On Saturday September 19, 2020, I along with several colleagues from the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement (VEYM) St. Thomas Thiện Chapter in Toronto were sworn in as official youth leaders. This was a milestone as it was ultimately, a culmination of nearly 12 years of formation and journeying with the movement since the local chapter opened in 2008. The Saturday evening Mass not only saw the installation of 10 youth leaders (six for level-1, and four for level-2), but also a celebration of the VEYM chapter’s patron, St. Thomas Thiện. It was a small Mass with social distancing measures strictly observed but nevertheless, it was beautiful and reverent. I posted this reflection on my Facebook status a couple hours after the Mass as a testament to my journey with VEYM. I share it here so if others have been in similar shoes will know that you are not alone – keep your head high! Please note, there are some terms in Vietnamese which I have put in [square brackets] to facilitate easier understanding.
I am starting to write this reflection exactly a month before today. In all honesty, I did not think that I was ever able to reach this day.
The reason behind this is something I rarely speak about publicly, especially on this public Facebook page.
But let me go back a bit so you can understand where I’m coming from. Growing up in Vietnamese-Catholic culture, parents only want the best for their children physically, academically and spiritually. For that I am grateful. As a result, some are very active in the church, taking on many hats within a liturgical year as altar server, choir member, orchestra member, Dâng Hoa member, Thiếu Nhi Thánh Thể (TNTT – Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement), Youth and Young Adults Ministries group (YaYA) and other ministries. Priests and bishops who have come to Vietnamese Martyrs Parish are always amazed at the presence of youth in the parish.
Things around 2015-2017 just became too much for me and from what I understand, several other of my peers my age as well. That period of trial was not only a result of what came up during those three years but it was more so a culmination of no so great experiences in parish ministry. On a bigger picture youth at the parish were pulled into too many directions and tensions among ministries resulted in lack of unity, lack of dialogue and priorities were not properly set among youth.
I have said to many that the lack of unity, dialogue and organization really do not hurt the core-team leaders that run ministries. Those who suffer the most are the youth. There were many youth ministries in the parish (don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing bad about that) but lack of communication among ministries. Core-team leaders never once met face-to-face to discuss their events with others, each ministry set up their own calendar. There seemed to be no time made for spiritual refreshment for youth in the parish as there was no such effort to find a date of Spiritual Recollection during Advent and/or Lent or anytime during the year. When attempts were made, ministries quietly refused, citing busy schedules to practice for this and that event or people just found no value in such retreats.
The lack of spiritual refreshment really took a toll on me as slowly, I find little value in my work particularly in 2015-2017. Everything was done for the sake of it with little to no meaning at all. I kept those thoughts quietly for myself as I feared judgement from others. I feared others would look to me as a bad example if I said such things and left.
However, through all this, God never abandoned me. I know I’ve spoken highly about Thầy Tuấn at our parish and I was blessed to have him as my Vietnamese school teacher and Catechist for the 2016-2017 academic year. Having actively taken part in the life of our parish in various aspects inside and outside. He understood the difficulties that our parish youth faith. Thầy Tuấn saw things different than most Vietnamese Catholic parents do. Something he said once in class stuck with me even to today and I wish to say it first in Vietnamese, then with English translation. “Khi mình làm bất cứ công việc gì, dù là trong Giáo xứ hay là ở ngoài đời, mình phải luôn luôn biết mục đích của việc mình đang làm. Nếu mình không biết mục đích của công việc làm gì thì lập tức, hãy ngưng công việc đó và xác định lại cái mục đích của mình.” (Whenever you do anything whether it be within the parish or in the secular world, you always need to know the objective of the work you are doing. If you cannot yet determine the objective, then stop that work and redetermine your goals and objectives.” It was like an “Examination of Conscience” for me – did I really lose the objective of what I was doing at the parish?
I really took Thầy’s words to heart and pondered upon it. For me, TNTT and YaYA were starting to look like similar youth groups. Choir became unmotivating because there was lack of leadership… in general, I found youth ministry was becoming more of a burden than a joy like it was years ago. Parish leadership in general, I recognized, was no longer geared towards young people like myself.
However, I thought to myself one day that if we truly wanted to find joy in parish youth ministry, there needed to be change things. I recognized that I could not do it myself and that we needed a group that would spear head changes. It seemed though, many young people in the parish were experiencing the same thing as me. I spoke to Thầy Tuấn about this casually and he recognized the same about the youth at the parish. It was about early 2017 and it was then that thoughts of a Parish Youth Pastoral Plan were born.
I remember going to Steubenville Toronto in July 2017. Having gone the previous year, I really had different expectations. Rather than being isolated to our parish group, I remember interacting with different people. There was something within the other youth groups that the Vietnamese Youth Ministries did not yet have. I think it was the joy and passion for their faith and really understanding the purpose of what and why of what they do.
Having had such a positive from Steubenville Toronto, I began writing the Youth Pastoral Plan… okay not everything… just the introduction to it. However, like any project I began, that slowly died down and buried among other Google Docs.
While I had plans to quietly leave TNTT at the end of Nghĩa Sĩ, I decided not to after Steubenville Toronto. I understood there was a Tĩnh Huấn Hiệp Sĩ [a retreat] coming up in October during Thanksgiving and I thought, “This is the last straw – if this is anything like the standard Vietnamese-Catholic retreats, my journey with TNTT is coming to an end.” I did not know what to expect from Tĩnh Huấn weekend – it was something unfamiliar to me. However, I let God take over the boat and indeed he did. I have to sincerely say, I felt a change in the way I saw and understood TNTT after that weekend. It was like a repeat of Steubenville Toronto, but on a much smaller, intimate level. However, what resonated with me the most was Adoration. Being at the far back, behind everyone and help leading some of the prayers and songs was something beautiful because rather than worrying about logistics, I immersed myself into the prayers and songs. “Open the eyes of my heart Lord, open the eyes of my heart. I want to see you. I want to see you.” I prayed that sincerely.
After the Tĩnh Huấn weekend, I felt pumped. As Hiệp Sĩ, we were not only learning about the faith, but starting to serve others. Some images from my time there were the Halloween Party, the Hội Chợ Tết booth both at church and Viet school. All fun times. The time after New Year’s 2018 was fairly interesting and I would say turbulent times. Thầy Tuấn, a figure who was well loved by so many parish youth and a mentor for myself and others was battling cancer. The Youth Pastoral Plan slowly faded as if something in the past but came to mind as I talked with Thầy for the last time. I promised Thầy that the Pastoral Plan was going to be completed to carry on the torch of those who truly believed in the youth and those who believed that through dialogue and unity, Catholic youth can do great things.
Just weeks after TNTT Summer Camp of 2018, I started picking up on the Pastoral Plan again, this time with more motivation and direction. It was precisely at this point that I really began to find a deeper sense of purpose of TNTT and the many youth ministries in our parish. TNTT is a movement that has a different spirituality, teaching methods, and different mission thats other groups like YaYA or LifeTeen in other parishes. I slowly began to understand that there was something special in each group and that just like there are so many different religious orders in the world, there could be different youth groups. It was then that I committed myself to continue with youth parish ministry. I had finally found a better sense of direction of where things were going in our parish.
I was pumped for the upcoming academic year as I was in grade 12 and excited to come back to ministry as I had a “compass” on hand. In December, there was a job posting for a posting as assistant Sacristan at St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica and a number of people advised me about it. The only concern I had was that the job description required Saturdays and Sundays. I was hesitant at first but applied anyways. I got a call back in early January saying that I was accepted for the job but asked for time to think about it. I was aware of what I had to give up when accepting the job, but weighed against the learning opportunities and experiences I would get… it was a tough decision. After some time of prayer and coincidentally, Cha’s announcement about my job offer in the presence of some youth ministry leaders, I felt at peace making the decision to go take the job at the Cathedral and up to now, I have to say I have learned a lot of new things that supplements my liturgical experience at my home parish.
From February to mid-October 2019, I sort of took a leave from regular TNTT activities because of the new job. Yet, TNTT was still on my heart. I did take weekends off for the Summer Camp, Đại Hội Nghĩa Hiệp and also, Huấn Luyện Huynh Trưởng cấp 1 [Youth Leader training, level 1] Giudea XIII. After cấp 1 camp, I seriously thought about how I would continue actively with TNTT. It was then that I thought of the newly opened Đoàn Emmanuel. I decided to start my time with them the Thanksgiving Sunday (mid-October) and what I have received from them was warm hospitality and felt at home.
Liên Đoàn Kateri Tekakwitha [League of Chapters] was shortly formed after I attended cấp 1 training and positions were open for a variety of roles on the Executive Committee. Though no proper qualifications yet, I took on the role of Uỷ Viên Phụng Vụ [Liturgical Commissioner] as I found liturgical planning and liturgy in general to be my forte.
Now on to more recent stories – there were many plans over the past months. I was supposed to Tuyên Hứa Huynh Trưởng some time in April after Easter. Like almost everything else in the world, that was postponed. However, I have to say, the pandemic has truly been a time of discernment and a time of grace for me. I had no work at the Cathedral as churches throughout the Archdiocese of Toronto were closed for three months. However, I was able to use that time to help with online sinh hoạt on Zoom with both Tôma Thiện and Emmanuel. Indeed, these months were not only a “homecoming” in a sense, but were also valuable preparation for the mission I was about to take on. Through planning and giving lessons on various topics, interacting with youth, learning and receiving feedback from others, there could not have been a better way I could have used those three months.
It was also during these three months that I, along with many of my colleagues on the Liên Đoàn Executive team. Were they busy months? I’d argue to say it as packed… but it kept me busy and seeing the critical feedback from various projects and virtual events gave me something work with and improve. The past months, I grew less and less “offended” by negative feedback and instead, I have been striving to replace that with humility. It is humbling to hear feedback and critiques from others as that shows you still have room for improvement. There is nothing worse than everyone saying that and event or project was good, but in reality, it wasn’t.
It has been a long journey to reach the Mass and ceremony today. The installation ceremony today coincides with Đoàn Tôma Thiện’s celebration of our patronal feast day (transferred from September 21), a saint who was martyred at the same age that many of my peers of swearing in today – 18, 19, 20 year olds… Some people may say the Catholic Church is too old. However, looking around me, I find hope because there are still youth that have that zeal for their faith and are committed to living it.
I am wrote this reflection because I wanted this to serve as a testimony that I have been through a number of hardships and “turbulence” in order to reach this day. However, even in the lowest points of life, lowest points of ministry, God was there and continues to journey with me and with those who open their hearts to have a “heart-to-heart” relationship with Him. I am not saying that I have reached that “heart-to-heart” relationship with Jesus Christ – I humbly say that it really takes effort, commitment and an open heart. However, the thing is, are we ready and willing to take a “leap of faith”? Are we willing to be generous with our time, talents and gifts?
What my colleagues and I promised today are not just words. It is a culmination of months and years of discernment and a number of them I know have been through various trials and tribulations as well. Today, I promise, with the help of God, to be an instrument of the Gospel in all aspects of life, and particularly as a youth leader of Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement.
I cannot promise or guarantee that I will be the perfect huynh trưởng. However, what I can promise to the Church and the Movement is that whatever I take on, I will do it to the best of my abilities and means given at a particular point in time. I will use my gifts and talents for the Glory of God and His Church and I am humbled and glad to say, that I will not be the only one doing so, but rather, I will be doing this alongside wonderful brothers and sisters of our TNTT family who have such great passion and zeal in the work they undertake.
Last thing: The kids and youth of VEYM do not need perfect youth leaders. From my experience, especially that from the recent year, I have learned that the young members of VEYM need leaders who are on fire with the faith. They need youth leaders who are honest. They need youth leaders who are on fire with love for our Eucharistic Lord. They need your accompaniment in their faith life. If we can be merely that, I think we can be leaders that would truly bring the young people to a “heart-to-heart” relationship with Our Lord.
My Eucharistic Lord, I love you. Please come and dwell in my soul not only for a moment, but forever. Let my actions and those of VEYM youth leaders be reflective of that. Amen.
I thank the many people who lead me to this day, namely TNTT Toronto – Đoàn Tôma Thiện who has always been there since day 1 when I was in Ấu Nhi. I give a special thank you to Đoàn Emmanuel – North York for your great hospitality and opportunities you gave me, especially in the past year. I also thank the many members of VEYM, and in particular those in TNTT Canada and Veym-Usa Tntt whom I have encountered online and on Facebook. God bless everyone!
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