The following is the interview between Fr. Vincent Pham Trung Thanh, former Provincial Superior of the Redemptorists’ Province of Vietnam and reporter Teresa Pham Thanh Nghien.
Reporter (Teresa Pham Thanh Nghien): Father Thanh, I remember you once said that the human race is on the brink of many catastrophes, one of which is the destruction of natural habitats caused by humans. Does the coronavirus have any to do with this destruction, father?
Fr. Vincent Pham Trung Thanh: God created this world and bestowed it upon us. We could see God is so close to nature that, in the afternoon, God goes for a walk with humans in the garden of Eden. Humans must be responsible for managing, preserving God's gifts, and making the world flourish and become a better place. All humans, including us, however have not been preserving and protecting the priceless gift that God created and bestowed upon humanity.
We have witnessed wildfires in the US, Australia, and heat-waves in Canada. Most recently, flash floods in Germany, Europe that claimed so many lives. Then came the storms, even super storms that are happening in many places on earth. Scientists had issued dire warnings of the potential collapse of the ecosystem and the hefty price humanity will pay for its own action of wreaking havoc on mother nature. There are not only storms, floods, sea water rising, land erosion, air and environmental pollution but also the extinction of many species of animals and plants that we're talking about.
In Vietnam, deforestation and exploitation of green trees have reached (I must say) horrifying level. There are cities that lack shade of trees, forests where green areas are getting smaller. Every year, Vietnam suffers from so many storms and floods as a result of deforestation and flood discharge. The wicked people who destroyed the forest, poisoned the environment, and brought disasters to the country will someday have to provide an answer to their compatriots and eventually before God.
We are in the midst of a pandemic. I feel that the viruses in the past and this one have some connection with our living environment. It seems the arising and spreading of pathogens or viruses contain a certain degree of environmental elements. If the air people breathe in is fresh, our health would be protected and improved, transmission of disease would be reduced, and human immunity against illness would be strengthened. Therefore, I think the coronavirus is somehow related to the environmental problem. Generally speaking, environmental pollution provided a favorable condition for [the virus] to become rampant.
Reporter: Father, what role does the Church play in protecting the environment? And what does that have to do with the “new norm” concept that you have repeated throughout our conversation? (1)
Fr. Vincent Pham Trung Thanh: A few years back, Pope Francis released the encyclical “Laudato Si”, the theme of which is the caring and upkeep of the human natural home. In the context of this conversation, I am not talking about greater issues that the Church needed to get done. I would only like to offer a few small ideas on issues that are at hand and what the Church in this city is able and should be doing.
First, trees must be planted. Many years ago, planting trees at churches was a normal thing to do, but in recent years, this task has not been paid much attention to. Trees even were cut down quite a few. It is about time for the Church to start planting trees again, to return to such “normal” thing. During the time Saigon was under lockdown due to COVID19 pandemic, each church yard turned into a “zero- dollar supermarket”, behind each convent's gate is a space large enough for a “zero-dollar farmer market”, then every church should later have room for a greenery area. This city has many churches and most of them have a certain amount of land large enough for planting trees. Should each church plant a few trees, we would have a decent number of trees. Trees do not only provide shade, but also help filtering the air, supplementing the city's underground water level, which is receding badly, causing land subsidence or collapse in many places.
Secondly, the problem of waste management. I would like to mention the “Ve-chai (recycling) group “ of young people in many parishes. They have been doing a very effective job yet have not been encouraged. In my opinion, each parish should organize a Ve-chai group for young people to get together for activities. Instead of going out, they will donate a specific amount of time every week to pray and work together. This would bring many benefits such as cleaning up a large amount of hazardous materials that were released into the environment. Things like plastic bottles, bags, paperboard, scrap metals... that you can sort out and sell to raise money for charitable purposes such as repairing houses for the poor, buying bicycles for children to ride to school, helping the lonely and disadvantaged... The Church must educate young people so that they can see the need for environmental protection. The Pope complained a lot about our “disposable” mentality. It is not just how easy we can use and dispose of materials, but it can also morph into the depths of human psyche, to the extent that husband and wife can also be “used once and discarded”, there is no need to be faithful to each other. Every parish, every Christian should consider preserving and protecting the environment as their responsibility. It is necessary to change the habit of using things that are “disposable “, which may bring convenience in the short term but causes long-term consequences in the future.
The third is the problem of toxic chemicals. What is the role of the Church in educating her children to say “no” to the pervasive use of harmful chemicals in all areas? Please keep in mind that the number of people dying from cancer far exceeds the number of people dying from the Coronavirus.
Reporter: Father, we talked about the formation of “domestic churches”, “basic communities”, and learning and sharing God's Word through the media in the context of social distancing (2). However, I would love for you to share more about the Church's most important mission, which is “bringing the Gospel to the poor”. So how does the Church need to keep a “customary” activity to move towards the “new norm” in caring for the poor?
Fr. Vincent Pham Trung Thanh: The mission of the Church is to reach out to the poor. In the past, there was care for the elderly and lonely people, but [the task] only focused in a few religious houses and some other establishments. But when the pandemic hit, the abandoned people such as the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the homeless, who usually received little attention, were now reached out by the Church. I think this time the Church will have to keep that rhythm up to go on forever, towards the “new norm” that is truly her mission.
There is one more thing I need to humbly share, and I hope to receive some empathy. That is the profession of vows in the convents, and the ordination of priests. In recent years, many brothers and sisters have held grande parties on the day of their ordination and vow profession. We, the ones who consecrate ourselves to God, are accepted into the Congregation to become the religious men and women, to become priests. The Church's target is the poor, and we are the servants of the poor, the servants of the Redeemer. Our job is to serve the community of God's people. No one who is accepted to be such a humble servant yet throws lavish parties to celebrate, with banners and flags flying in the sky, trumpets and drums blaring on the ground with tens or hundreds participants. Many would say this is normal. But I find that to be abnormal. So after we have been done with training, soul searching, praying, then we make vows to abide by canon laws. At the time of ordination or vow profession, one must also be ordained in accordance with the canon law. Whether we are priests or religious, the fact that we are chosen to follow Jesus Christ and be the reflection of His Image as a simple person, modest, poor, and indifferent to all the temptations of the world. This governs our actions in all life events.
The Pope made a very concrete gesture. Wherever he went, he visited prisons. On Holy Thursday, he celebrated Mass in the prison, kissing the feet of prisoners. This is not a performance. Holy Thursday is not for a drama, but a real act of priestly life, as an image of consecration to God, calling everyone to do the same thing which is to kneel down like a real humble servant. Saigon is the “capital” of many religious congregations. During the pandemic which makes it impossible to gather, the vow profession and ordination ceremonies are mostly held in private. In some cases neither parents nor relatives attended. This is just the real norm. Because we haven't practiced it for a long time, we don't aim for it, so we think it's not normal. The question is, when the pandemic passes, will we go back to the way it was by throwing party and invite many to our feast? So which is the “new norm”?
This poses a challenge for us. Do we have the courage to become a truly humble servant? Or just chanting slogans? When the newly professed take their vows without family to attend, they are not organized, but they have the other joy of not having to worry about clothes, parties, spending money, thinking about inviting this or that person.. All those concerns are removed and the monk only cares about one thing, which is to prepare his heart to receive grace, to receive the sacrament on the day of vows. I consider it the “good normal”, the “new normal”. And we will have to maintain those new norms.
Reporter: Father, during the Angelus reading at noon on Sunday, January 31, 2021, the Holy Father announced the establishment of the “World Day of Grandparents and Elderly”. This day will be celebrated for the first time on the fourth Sunday of July, or July 25. As a priest and as an elderly person, what do you dream of?
Fr. Vincent Pham Trung Thanh: This question reminds me of the Conference of Asian Bishops' Conferences held in Manila (Philippines) in 1971. There was a statement from that conference I will always remember. It said “we pledge that upon our returning home, we will sell all Church facilities to take care of the poor”. In his papal message to the elderly, who would be celebrated for the first time tomorrow (*) or Sunday, July 25, the Holy Father said “the elderly must have dreams”. In the pastoral message he recalled the Apostolic Exhortation “Christus Vivit '' (Christ is alive) that “Old people must have dreams. From the dreams of the elderly, young people see their true horizons and the goals they need to pursue. If the elderly do not dream, young people cannot see their true horizons.” The three weapons, the three powers of the elderly that the Holy Father mentioned in his message “The elderly” are dreams, memory and prayer.
As an elderly person, I too have a dream and ask permission to dream that there will be the time when facilities of the Church in general, and of the religious orders in particular will dedicate a section, a row, or even an unit to welcome the the poor, the suffering, the lost, the abandoned in this city, this country.
The reason the Holy Father chose his Papal Name as Francis must have stemmed from three issues he truly cares about. The first is “evangelization”, the second “poverty problem”, and the third “environment problem”. The Holy Father is the Captain of our boat on earth, may we be in agreement with him in areas that he pointed out like the red string called Roite Bindele for our activities. It is the norm alright, but since we have not made it normal for a long time, there will have to be a “new normal” set for post-pandemic era as the Holy Father said.