Some people step aside, serene, their eyes closed but fully conscious. Others fall back into the arms of ready-waiting men – men who had volunteered their strength before the “praying over” had gotten under way.
Such was the scene at Good Shepherd Parish in Lockridge one evening last month at one of three retreats conducted by the Rome-based retreat master Fr Michael Nguyen CSsR – his third visit to Perth in the past four years.
He flew into Australia, having just given a retreat in Herzegovina and before that, Portugal, Germany, Rome, London, California, Houston and Canada.
Earlier that evening, the priest stood at the lectern with a guitar, leading the congregation in his own unassuming brand of praise and worship before preaching up a storm, challenging people to get to know and experience God to an ever greater extent.
Fr Nguyen told The Record he had some fairly definite ideas about what he was going to do as a priest working in Houston, Texas.
Raised in Manitoba, Canada but born in Vietnam, it was to an English-speaking church that the Redemptorist priest wanted to minister in the late 1990s but his superior had other ideas.
Between 1999 and 2011 he served as the director of Radio Me Hang Cuu Giup, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Radio, a service broadcasting in Vietnamese in the US, Canada, Europe and Australia.
It was a good lesson, he said, in learning that authentic joy comes from putting one’s life in the hands of God, and not in following one’s own will.
“It has not been a struggle for me. I cannot hold on to my vocation by myself. It’s impossible. It’s a divine calling,” Fr Nguyen said.
“You walk with the Lord. You follow the Lord, one day at a time.”
That is not to say, Fr Nguyen hasn’t faced his own existential challenges – every Christian faces them.
Fr Nguyen is the only priest of his seminary initial intake to be in ministry (the only other man to be ordained from his year left the priesthood last year). He not only challenges other Catholics to grow in their faith – in knowledge and love. It is a challenge he sets himself.
“What do you do? You start thinking about formation and not just formation for other people but for myself – asking myself ‘what does it mean to be a priest in today’s world?’
“I cannot give a definition for myself. I have to go back to the Apostles and Jesus. How does he live his life? Do we have any saintly role models? Of course, we do.
“This is the Year of Faith and I am asking myself, ‘what does faith mean?’
“I’ve said to people throughout Australia… it means theologising in order to understand – faith seeking understanding. I challenge people to think about what they believe and why they believe what they believe, and how to explain their faith, not just to themselves, but to their children; to have the courage to share with non-Christians.”
“This is my conviction, it is a waste of Christ’s precious blood just to save Catholics only. Salvation is not just for Catholics alone. You need the Muslims, the Orthodox, Protestants, whoever – the non-Catholics and the atheists.”
“You share it not just at the intellectual level but you have the experiential encounter with the Lord.”
As a former radio director, he sees a distinct role for Catholic media in furthering appreciation for truth and God’s plan for, and presence in, the world.
“The media is supposed to present the whole truth to the people. We’re not cutting corners here or there,” Fr Nguyen said.
“It takes a lot of courage to be a true journalist, a reporter. We are supposed to report to the people without bias.
“What I look for as a Catholic, doing journalism or reporting, I seek for Good News not just news. We can create news. We look at a situation and then we look at some angle and we report it but what kind of angle are we reporting?”
“My preference is to report it from the spiritual side. That term is very abstract but basically it’s to see the presence of God in every situation.”
“The role of the media is to produce the truth from all sides and then to find the Good News… and to represent the voices of people, especially those who don’t have the choice to speak up, the poor, the abandoned.”
The Church faces challenges of negative perception, because of the way in which people viewed priests owing to scandals such as abuse.
“How are we going to change the perception of the people? I’m going to start with myself first, rethinking what is going on.”
“Pope Francis says go out there, be with the people, speak the voices of the people. Be there with the people, not just hiding in your parish, in your four walls.”
“Go out there. Live the poor life. Understand their suffering and pain,” Fr Nguyen said.”
He eschews the fire and brimstone rhetoric Redemptorists were known for, particularly prior to the 1960s. To be a Redemptorist, he said, is simply to be in love with our Holy Redeemer.
“Who is in charge of my life? Me or the Lord? It is no longer between me and the world, me and my flesh, me and the devil, it is about me and the Lord. ‘You are in charge, or I am in charge.’”
“Tomorrow, somehow I need to love him more, in my thoughts, study more, love him more in my heart by resolution, by doing something more.”
“When you’re in love, you know, it’s never enough. St Teresa of Avila or St Alphonsus said that love is never enough. And the moment you lack is when you stop creating. Love is very creative. It finds a way. Great poetry, music, art. When you are in love you do that… it’s loving all the time,” Fr Nguyen said.