Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - By CHARLES MI­RANDA

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.”



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.

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