ACT OF FAITH
ACROSS AUSTRALIA THIS LONG WEEKEND, CHRISTIANS WILL FILL CHURCHES TO OBSERVE THIS MOST HOLY OF RELIGIOUS OCCASIONS. BUT WHAT CHALLENGES DOES CONTEMPORARY LIFE POSE FOR MODERN BELIEVERS?
As Christians flock to Easter services, what does religion mean in 2017?
As the reassuring warmth of his mother’s hand was torn away and he was bundled into the bowels of the overcrowded fishing boat, for the first time in his young life, Tru Nguyen was scared and began to wail.
The nine-year-old, along with his mother Lac and older sister Thanh, had previously made several perilous attempts to flee Vietnam for a new life in Australia, in a pattern that came to define “boat people” refugees of the late ’80s and early ’90s. But on this latest late-night journey along the Mekong to the open sea, he was separated from his mother, and then solidly slapped by a scared and angry stranger, who was fearing capture.
“I remember that slap by a lady to stop me crying, it was hard,” the now 37-year-old says, unconsciously touching his face as if still feeling the sting.
That was just the beginning of the painful journey for the young Tru Nguyen, whose early challenges came to define his future in Australia – where today he stands in robes before the congregation at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Sydney. As the parish priest, he preaches the meaning of pain and sacrifice in this Lent and Easter season.
Across Australia, Christians will fill churches today to pray for the sacrifices that their saviour Jesus Christ made in the name of his father, that would see him crucified and resurrected. The pain,
and then joy, of this marks the most holy observance period for the faithful.
But many may also reflect on those who continue to spread the word of God amid myriad contemporary challenges, including the threat of terrorism in the name of religion, continued persecution of Christians around the world, as well as the scandal that has rocked the Catholic church – the Royal Commission revelations that have driven some away from pews and prompted others to question their faith.
Father Tru likes to speak openly about these challenges that, like his own story, he says strengthens and reaffirms his faith and points to better times ahead.
Internationally this appears to already be the case, with an Italian study finding that the forward-thinking doctrine of Pope Francis – the first pope to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone – has seen an about turn to the church by lapsed Catholics. Meanwhile, according to the 2011 census, more than 60 per cent of Australians consider themselves Christian – lapsed or otherwise.
BORN IN RACH Gia, a city in the south west of Vietnam, to an impoverished farming family, Father Tru had a tough life. His father died of cancer when Tru was just two, forcing his mother to move her family to Ho Chi Minh City (then known as Saigon).
Life was a struggle, and within a few years the Nguyens would begin the first of many attempts on overcrowded, leaky boats to escape the poverty cycle and communist regime. Each time they were caught, they were detained in prison before being released – whereupon they would try again.
Father Tru says that he and his sister would never know when they were about to make another attempt; his mother would keep it a secret until the very night they were to leave, when they would suddenly grab what they could.
Their true plight came into focus only after that slap, on that again-failed journey that saw them back in jail by dawn. Finally, in 1988, the family took a bus to Cambodia in the hope of travelling to Australia from there. They got on a boat, and ended up in Malaysia on March 14, 1989.
Unfortunately, that was the day the globally endorsed Comprehensive Plan of Action began, which aimed to stop the influx of Indochinese boat people looking for automatic resettlement from reluctant countries. For the Nguyens, that meant two years in detention in Malaysia, including on a small prison island with no natural water supply.
Eventually they were granted asylum in Australia, and settled in Pooraka, Adelaide, where Father Tru’s family still live today. “I don’t regret [that] Mum brought us here, but I haven’t asked her why she made that decision,” he says. “It’s difficult to ask, because I know she went through many things in life, and to ask her this she’ll say, ‘Look at what you have now.’”
Father Tru grew up in the Catholic faith, but only got his calling at age 28, after breaking his arm during a soccer match. Needing months of recuperation, he reflected on the love he felt for the church and then realised he wanted to share this with others.
He says the biggest challenge facing the church today is engaging young people, particularly in the face of the adverse publicity surrounding the Royal Commission’s findings into child-abusing priests, which Father Tru says he regularly mentions to his flock to reinforce the redress and positive changes that will come from the process.
“One of the things that I guess is difficult at the moment is, because of the Royal Commission, people are not talking about their faith that often,” he says. “It’s challenging because when people talk about it, they might be in public and then have to defend [their] faith. If we keep having to defend our faith, standing up and always apologising, it’s draining; our energy can be low. But it’s also an opportunity for us to really stand up and be a witness at this time.”
Father Tru’s Easter message to modern Australians touches on not only the story of Christ, but also, in some ways, his own plight. “Jesus’s message was ‘live this life… don’t be afraid, even though some might challenge or try to stop you spreading this message and this good news,’ which he wanted people to experience. There is love, that’s what we need, and [that’s] what will keep us going in this day and age.
“The message of the cross is also powerful; don’t be afraid at this difficult time; this suffering, this pain, this life challenge – just keep going because it’s not getting easier, but it’s not supposed to be something that’s difficult, either.”
“PEOPLE ARE NOT TALKING ABOUT THEIR FAITH… WHEN THEY TALK ABOUT IT IN PUBLIC THEY MIGHT HAVE TO DEFEND IT”
KEEPING THE FAITH Father Tru Nguyen believes the church still has a valid role to play in modern Australia.
TRUE BELIEVERS (from top) Pope Francis on the cover of Rolling Stone; Christians across the country are to Easter services.