Despite an already prepared blog to be published tomorrow, and some papers to submit in the upcoming days, I opened Facebook this morning to learn of rather terrifying news from Catholic News Sources in Vietnam, and later, the official Facebook page of the Dominican Order: Fr. Joseph Thanh Ngọc Trần, O.P. was murdered yesterday, January 29, 2022, while hearing confession. The exact motives of his murder have not yet been disclosed (still under investigation), though some speculate the murderer was drunk. Some have even went as far to call him a “martyr,” though I would not give such classification until we know of the motive behind such murder. However, what is clear: The young 41-year old priest died while he was celebrating the sacraments – in this case, the sacrament of Reconciliation.
I reflect on this, knowing that such news would never make it to major news outlets around the world, especially in this more secularized, and honestly, fear-driven world where many news outlets rely on constant fear-mongering without a full depiction and contextualization of its news stories. For the better? I do not know. What I can say is that, the life of the priest is a quiet, sacrificial life. There have been many priests who have been killed while celebrating the sacraments or while performing priestly duties. Some more famous examples include St. Thomas Becket, who was martyred while celebrating Mass on December 29, 1170 while celebrating Mass. A more contemporary example is that of St. Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador who was murdered while celebrating Mass after the elevation of the chalice. Many say his blood mingled with that of the newly consecrated blood of Christ. Lesser known examples and one that resembles a similar death to that of Fr. Joseph was that Fr. Juan Miguel Contreras Garcia, a 33-year old priest who was attacked by gunshot while hearing confessions in 2018.
These re just a sampler of stories, but they speak to the reality of a quiet sacrificial life that a priest is meant to live. Fr. Joseph died while ministering to a community in the diocese of Kontum, a diocese which ministers to many ethnic communities stricken by extreme poverty. There are some who turn to a life of drugs and alcohol (hence the speculation that the murderer of this priest was drunk) and continue such lifestyle without any rehabilitation programs like we do here in North America. Perhaps the simple biographical details listed on the Obituary might give a bit of context as to what priest left behind when he chose to become a member of the Order of Preachers and priest of Jesus Christ. He was born in 1981 in Sài-gòn (nowadays known officially as Hồ Chí Minh City), which is the centre of economic activity in Vietnam. I would imagine that he left the comforts of life to pursue life as a priest, going all the way up to Central Vietnam to minister to these people of ethnic communities. Such ministry then would have come with many challenges but yet, as a young priest ordained in 2018, he accepted such challenges and through that brought the Gospel and Our Lord to these disadvantaged people of society. He died while sacramentally ministering to his flock.
What may seem like a gruesome end to someone’s life proves to be a beautiful “pastoral letter” to his flock, I would think. This letter written with the life of priestly ministry culminates in an end that people find tragic, but contextualizing it, shows that there are priests who through the centuries to today continue to give of themselves, to take risks to leave the comforts that earthly life offers to minister to far off lands, even giving of their lives do so. Do these stories ever make it into major media outlets? Most of them, no. Unfortunately, major media outlets point rather, to scandalous priests who though very few in number, tarnish the names of heroic priests. Though priests seemingly live quiet lives in that they live in a spirit of humility and thus, never dream of making celebrity “big news,” the tarnishment of their ministry not only tarnishes the priesthood, but ultimately, the Church and Jesus Christ.
May the death of Fr. Joseph, and many other priests who died while serving the sacraments, serve as a reminder of the continued selfless models of priests all around the world who give up the comforts of life so to live quiet, sacrificial lives so to unite with the Sacrifice offered at every Mass. In that, priests conform to the One whose priesthood they share in, and so their lives would be reflective of no one, but Jesus Christ in their priestly ministry.
To close, I quote from St. Oscar Romero’s last homily, just moments before he was shot: “May this body [of Christ] immolated and this blood sacrificed for humans nourish us also, so that we may give our body and our blood to suffering and to pain—like Christ, not for self, but to impart notions of justice and peace to our people.”