It was in my mental calendar – today, April 23rd, 2020, I would be at the St. Cecilia’s Church for the celebration of Mass to pray for the repose of the soul of Thầy Tuấn – a friend, mentor, and humble “labourer in the Lord’s vineyard”. The Mass was also for thanksgiving of his life. Two years ago the Lord called Thầy Tuấn back to Himself. For those who do not know him, I would honestly find it hard to sum up who Thầy was – he held a variety of roles within his family and within the parish.
Two years later since April 23, 2018, I want to reflect on the perspective of Thầy Tuấn as a Catechist. I remember grade 10 Vietnamese and Catechism classes with Thầy Tuấn vividly. To tell you the truth, I do not know if I learned any new Vietnamese words or Vietnamese history in that class, but what I can say is that I learned a lot of life lessons. I remember one time in the class, when Thầy left the room to do something, one of my friends started chanting my name so I can “teach” and/or say something in front of the class (for fun). I cannot recall what I was “teaching”, but Thầy Tuấn walked into the class and I tried to run back to by seat embarrassingly – but Thầy told me to continue as he wanted to listen. I do not remember what Thầy said, but what I learned from him was the aspect of a lifelong learner – not superiority, but rather a two way learning: he taught, but also learned from his students. Another instance: It was January 2018, Thầy was still teaching his class. I gave Thầy an envelope containing a third-class relic holy card of St. Francis Xavier and a medal of the saint, commemorating the right-hand relic National Pilgrimage. The next week, he showed me the medal on his set of keys – I don’t know if that is still the case now, but he asked me about what the relic pilgrimage was all about since he never heard of it (which was understandable since Thầy was in and out of the hospital the last months of his life). However, someone came and asked Thầy to do something – but after, I ran by Thầy at church again and he asked me to continue to story.
During the last months of his life, I recall it was about late October or November 2017 and I was in grade 11 by then. Thầy sent someone from his class to call me over this his class. I didn’t know what was going on. Thầy asked me a question in front of the class, which was the question his bewildered classmates were struggling to answer: “Did the Blessed Virgin Mary need a Saviour?” I honestly did not know how to answer in certainty because I know that Mary was conceived without sin. However, if so, then why would Thầy even ask the question? I just laughed and told him, that question was like a “two edged sword”. He said the answer was simple – Mary does need a Saviour in Jesus Christ (see CCC 492) and that she said so herself in the Magnificat, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” (Lk 1:46-47) So… it seems that I’ve been saying the Magnificat every evening but never really payed attention to what I was reciting… shame on me. It was the probably the last bit of Catechism I learned from Thầy Tuấn and that I needed some brushing up on my Catechetics – but it was a fun Catechetical conversation with Thầy.
While Thầy was a fun and engaging Catechist, even in his simplicity when he taught, I think the most important Catechetical lesson that he taught his students was ultimately, with his life in parish ministry. Those who got to know Thầy would know that he is a person of humility. While parish volunteers got their applause at times, Thầy never liked that nor ever given that during a public Mass. The kids in the St. Cecilia Orchestra he established and his students would know that Thầy gets his hands dirty. When he came to orchestra practice, he brought his violin. If he was not conducting, he was either helping the kids play their violins properly or playing alongside the kids. I think that is what the youth liked about Thầy – he was a companion with the youth.
Second, Thầy believed in good effort, not perfection. I think that is why the kids persevered through the many practices in the St. Cecilia. Thầy loved music. I don’t know if he ever took formal music lessons, but he spread that love for music, especially Sacred Music onto the youth. However, he never aimed for a 100% orchestra. He saw the orchestra was a means for youth to come to serve the Parish community, not a performance and that the effort that the youth put in was in service to God and Thầy got the youth doing that in a fun and communal way.
Third, Thầy believed in the youth. While some parents and elders within the parish may undermine the youth in various aspects, Thầy always believed that the youth could make a difference, even when it meant mistakes here and there since that was the only way the Parish community would develop stronger. That is why Thầy wholeheartedly supported our parish’s Youth Pastoral Plan that is still under completion this day, with the hope of completing it next year. When I went to see Thầy for the last time at Sunnybrook Hospital, he was weak, but he was still very responsive and spoke softly. I promised him that no matter what happened, the youth would get the Pastoral Plan done. He promised me that if God’s plans changed, he would help us complete it. The plan is (hopefully) nearing its completion in time for Thầy’s three-year memorial Mass. Thầy wholeheartedly supported parish youth in any way he could – that is why, even in his last months, he continued his ministry among the young people.
Last point I would like to speak of Thầy Tuấn was his committed and caring personality for others. Though yes, Thầy did arrive late for some of his commitments, but at the end of the day, anyone who got to know Thầy would come to know that he was a busy man but never said he was too busy to help others. I remember once, I was driven to the church by someone other than my dad to help with some brick laying work for the rectory. I still don’t know I why I volunteered for that. After lunch, Thầy Tuấn asked me how I was going to get home. I answered saying that the person who drove me will probably drive me home – but Thầy said that that person already went home. Even though Thầy had some work to do at the parish, he said he would drive me home. He did after lunch and we had some great conversations on the 15 minute car ride that I will never forget. Thầy has helped countless of other people, especially the youth, whether it be with extra tutoring with the violin, or in math and science.
I sometimes fall into the trap of talking too much, especially about Catholic stuff but fail to put it into concrete practice. I look up to Thầy on that – he not only taught his students the Gospel but he put the Gospel into action by the smallest of actions. His life shows us the importance of lay people within the Church. You do not need to be a priest or bishop to make huge changes to the Church. It is more important that lay people act upon the Gospel to build up the Church, building up a Church of charity that God has intended and I thank Thầy for teaching me that.
However, today, I wish to take time to mention pray for his three sons – Joseph, Matthew and Vincent – three fine young men who are actively serving the Church and the wider community in many ways. I thank them for allowing their father to be part of my life, and part of the lives of so many young people in our parish, influencing who we are today. I continue to pray and support all of you and your family. Keep up the great work all of you are doing.
A year from today, I picture that at a 7:00pm Friday Mass, the young people will be gathered at St. Cecilia’s Church for someone whom everyone knows – someone who continues to be the protagonist of every Liturgical celebration – Jesus Christ. That is whom all our work should be geared towards to. We will gather to celebrate not an individual’s life, but rather, to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus – whom that inidividual should have lived their life for, and to affirm that “Christus Vivit – Christ is alive!” Death is never the end for Catholics – it is a new life in Christ, and for the living, the Mass of Christian Burial and the following Memorial Masses (Lễ Giỗ) once again opens up the affirmation to that eternal life.