Tensions Of Our Hearts – Fr. Viet Nguyen

Fr. Viet Nguyen’s Homily July 7, 2019

“Who am I and what am I here to do?  Who am I and what am I here to do? You know, those are two questions that were posed to me when I was in high school, but they’re really two fundamental questions that we all ask ourselves throughout our lives.  Who am I and what am I here to do?

As Christians, we are all called to Evangelize to share our faith with others and today in the Gospel, Christ is sending out the 72 in pairs to go out in the wilderness, to go out in their lives to share the Gospel to share their lives with others, but that can be difficult, can’t it?  It can be scary. There’s a lot of unknowns there. Where will I go? What will I say? What will I run into? But the key there isn’t first that we have to find out what we need, but who we are. First always comes identity, who we are. The culture tells us that you find your identity in what you do.  Haven’t you heard the phrase, ‘I’m gonna go try to find myself. Maybe in college or maybe I’ll travel the world to try to find myself.’ As if finding yourself, you can do it outside of yourself, but as Christians, really it’s the other way around. First, you find your identity and through that foundation you will find your mission.  It will flow from your very identity, so who are you and what are you here to do?

My name is Fr. Viet Nguyen and I am the new associate here, so you know that I am a priest and my mission here is to help serve the people here at Ascension, but let me tell you a little bit about myself.  Often times when I start my story of my faith I always talk about the years in the 1950’s and no, that’s not when I was alive even though people say that Asians age very well…not that well! But you know, in the 1950’s that’s when my grandparents were in Vietnam.  They were actually in the north of Vietnam, but in the late 1950’s was when the Communists came to really persecute the Christians in the north. Many were killed, but many fled, fled south to South Vietnam and that’s when the country was split in two, the Communist North and the Democratic South kind of like what Korea is right now and then April 30th, 1975 was the fall of Saigon, the end of the Vietnam war and that’s when my parents fled Vietnam.  They were refugees from the war and I always wondered, how could you just pick up and leave? We really have no concept of what that might be, but my parents always told me that they left with nothing but their family and their faith in God that everything would be okay and so they got on a boat and left and in some sense the rest is history.

I was born here in Kansas City, MO at Menorah Hospital.  I grew up at Cure of Ars Parish from 3 year old preschool through 8th grade and then Rockhurst High School from 2004-2008 and so in some ways I’m a homegrown vocation really here, but then I left for college, but really I ran away.  You know we often leave expecting to come back but I say I ran away because I didn’t really expect to come back to Kansas City to live. I went to the University of Illinois at Chicago and that’s really where I found my faith. It was challenged, my very identity, but also my faith and I found my vocation there at that Newman Center.  After that I entered Seminary in 2012, but as I said I ran away from home, so I didn’t start studying for the Archdiocese of Kansas, but I started studying for the Archdiocese of Chicago. After my first year in Seminary, I asked the Archdiocese to send me to Vietnam to continue learning how to read and write, so they sent me there for the summer for three months.  But you know it’s interesting, when I got there to that country, a country I had never been before, a country I’ve only heard about in stories and pictures and movies, but when I landed in Vietnam it felt like home, the sounds, the smells, the language, the food, the people, it all felt like home, so familiar and for the first time in my life I had to really think about how I was raised it started to make sense.  I started to get a glimpse about how my parents raised me or why they did. I started to understand my parents just a little bit better and for that reason I decided to switch diocese and come back home to my family, but you know, it was always a struggle of identity. That’s why I left. All my life it was always, ‘Am I Vietnamese or am I American?’ You see my parents always told me that one culture is not better than another and you have an opportunity as a first generation to really take the best of both cultures and make it your own, but didn’t really give me a handbook for that so the struggle there of identity was very real.  At some time in my life I appreciated being more Vietnamese than American and I hated the other and vice versa, but most of my time in America I was more proud to be Vietnamese because I appreciated the values of the Asian culture of family and respect for your elders, but then I came into a contradiction. When I was in Vietnam, I was proud to be American. I realized that I was very much an American and I appreciated the values of the American culture, the individual. So there was always this tension, this tension in my heart, but really it wasn’t until a couple of years ago when I was in Jarusalem where I really I guess found the answer to this longing of who am I?  I met this Vietnamese priest in Jarusalem. He was a scripture scholar there and he was about 75, so he was of my grandparents generation. He was in prison after the war and then he came to Rome to study so he was very much Vietnamese, but he knew the Western culture very well and it was the first time in my life where I could fully express myself to someone my grandparents generation. So I had a conversation with him and really asked him many questions, but the key one was, how do I reconcile this tension in my life of who I am? Am I Vietnamese or am I American? And you know what he told me was very simple. It was almost obvious, but it was true. He said, ‘You don’t find your identity in your culture or what you do, you find your identity in your faith.  You find your identity in Christ Jesus.’ He says that, ‘The beautiful thing about the Christian faith is that it doesn’t come into a culture and destroy it and replace it’, but he says that, ‘the Christian faith can go into any culture and go into it and help purify it from the inside out.’ And so he told me, ‘Your identity lies solely as a child of God and anything else is really secondary to that.’ It made so much sense and that’s when I had peace in my heart I guess to continue on in my vocation, but the question doesn’t just lie with me, it lies in all of us. Who are you and what are you here to do? If I were to ask you who you are, what would you say? Would you identify yourself by your job and what you do? Maybe you identify yourself by what sport you play or hobby you have.  Maybe you identify yourself by your sexual orientation or your gender, but who are you? Because it’s really a fundamental question that will always get tested in your life. You see, our identity should be the foundation of who we are and then through that, you figure out what you are called to do and what you want to do, but if you don’t answer the first question, the difficulties will always come and they will and they will eat away at yourself, your very identity, so who are you and what are you here to do?

You see in the Gospel today, Jesus calls the 72 to go out and evangelize to preach that the Kingdom of God is at hand and so it is, but so it is with all of us.  We are to do the same, but he calls us in pairs for the very reason that it will be difficult, but at least there’s someone there with you in the difficulties to remind you who you are in those difficult times.  Maybe that’s why in marriage there’s two of you, but also in the Gospel he tells us to leave your moneybags, no moneybags, no extra sandals, no sack cloth for the very reason that he doesn’t want us to find things outside of us to rely on those things, but to rely solely on our very identity as children of God, to rely on our relationship our faith in Him.  That’s why he calls us to leave all those things, so who are you and what are you here to do? As you come to receive the Eucharist today where Christ is truly present before you, let us continue to ask the Lord for the strength and courage to ask these hard questions to bring the struggles the pains, the very tensions of our hearts to Him to help purify our hearts so that one day we can rely on the very foundation that we are children of God, Amen.