Wednesday, April 17, 2013

In Which The Man Drinking Green Tea Asks For Our Prayers

This afternoon my parents and I, tired from a visit to the Norton Museum of Art, stopped by the Starbucks in Boynton Beach. It's a favorite haunt of my mom and dad, who retired to this corner of Florida many years ago. We settled into three comfy chairs in the back of the cafe.

A man in his thirties, dressed in a black shirt, black pants and black shoes, settled into the fourth of the four chairs. He was small and looked a bit nervous, a bit out of his element. He put down his computer case and went to the counter to pick up his green tea. Who could imagine that 30 minutes later, we would know much about this man and that he would ask us to pray for him?

"That man is a priest," my mother said when he walked to the counter. "He's visiting from some place else, I can see he's far from home. But he is a priest. He has a little white tab sticking out of his collar."

"No he's not," I told her. "He looks more like a computer salesman."

The man returned with his green tea and nervous grin. We offered to let him put his feet up on the leather ottoman we all were sharing. "I could use a rest," he said."I've been traveling."

He told us he was visiting from Port Charlotte, Florida. He had just finished the three-hour drive and was taking a break before visiting two friends who were in school in the area, he said.

The journalist in me figured I would cut to the chase.

"What do you do for a living?" I boldly asked him. He smiled. "Take a guess."

"We think you are a Catholic priest." I said. "Guilty!" he answered. He explained he had removed his Roman collar because wearing it and then buttoning it the black shirt in the heat after a long drive was a bit too much.

And so began a chat with Father Duong (Young) Nguyen,  ordained six months ago and now parochial vicar of St. Charles Borremeo Parish in Port Charlotte. Between the three of us, me a former journalist, my mother, a writer and teacher, and my father, a retired surgeon accustomed to making strangers feel comfortable, we asked him about his vocation. He was effusive and happy to share. And I do love a good story.

Father Young, as he is known by parishioners, was born in Ho Chi Minh City. While his mother was pregnant with him, his father, a former lieutenant in the South Vietnamese Army, was captured by the Vietnamese People's Army, and sent to a "reeducation camp." The family was told he would be gone a week. His father was imprisoned for six years.

In prison camp, thanks to the presence of a Catholic priest, his father converted to his mother's religion of Catholicism. His father had been a Buddhist and discovered that the Blessed Mother was answering his prayers instead. His father also saw first hand how little regard the Communists had for human life - tossing the dead into shallow graves without any regard for them as human beings.

Father Young said he first heard the call to priesthood as an altar server in Vietnam. The family eventually immigrated to San Jose, California, where Father Young spent the rest of his high school years. The priestly call returned when he was in college.

Father Young told us he spent several years as a Dominican brother in Saint Louis, but then realized his calling was to be a diocesan priest. "Discerning is good," he said. "And it's a process." He referred to himself as one of the JP2 generation, men and women who grew up in the Pontificate of Blessed John Paul II and were deeply influenced by his life.

I asked Father Young what surprised him the most about being a priest. He paused for nearly a minute, giving my question great thought.

"How very very nervous I used to feel before celebrating Mass," he told us.

 "The homily?" my father asked. "Consecration?" I asked.

"All of it," he answered. "It is just so humbling and so important."

He also said he feels the presence of the Holy Spirit when he is celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He said he feels the Holy Spirit wash over him and he feels terribly, terribly humbled that parishioners would seek reconciliation with God through him. And then, he showed us a crucifix he carries with him always, a gift from an older Dominican.

As we finished up our chat, Father Young invited us to the ordination of two of his friends on Saturday. at St. VIncent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach.  He had attended seminary with them. Unfortunately, we can't attend the ordination because  I will be flying home that day. Father Young then gave us each a business card.

"Would you please pray for me?" the man drinking green tea asked. We certainly will.


  1. Those clerical shirts are a dead giveaway, little white tab or not!

  2. what a beautiful moment! :) Thank you for sharing.

  3. I love that he immediately felt comfortable enough to share his story and his personal feelings. You three must make people feel at ease. It is a gift. Loved this.

  4. What a wonderful story! It is always inspiring to hear vocation stories.