The one thing that I often missed the most as a Catholic and priest living and serving in the United States of America is the communal aspect of the Church.
For many parts of the world, the Church is the center of people’s daily lives. People hang out at their local parish, because different groups, gatherings, and meetings happen daily, and there are a lot of events going on because it is integral to the life of the faithful. Nevertheless, in recent times (in our life of faith here in America), people only tend to come for Mass but they lack the personal commitment to making their local parish the central part of their lives. People constantly say that they are busy with too many things that even Mass itself becomes a burden and obligation to resent at times. Therefore, I would like to share with you what I love to see here in America… especially if we are able to try our best to make our local parish, not just a place to hold Mass, but a family that we want to nourish and build together.
As a Vietnamese, family is very important. Our parents have given us life, and for the most part, we are tied and connected to a family tree of many people who have chosen that same gift of life (for others) as well. Where we are today is grounded in and through the people that had gone before us! Where we are today is a gift from the people who were part of our family and our lives. Where we are today is not a coincidence, for God had providentially given us a place where we belong that is deeply rooted in the gift of life.
Perhaps I am too traditional or culturally different than the typical Americans, but it is sad to see many of our post-modern families being disconnected from their greater roots. The nuclear, atomic families are becoming too busy without having enough layers of support. It is getting harder for one to find in a traditional family setting where grandparents, relatives, and extended members are present and are part of normal life.
Will it always be a perfect relationship with so many people involved? The answer would be no. There would be a lot of differences, arguments, and creative tensions. However, that interconnectivity reminds young people that they are not alone and their lives are deeply rooted. Second, it teaches them, through the creative tensions, that life is not perfect and relationships are messy but they are important because people are important. This is an important understanding because too many people are walking out of relationships when things get hard. When we see and learn from the messiness of family interconnected relationships, we know that we are called to love even though we do not always agree with or like certain people.
Growing up in a big family (or one that is interconnected with loved ones and neighbors) teaches much about sacrifices and compromises since no one would ever get what they want. It can teach children that life is not perfect or as expected. Even when human relationships and interactions are not perfect, we still choose to love and forgive! A few years back, I read in a psychological and sociological journal that many young children lack the capacity in dealing with loss because they lack the necessary interactions with previous generations who can teach them what is important and needed in life, as well as how to embrace loss through their own personal lives and wisdom. Second, growing up and living with grandparents or older adults who are struggling with the loss of mobility and decrease in health also teach children the natural parts of growth and decay within one’s own lifetime.
Most people around the world grow up and are surrounded by many of their immediate and extended family members. Together, the family helps raise the children since they provide diverse, creative, and complex factors that cannot just be taught at school. Human interactions between different generations and people help enrich our children’s ability to deal with things that are not simply comprehensible, achievable, or controllable with information or humanistic factors. When children grow up in an interconnected and communal setting, they learn to value relationships and be able to choose qualitative measures more than typical productivity or effectiveness. I believe this is what truly lacking in America, and I hope many of our educators, parents and social influencers can understand its essential and foundational impact.
As a Vietnamese, remembering and honoring our ancestors is an essential part of our cultural identity, and much more meaningful as a Catholic. Even those who do not share our faith remember and honor their ancestors in Viet Nam, but they tend to idolize them; while as Catholics, we respectfully remember them in and through the mercy of God. Hence, I think that remembering and praying for the dead is important because it reminds and connects us with those who had gone before us and given us life. I think many of us are spiritually ahistorical and disconnected here in America. When someone died, many tend to simply drop them off their memories and prayers after a while. They might tell stories or recall memories of the people, but there is a real lack of spiritual interconnectedness that is lacking in our American culture that many others around the world cherish so well.
This remembrance of the dead is important in my Vietnamese culture (and of other family-oriented cultures, too). Perhaps it is more important for me because my grandparents instilled this spiritual and personal practice in their offspring. We would gather together to celebrate the memorials of our ancestors and to pray for them, the poor souls in purgatory, those who are dying, and those who have no one to pray for them. This understanding of intergenerational, human, and spiritual communion and interconnectivity reminds me that we are never alone for we were always born into a family. Therefore, it is important to pray for those who are part of who we are. I am speaking in a bigger and spiritual sense, too, because God has given us a human and spiritual family that is beyond blood or familial connections. We are parts of this greater human family, for we are all redeemed and saved by the blood of the Son of God, and called together as the Church. That is why it is important to know that, even in our prayers, we cannot just be or pray alone or for ourselves.
There are people who pray for us that we do not know. They intercede for our needs. We can feel these spiritual powers lifting us up in our hardest times. That was not coincidental. The power of prayer that helps us in our trials and journey of life comes from those who are offering their sufferings, willing to remember and pray for someone who is struggling, and personally unite themselves with us through the providential love of God even though they might not know us. The people who are now with God (even those in the purgation period) are also praying for us, living in their present state of life and spiritual communion with us as holy intercessors.
If they are praying for us and with us, are we praying with them and for them in our prayers? Are we learning to embrace and intercede for others when we come to God or are we too preoccupied with our own goods and problems? It is a beautiful practice and personal offering of our love when we choose to remember and pray for others, especially those who are in need of our spiritual assistance.
What I miss seeing the most as a Vietnamese Catholic is seeing the neighborhood and parish coming together when there is a loss, tragedy, and hardship. We have perhaps lost sight of this for the majority of the time here in America. I remember when someone is going through a tough time or lost someone they loved, the whole neighborhood would get together to help. Neighbors would cook and make sure that the family is cared for in times of need. Furthermore, if they lost someone, the local neighborhood and parish would set up a schedule for prayer and visitation times around the clock, honoring and praying for the soul of the deceased until the internment. Different social and parish-based organizations would take turns to keep vigil and do their parts to care for the family. Some will sit with the body, others will pray the Rosary and other devotional prayers, many will just be there to show that they care. The house would be opened and people would stop in throughout the day to visit the body of the deceased as well as the family, to pay their respect and give their condolences. At the funeral mass, the parish would come together to pray for the deceased as well as the family. It is rare that a funeral mass and graveside service is sparsed and not a packed house event. As a matter of fact, this tradition continues to live on with the Vietnamese who live in the different diaspora as well.
Contrary, we often see at funerals in America, only a few people attend outside of family members. It is such a hard and lonely sight for me to see as a Catholic and priest. I personally would wish that many make it a goal to attend funeral masses as a concrete part of their faith life. In times of loss and tragedy, it is unfortunate that many have to go through those situations alone for we have lost a sense of communal support.
Even though the faith community is not always perfect and is a headache at times, it is still the greatest sign of Christian love, unity, and solidarity so that we remember that we are not alone. Our willing and personal decision to support one another lifts each and every member up so that they do not have to go through life’s trials by themselves, especially when they grieve and deal with loss. We can talk much about love and charity, but they remain empty words until we are personally willing to put them into action with our own sacrificial, heartfelt, and charitable acts of love.
Therefore, I would like to leave you with this thought… Before many indigenous Vietnamese knew of Christianity, they called our faith “the religion of love” because they were amazed at how Christians cared for one another. I think this is important to remember! At the end of the day, we win hearts with the truth in charity. We see many people who claim to speak the truth, but they have to be in compliance and alignment to what has been handed on to us so we can point people not to ourselves but to the Lord! What God has commanded us to do cannot be separated from love. Without charity, the truth can become self-serving and easily manipulated. Saint John the Apostle reminded us in his epistles — over and over again — that if we cannot love one another, the ones who we can see, then we cannot say that we love the God that we cannot see. Without a doubt, the love of God has to be enlivened in our relationship with one another.