On the first anniversary of Fr John B. Nguyen The Thiep’s death (June 14, 2022 – June 14, 2023), I would like to share some highlights of the life of a Redemptorist who dared to live and die in poverty.
These are the final heartfelt words of Father John Baptist Nguyen The Thiep, a religious priest of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, a Redemptorist who lived in poverty and died among the poor.
A Brief Biography
Fr John Baptist Nguyen The Thiep, originally named Nguyen The Be, was born on March 25, 1936, into a landowner family with nine children in An Loc village, An Thuy commune, Le Thuy district, Quang Binh province, Vietnam. His parents were Mr. Nguyen The San and Mrs. Vo Thi Con.
During that time, An Loc village did not have a school. In 1948, recognizing his eagerness to learn, his parents sent him to study at a Catholic school in Dong Hoi town, under the supervision of Fr John Baptist Nguyen Cao Loc. Besides studying general subjects, he also received catechism lessons. On April 24, 1949, he received the sacrament of baptism and chose John the Baptist as his patron saint. Father Loc also changed his name from Nguyen The Be to Nguyen The Thiep.
In 1952, his father passed away. Seeing his inclination for religious life, Father John Baptist Nguyen Cao Loc sent the young boy to study at the Seminary of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer in Hue. In 1956, his mother also passed away. In the same year, the seminary in Hue relocated to Vung Tau. He and his fellow seminarians moved to Vung Tau to continue their studies and spiritual development. During this time, three of his older brothers went to Hanoi to join the Viet Minh army. Through letters, they tried to persuade him to follow the communist ideology, but their efforts were in vain.
On August 15, 1958, in response to God’s call through the superiors of the Congregation, he entered the Novitiate of the Congregation of the Savior in Da Lat. After a year of spiritual formation and prayer to discern God’s will, on August 15, 1959, he made his first vows in the Congregation and began his years as a student at the Theologate in Da Lat. After more than five years in the theologate, on December 19, 1964, he was ordained as a priest by Archbishop Philip Nguyen Kim Dien, the Archbishop of Hue, at the Redemptorist Church in Hue. After his ordination, the newly ordained priest was assigned as the assistant pastor of the Tung Lam parish in Da Lat. In 1966, he officially began his service in Chau O and remained there until his passing.
Being restless because of the poor people
Chau O, in the years of 1966, was a land of war and poverty. Hunger and poverty surrounded everything. “Poverty due to climate, due to land. Hunger is due to war, due to corruption, and exploitation. Hunger and poverty give rise to morally diseased individuals, blood-soaked liberation movements, and incessant factional disputes” (Nguyen The Thiep, “Demands of Hunger and Poverty for Myself,” Our Lady of Perpetual Help Magazine, issue 42, 1972, pp. 18-20).
Born into poverty and trained to become a poor religious, with a mission to serve the destitute, now encountering and living among the poor, the young Redemptorist felt himself interrogated: “That environment challenges me, interrogates me. Often, it torments and accuses me. It is ferocious like a wild horse, cruel like an iron whip” (Ibid).
The iron whip of the poor has caused the young Redemptorist much pain, and regret, all because of slight negligence and lack of attention to the poor brothers and sisters: “One noon, when I stopped by the Chau O Community to have lunch and rest. That noon, it was scorching hot, and the sky was thirsty for rain. I hurriedly went down to the kitchen to fetch water, inadvertently glanced out the window, and a heart-wrenching scene struck my eyes. Beside the kitchen wall, where the garbage was dumped, a child was there, with interest and delight… licking a mango seed that we had eaten at the table for lunch and thrown away. The child kept licking it, as if wanting to swallow the whole seed into the belly. I was afraid to look at the child, and I felt guilty for lacking vigilance before an action, hidden from the sight of a fellow human being. I trembled with shame for being privileged to have more than the child, but not recognizing it. Who knows that mango was eaten by me, and now the child has to lick it again. What offense has the child committed to endure such a humiliating punishment! And I, what merit do I have to enjoy the privilege of eating the delicious mango before the child, and now, for what sin am I involved with the child in this troublesome act of licking the mango seed: a moral entanglement that does not allow me to find peace and serenity!” (Ibid)
STAYING AMONG THE POOR
How can one find peace and tranquility, with an unrelenting conscience, when every day they witness the countless miseries of poverty, disease, and seeing their brothers and sisters having to “savor the taste of a mouthful of rice for a long time to enjoy its delicious flavor”? Faced with such “heartbreaking and gut-wrenching situations that occur every day,” the young Redemptorist, filled with dreams and aspirations, could not remain indifferent. He chose to stay, disregarding the threats of war and death, to live and die alongside the poor:
“I stay… I, a Vietnamese. My country is in the midst of war. My fellow countrymen, my own flesh and blood, are borrowing foreign weapons to kill each other. It is a great tragedy of our racial history, just like the sorrowful history of past times: the conflicts between the North and South, from Trinh to Nguyen, to Tay Son and Nguyen Anh. That tragedy is so painful, so precious for future generations, and so valuable for humanity that always yearns for peace but never finds it… And I, driven by the profound and earnest love of a descendant of the people, want to witness with my own eyes, to see it firsthand, in the farthest corners and alleys, in the darkest places and hidden corners, the horrific scenes of fratricidal killings. I want to silently bear witness to the terrifying tragedy that horrifies and terrifies everyone, to the extent that they dare not look directly at it. That is the first reason why I stay. There is another reason, more discreet but equally universal and sorrowful, as it belongs to the realm of faith: I stay because I am a priest. I am a person who has made the vow and commitment to dedicate my life to the lives and deaths of many others.” (Nguyen The Thiep, Journal of Missionary Work, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Magazine, issue 62, July 1974, p. 13.)
LIVING AND DYING WITH THE POOR
By choosing to stay among the poor, the priest also chose a life of poverty for himself. Nowadays, it is difficult to find a religious priest living in such destitution as he does. His possessions amount to nothing more than books and sacred items used in liturgical celebrations. His home is nothing more than a makeshift classroom at the old Thang Tien school.
Amidst the poor, empathizing with their poverty and witnessing the reality of having to “savor a mouthful of rice while listening,” the priest – as he himself says – had to choose a way of life that is not “too detached from the people, even in terms of meals and clothing,” because otherwise, it would be a stain, a disgrace, and the disgrace regarding food, housing, and lifestyle would be truly pitiful and terrible. This is a contradiction of the Gospel, as “Christ Himself led me through those dreadful narrow alleys.” (Nguyen The Thiep, Demanding Poverty and Hunger for Myself, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Magazine, issue 42, 1972, p. 20.)
Choosing poverty to resemble the poor Christ, but in the midst of the “dreadful scenes of poverty,” the priest sought every possible way to help his poor brothers and sisters’ progress. For him, the words “revolution and progress” are sacred, they are the path that Christ invites him to follow, in order to help the poor escape poverty. In the years before 1975, when political circumstances permitted, he sought every means to uplift the poor. In Chau O, he established the Phung Su School. In Binh Hai, he built a church, a primary and secondary school called Thien My, opened a library, built a soccer field, designed a livestock farming area, and established the High Netting Group for fishermen. Binh Thanh was his final destination, where he opened the Thang Tien School, with the desire to expand knowledge for impoverished children. After 1975, when circumstances no longer allowed, he continued to silently find ways to help and be present among them as a faithful witness.
LONGING FOR A POOR CHURCH
Living in poverty, the redemptorist also yearns for a poor Church: “My Church. Shouldn’t the Church, following the spirit of the Declaration of the Bishops’ Council in Asia, be a Church that serves the poor as their hearts desire? Shouldn’t it be a Church of ‘Joy and Hope’ that shines in their hearts?”
For him, the Church, wanting to proclaim the Good News, above all else, must stand on the side of the poor. The Church must distance itself from “one political party or another.” It is a Church that “always stands outside and above all worldly conflicts,” because “the Word of God should not be bound for any reason, causing the evangelists to confine themselves to this fortress, that strategy, or that settlement. The Word of God must freely fly to every corner of the earth, through every alley and cave, to reach all human beings and proclaim universal salvation to all souls.” (Nguyen The Thiep, Journal of Evangelization: These Days and Those Days, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Magazine, issue 64, September 1974, p. 24.)
Witnessing the evangelization efforts of fellow Christians and Buddhists along the missionary paths, he laments: “On the missionary path, from time to time, I still see and yearn for the Cao Dai and Buddhist preachers who roam every corner. They traverse dangerous roads, leaving their footprints in every village and alley. Everywhere, there are their footprints, footprints that the servants of the Church should have left on every path in Vietnam.” (Ibid)
... AND DIE IN POVERTY
After 56 years of “leaving footprints on every path” of missionary work in Chau O, the Redemptorist priest, born into poverty, chose a life of poverty to serve the poor and peacefully passed away in a state of poverty at 13:45 on Tuesday, June 14, 2022, at the Monastery of the Most Holy Redeemer in Chau O, at the age of 86.
For the confreres in the congregation, he was truly a witness of the Redeemer, in solidarity for the mission in a world wounded by war, injustice, socialism, and poverty.
May the mission and the spirit of poverty of this Redemptorist continue to be an inspiration and a driving force for all the confreres of the Redemptorists in proclaiming the Good News in Vietnam today.
Nguyen Ngoc Nam Phong, CSsR
(Translated by: Duc Trung Vu, CSsR)