FR Hien Vu was moved to tears as he spoke of the news that COVID-19 had spread to a nearby nursing home where some of his parishioners live.
His emotion flowed from a deep commitment to the people of his parish in inner-city Melbourne, one of Australia’s pandemic hotspots.
Ordained in Melbourne 17 years ago after having migrated from Vietnam in 1999, the 50-year-old said ministering during the pandemic was like something he could never have imagined.
“We say that it’s the unknown, the unknown,” he said.
He and his parishioners in Flemington and Kensington were thrust into the unknown when about 3000 people in residential towers across the area were forced into hard lockdown because of coronavirus infections in the community.
Fr Hien said the crisis had been with them “non-stop since that very first Saturday night (on July 4) when there was the announcement that we would be in lockdown in an hour so we did not have time to prepare ourselves”.
“They said that it was going to lockdown from midnight but in fact they made the announcement about 4pm and they stopped people coming in and going out from 5pm,” he said.
“So, for myself, it was a Saturday night and I was about to celebrate the evening Mass, … I didn’t know what to do.
“Entering into the Mass, I made a quick phone call to a few people who live near the church and said, ‘If you wish to attend a Mass, come in now because tomorrow we’ll have no Mass’.
“It was all the uncertainty and the unknown at that time.”
Because he and some of the parishioners were already in the church they were allowed to proceed with the 5.30pm Mass.
Being apart from his parishioners has been one of the hardest things for Fr Hien during the pandemic restrictions.
He said it had been one of his most challenging times as a priest, and he becomes emotional talking about it.
This struck him when he and a small number of parishioners were able to return for Mass again.
“When we were allowed to re-open the church at first …. we only had 10 people … and the first time back after seven weeks, I said to them, ‘I didn’t realise that I missed you so much …’,” Fr Hien said.
“I remember that Saturday night – and I couldn’t start the Mass after the opening hymn … It was to see them, to physically be together, it’s just so powerful, so beautiful.
“So I just think that, for me now, is the most challenging …
“I miss the people …”
He said they had coped by organising a lot of things online, including live-streamed Masses and other meetings.
“We will even have Bingo soon through Zoom,” he said, referring to two online events held last weekend.
“We will play games online together … But they are still missing the physical, you know.”
It was an emotional blow when Fr Hien heard the news of a COVID-19 outbreak in a nearby nursing home.
“Last night the nursing home (called to tell me) … it now has one person dying and also other residents have COVID …,” he said.
“Some people are infected … and we have a few dear parishioners in that nursing home.
“When I heard about the news from the nursing home, it has knocked me so hard …”
Fr Hien knows he’s not alone and that he has the support of a generous group of people including pastoral councillors, school principals and parish staff, as well as parishioners.
He appreciates the support of Archbishop Peter A. Comensoli and his team too.
“We also have people from Queensland and from Tasmania who contacted us and sent us emails and we published their messages in our bulletin and let people of St Brendan’s and Holy Rosary parishes know that we are not alone,” he said.
“We have people from Tasmania and from Queensland praying for us.”
When he and his team “stepped into” the crisis, Fr Hien said to himself, “This is an opportunity …”
“Before that I felt that it was a challenge, but as soon as our team came together I reminded myself that this is an opportunity – the opportunity to reveal to see who we are and why we are here, and how we can take and make this challenge become the opportunity of the very basic Christian foundation of Gospel values,” he said.
“And we check ourselves through this; we measure ourselves through this – very much on Gospel values …
“And, instead, this is the opportunity … to live the Gospel.”
They live it by caring for each other, and especially for the people in the residential towers who have been hardest-hit.
“Yep, and that’s the very basic foundation and the values of our Gospel that we follow – we read, we listen … for years, and now we live that, we make it real,” Fr Hien said.
Creative writing has helped Fr Hien look after himself during the crisis.
“I write a lot of short stories. That keeps my mind working … The stories, they talk about my inner world,” he said.
“I publish those stories on our parish website.
“There’s nearly 20 stories on our website … one of them relates to the lockdown …
“I continue to (write) because when writing those stories, very much I look at the relationships I have with God, with nature, others and myself – all through the relationships.
“And also I try to make sure that I have exercise every day, physically.
“I do a lot of cycling – I exercise every single day to make sure I keep myself well physically.”
Facing the COVID crisis has helped sharpen Fr Hien’s focus about what’s important.
“I just had a meeting with the (school) principals … and we talked about a masterplan, and I said that we have to have a masterplan because of our vision and our mission, but, however, if we can delay it we can hold that for now, and now it’s people – now it’s people (as the focus),” he said.
“For me, everything is people.
“And, of course, we need masterplans but (we need to) make sure our focus now is people.
“Life or death, that’s the reality now, but it’s people – everything is people.
“So whatever we need to do for the people, we have to do that … We need to do that.
“If it’s not necessary for now, things we will hold back, but with people, we have to focus.
“I want to spend energy on that.
“I want to spend and save my energy for people, to look after people.”
That desire related to Fr Hien’s prayer that week around the Scripture readings for the previous Sunday – Solomon’s prayer in the First Reading (1 Kings 3: 5, 7-15) and the Gospel reading including the parable about the treasure and pearl (Matthew 13:44-52).
“These are beautiful readings, and I know I have a treasure …,” he said.
“Very much the readings of last weekend are the most powerful readings for me at the moment.
“The Gospel last Sunday talking about the pearl, the treasures – people sell everything to buy it, when they find the good pearl.
“I know I have the pearl, and the finest pearl for me is my vocation and my people here.
“I have it so I will look after it.”