Vietnam is one of the places in the world where vocations to the priesthood and religious life are still abundant. A long history of keeping the faith under difficult circumstances has nurtured a high regard for those who dedicate their lives within the Church. Applications to diocesan seminaries and men’s and women’s religious congregations exceed the capacity of these groups to receive and prepare them for service to God’s people.
Divine Word Missionaries is among those blessed with many eager candidates for religious and missionary life. I had the privilege of visiting Vietnam in 1993 and returned again eighteen months ago to help in the education of novices in Nha Trang, a midsize, coastal city known for its beautiful beaches. Our novitiate at Nha Trang welcomes young men who have graduated from college. Some have been part of a Divine Word Missionary prenovitiate program. Others are seeking their first encounter with religious formation. A few days of tests, background references, personal chats, and observation by our formation personnel provides the basis for selecting the most promising candidates. This past year we began with twenty candidates in the first year and thirty candidates in the second year.
My particular role is to serve as a volunteer English language teacher. Two lay teachers concentrate on grammar, and I focus on listening and speaking skills. The novices also study philosophy, Scripture, theology, music, and Vietnamese literature. All this is preparation for the formation and studies which follow.
As a missionary community, it is extremely important for our Vietnamese candidates to know a language with broad currency around the world. For now at least, English is chief among them. Besides that, the various other languages needed to serve in different Divine Word Missionary provinces are commonly taught in English. In many provinces, to show up without the knowledge and use of English is a serious hindrance to making the transitions all missionaries are challenged to make.
It has been a privilege for me to contribute in some measure to the improvement of English language skills among our novices. I believe they will be far better equipped to enter and embrace new cultures as they go for cross-cultural training programs or first assignments as Divine Word Missionaries. My biggest shortcoming as a language instructor and missionary has been my own limited ability to learn the basics of the Vietnamese language. So I am not a particularly good example for them in that area. All the same, they are happy to have me come back for the 2016/2017 school/formation year.
If I keep this up long enough, even my sixty-eight-year-old brain may eventually cooperate so I can understand and speak at least the simple things in Vietnamese. It is a real challenge, but one that is far outweighed by the blessings of a supportive community, appreciative students, and the conviction that my efforts could make my future confreres from Vietnam happier, more effective Divine Word Missionaries.