The nuns, the lepers — a meaningful experience of God’s love, mercy

November 22, 2011

In 2004, one year after my ordination, I was able to arrange, with my parents, a visit to Vietnam, my country of birth, after years of being away. The happiness of reuniting with numerous relatives, childhood friends and the warm nostalgic feelings of memories of the old village and schools added to the uncontainable joy of the graces of the Ordination that was still very fresh in my first year of the priesthood. Surrounded by loved ones, I celebrated a Thanksgiving Mass in my mother tongue in the church where my grandparents used to walk me every day to the 4 a.m. Mass during the summer visits. The Mass was simple yet majestic in love and gratitude. I thought of how a little simple boy from a poor village in Vietnam had ended up becoming a priest for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston was simply a story of grace. As I said the prayer of consecration of the Body and Blood of Christ, how much I wanted to dedicate my entire being to serve and love the Lord.

Shortly after, my cousin and some friends took me to visit a center dedicated as a separated living quarter for lepers. For the people at the center, it was very special to have a visit from a young priest recently ordained in the United States. As I entered the guest parlor, my heart sunk. Leprosy had mercilessly taken the limbs of the people there. Yet I could see the curiosity and the excitement on their faces to see such a young Vietnamese priest visiting from Texas. In the middle of the room was a small table with four chairs. The elder sat there waiting to welcome me while the rest sat neatly against the wall, facing the center. I gently bowed my head to greet the people and to acknowledge their warm hospitality as I sat down at the table next to the elder with my cousin. Then as a custom, the elder poured some tea from the pot and offered me a warm cup of tea. I was caught off guard. I instantly noticed that the elder’s hands were already gone from the flesh eating virus of leprosy. The teacup was squeezed in between his arms as he offered it to me. Time froze as I was overwhelmed with fear. My cousin next to me had already taken a cup and drunk it. If I drunk the cup, what would happen to me? If I refused it, I would be rejecting the sincere hospitality these poor people, offering to a very much admired priest. I gathered all the courage I had to accept the cup and drank it as beads of sweat poured down my face. What happened after that I could not remember because the only thing I was thinking about was that the leprosy virus was beginning to eat up my stomach from the inside.

Then it was time for the noon Mass. I was instructed to go to the chapel to get vested for the Mass. While sitting there waiting for the people, I began to commend my spirit to the Lord, wondering how many more Masses I would be able to offer. Then the chapel door opened. The small Vietnamese nuns were carrying the lepers on their backs into the chapel and sat them around the altar one by one. At that sight, my fear turned into shame. There I was, a young and zealous priest overwhelmed by fear, while the sisters were embracing the lepers as if they were Christ to them. Only a few days earlier I gloriously celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving and congratulated by many admired guests. Here I saw the nuns quietly pouring out their love on the people in the place that was very much avoided by the society. I was utterly humbled. In the Eucharistic celebration in the small chapel that day, the Lord taught me an unforgettable lesson of love as I began my priestly journey. I write this true story in dedication to the many sisters and nuns who have consecrated and dedicated their entire lives to love and to serve. Their ministries may often be very quiet and go unnoticed; but I know that the Lord Jesus Christ, their eternal Bridegroom, accepts their offerings with immense love. Let us pray that many women will have the courage to carry on the legends of selfless love in answering God’s call to serve in consecrated lives. †

Father Dat Hoang is the Director of Vocations for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.