in the coming months, hopefully the high vaccination rates will avoid another lockdown. As of now, anyone above 12 years of age can get a COVID-19 vaccine, made accessible via mobile clinics or pharmacies. However, the gift of a COVID-vaccine is not made readily available everywhere in the world and the fourth wave is a completely different story in many countries.

A couple weeks ago as indoor dining reopened, I was out a Jack Astors with three other fully-vaccinated individuals. It was a beautiful evening as we caught up with each other in person. We had nice hearty meals of burgers, nachos, etc. Unfortunately, at that same time on the other side of the globe, I learned of that people in Vietnam, specifically the south in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and surrounding provinces were and continue to be under severe lockdown measures. I have some relatives in Vietnam’s Đồng Nai province and they are all under lockdown. While Vietnam has been able to manage the pandemic fairly well with very low number of cases and deaths. However, the recent months saw daily reports of thousands of cases.

For Canadians generally or Torontonians specifically, now known among many as the city in the world with the longest lockdown in the world, the term “lockdown” is all too familiar. Restaurants, and “non-essential” businesses were closed. Elementary and Secondary Schooling was on and off throughout the year due to these lockdowns. Places of worship were forced to close their doors to no more than ten people (in the second and third round of lockdowns). People like myself were studying and working from home. People were still allowed to go out to the grocery to get their necessary goods. The lockdown script in Toronto is something to remember for generations to come.

However, a developed country like Canada in a sense is blessed to have a lockdown of such sorts. A good number of people can work from home. Government funding has helped mediate a lot of losses throughout the pandemic. More importantly, people can still go out to get exercise and to their nearest grocery store to get the food they need. This lockdown script is not the case in Vietnam, however. It really put me in a surprise how different the definition of lockdown is in Vietnam, specifically in Saigon and its surrounding provinces, cities and towns affected by COVID-19.

The people of Vietnam, especially in the south is being crippled by COVID-19 now with hospitals maxed out with people breathing on ventilators and crematoriums running all day and night. From accounts I have read online recently, it is a nightmare. The reality of COVID-19 is different in Vietnam than in Canada. Saigon and its surrounding areas have very dense populations. I recall being in Saigon and residing in my grandpa’s house in Biền Hòa in 2010 – people are on the move all the time. A lot of people have face-to-face interactions as many, including my relatives live by trading. A majority of my family have shops that sell some sort of goods or services. Think about that, multiplied by the hundreds and thousands of people who pass in and out of shops and markets of Vietnam. Vietnamese people literally work on the streets and sell their services to those on the streets, via interactions. Hygiene and ventilation is not always the best either. Speaking of the healthcare system there, it is not ideal, partially because Vietnam is not as developed as Canada or the United States. That is possibly why I do read from time to time of cases in which Vietnamese clergy would go to America or European countries to be treated with a particular health issue they may have. These things: hygiene, sanitization, and healthcare are what I and so many North Americans take for granted. These things that North Americans take for granted are not readily available to people on the other side of the globe and thus, the pandemic script for them is unfolding very differently than in North America. That is not even speaking of vaccines, in which Canada currently has 62% fully vaccinated while a little over 1% of the population is vaccinated in Vietnam.

What I just spoke of is just the direct effects of COVID-19. Now, I want to take a look at lockdown life of the people under lockdown. I do want to be clear, I do not want to speak much of the political picture there because I think it can be assumed that readers do know about Communist Vietnam, though that in itself can be another dimension to speak of down the road. I just want to look at the facts now. Lockdown comes around, and people are forced to confine themselves in their own homes. Neighbourhoods are literally sealed off so people cannot leave the confines of their home. That means that people are not free to go out to grocery stores to get even the bare essentials. A bag of vegetables is scarce for both the rich and the poor. A packet of instant noodles have seen its prices skyrocket during the lockdown. My pastor here in Toronto said that not only will many people die of COVID-19 in Vietnam, but they would die of hunger. How often do we take the fact that we can go out for groceries in Toronto with no problem, even during lockdown? Meanwhile, we complain about long grocery store lines and long cashier lines.

It is precisely during these desperate times, though, that charity, that love is brought to the forefront. Archbishop Joseph Chí Linh Nguyễn, Archbishop of Huế and President of the Conference of Catholic Bishops’ of Vietnam wrote a letter titled, Thương Quá Sài-gòn Ơi! (Oh, poor Sài-gòn!) asking all the faithful around Vietnam to turn their hearts and minds to Sài-gòn not only in prayers, but in concrete works of charity. The response from the campaign has been overwhelming as truckloads of essential goods from all over Vietnam came to south Vietnam to help out, even from the poorest of dioceses from around the country. From there, the diocesan offices, and particularly religious communities and parishes would distribute the necessities to not only Catholics, but anyone regardless of their race or religion were able to receive goods with no charge. It is this charity of a country that is able to take even the little they have, just like Five Loaves and Two Fish, to multiply it to feed thousands upon thousands of people. The Vietnamese proverb, “A fine leaf wraps a ripped leaf,” is exemplified to, “A leaf that has smaller rip wraps around another lead with a larger rip.” These are the sentiments that Archbishop Joseph Năng Nguyễn, Archbishop of TP-HCM expressed in his homily this past 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year B) upon reflecting the Lectionary readings.

The power of charity goes beyond only the sharing of material needs. Dioceses like that of the Archdiocese of TP-HCM and Diocese of Xuân Lộc have sent off clergy and youth leaders who volunteered themselves to assist medical front line workers. The demand for such aid was so great that the government turned to other parties and hundreds of clergy and lay faithful, as well as clergy of other religions opened themselves, urged by charity to serve on the front lines. As I came across the “diary” entries of various clergy on social media and on diocesan websites, how much compassion do I have for them – their courage in the midst of their fears and worries.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of the great acts of charities that happen. Some may question why such big miracles like the multiplication of the five loaves and two fish in the world today. However, such miracles by Jesus are no longer necessary because as evident in the everyday storylines, even in those as grim as that of Vietnam during the most difficult waves of the pandemic, the clergy and lay faithful are the hands of Jesus as they live out true charity. Without charity, the greatest of theological virtues, many many people would be dying not only of hunger, but of desperation, of deep deep despair. Despair is a result of lack of charity, of selfishness. However, it is the charity and the faith in the goodness of people that is still keeping hope alive, and allows the miracle of the multiplication of the Five Loaves and Two Fish to be repeated over and over again, and therefore, making Christ, who is love, present in the world that we live in today.

Charity is certainly greater than any rule. Moreover, all rules must lead to charity.

St. Vincent de Paul
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A Comment on Recent Revelations on the Catholic Church and Residential Schools

There is no doubt that the recent revelations on the finding in unmarked graves on grounds of residential schools first in Kamloop, British Columbia, and gradually more and more discoveries around Canada, have sparked anger, disappointment, doubt, confusion and reopening of wounds of a dark chapter in Canadian history.

The Catholic Church, has made many mistakes throughout its 2000-year history. As Thomas Cardinal Collins has stated countless times in the past few weeks, the Catholic Church in Canada (i.e. its dioceses and religious orders) should have never participated in the call from the government to run this residential schools because it took children away from their families. Added on to that pain, the abuse of children, the conditions in which they had to live in were horrific and there are no words to describe the pain and suffering that residential schools brought upon Indigenous children. The Catholic Church was wrong. This is just one of many, many mistakes throughout its 2000-year history.

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Reflections of a Liturgical MC on Holy Week 2021

Today, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Corpus Christi – the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. While Ordinary Time (part 2) started nearly two weeks ago, for me, this Solemnity closes the Easter celebrations as we return to green vestments on Sunday all the way till the Solemnity of Christ the King in November. We have been through much this year due to the effects and restrictions of COVID-19 Pandemic. However, it was was with these thoughts in mind that I composed the following reflection for the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement Kateri League-of-Chapter’s second issue of HIGHWAY magazine. I wish to share it on this site as well.

I still cannot wrap my head around the fact that over a year since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, Toronto has been under a lockdown that has technically lasted nearly six-months long, meanwhile some dioceses south of the Canadian border have in recent weeks been able to take off signs and ropes on pews, restore hymnals back in the pews, fill the Holy Water stoups and most significantly, attend Mass in a back-to-near-normal manner. Churches throughout the dioceses in the province of Ontario are still locked as cases continue to hover around in this third-wave. While I honestly do speak much about this insane reality, it is reality, and we must face it. This narrative of “reality” is probably by now too familiar to us.

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An Academic Year Gone Too Fast – Thoughts on a UofT Online School Year

My second year of undergraduate studies wrapped up last Friday with my last final assessment (a.k.a. exams). It was not a year any undergraduate University of Toronto (UofT) student, either first-year or fourth-year would have expected, with a full year of online learning. As a second-year undergrad student, I gratefully have had some experience on campus prior to the pandemic in March 2020 and had my share of campus life. I look back at this year with mixed emotions… not only because of the downs of online class, but also to the ups of the online university experience. Today I want to share five things I learned, a mix of pros and cons of this past online school year – a school year to remember.

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Lectionary Reflection: Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Year A, B and C (2021)

Lectionary Readings: Ex 12:1-8, 11-14 / Ps 116 / 1Cor 11:23-26 / Jn 13:1-15

[Jesus] loved them to the end.

Jn 13:1

We once again arrive at the Paschal Triduum with the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. We still have the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic looming over us, at least here in Toronto, and things do not seem to be getting any better, but rather, worse with the variants.

I think during the past year, we have heard so much of lockdowns, masks, social distancing… This pandemic rhetoric is making people sick of hearing it, including myself. However, we observe this safety protocols out of charity for our brothers and sisters in society. It is this charity that I wish to reflect on in light of today’s Gospel, today’s commemoration and the ongoing pandemic.

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Lectionary Reflection: Palm Sunday of the Passion of Our Lord, Year B

Lectionary Readings: Mk 11:1-10 (Procession) / Is 50:4-7 / Ps 22 / Phil 2:6-11 / Mk 14:1-15:47

Holy Week has once again come to the Catholic Church with the Liturgy of Palm Sunday of the Passion of Our Lord. For many, this Holy Week will be memorable because it may mark as Lent that has been dragging on for more than a year, particularly because of the absence of Holy Week Liturgies. However, I share in the pain with those who cannot partake in in-person liturgies either because of health risks, or because churches are closed in their respective dioceses. We pray that this pandemic will soon end so that we may soon be able to safely gather for public worship, because Catholic Liturgy is not meant to be celebrated virtually, but physically, with the people, because the sacraments are not meant to celebrated virtually, but physically, just as Christ makes Himself physically present among His people in the Eucharist.

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Lectionary Reflection: Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B

“O God, make me productive grain, efficient grain, effective grain. Jesus, make me a grain of wheat so that I can reach your Eucharistic reality, by which I really and truly live.”

Prayer of Bl. Carlo Acutis

Lectionary Readings: Jer 31:31-34 / Ps 51 / Heb 5:7-9 / Jn 12:20-33

Who do we want to live for? I think these are questions that have been scattered throughout the themes of Lent this year, particularly with this year’s Lectionary cycle. The First Sunday of Lent, we hear the call to “repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mk 1:15) On the Second Sunday of Lent, we read of the transfiguration of our Lord, a sign of the Divinity of Christ was revealed. The Sunday after, we read of the cleansing of the temple and we pondered upon the notion of the Temple, as a place of Worship, the Lord’s dwelling, not meant for profanity. Last week, we read of Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus and are reminded of God’s eternal love for every one of us.

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Lectionary Reflection: Fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday), Year B

Lectionary Readings: 2 Chron 36:14-17a, 19-23 / Ps 137 / Eph 2:4-10 / Jn 3:14-21

This Sunday, the priest will wear rose vestments for Laetare Sunday, the Sunday of Joy which marks the midpoint of Lent. However, this year’s Laetare Sunday for me, is different than most years. Yesterday, it was announced by the government of Ontario, where I live, that places of worship will be able to reopen at 15% capacity. That means that starting Monday March 15, 2021, public worship will be able to return, and Masses with the presence of the faithful will make a return just in time for the last weeks of Lent, and thankfully, in time for Holy Week.

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Lectionary Reflection: Third Sunday of Lent, Year B

Lectionary Readings: Ex 20:1-3, 7-8, 12-17 (shorter) / Ps 19 / 1Cor 1:18, 22-25 / Jn 2:13-25

At the end of last week’s Gospel, we read, “As they [Jesus, Peter, James and John] were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.” (Mk 9:9-10) I think the Peter, James and John finally received the answer that they were looking for in today’s Gospel “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (Jn 2:19) Jesus at the of last Sunday’s Gospel and this week’s Gospel foretells of His death and resurrection.

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Lectionary Reflection: Second Sunday of Lent, Year B

Lectionary Readings: Gen 22 1-2, 9-13, 15-18 / Ps 116 / Rom 8:31b-35, 37 / Mk 9:2-10

Have you ever been up a mountain either on foot or on vehicle and simply enjoy the views from up top? I recall my grade 10 trip to Algonquin Park and hiking was one of the activities and the small group of us young men with the teachers went up Booth’s Rock. Even though the journey was tiresome up hill, the view up top was worth it, especially on a cool autumn day where you would see trees down below with red, orange, yellow and some green leaves. Nearly two years ago, I recall the time I spent in Europe within the short 12-days journeying through Spain, Southern France and Italy. Specifically, I recall a day in France visiting Les Baux-de-Provence. It was cold a morning and I only wore a hoodie. However, I enjoyed the views from the top just looking down. The last instance I would like to speak was that of Assisi. Assisi, indeed a “city on the hilltop,” looking down to the green valleys down below… simply breathtaking.

A view of Les Beaux-de-Provence (Petit Bleu Photos)
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