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Click here to view the article from The Catholic Light:

Captain Joseph Mahoney (G.I. Joe Story:  Onward Catholic Soldier)


"In every way I have shown you that by hard work of that sort we must help the weak, and keep in mind the words of the Lord Jesus who himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive'" (Acts 20:35). 


___  in a continuing series.

Saigon, Vietnam

29 December 2008

A PASSION FOR THE POOR... by Michael R. Mele

You can’t help but be drawn to him.  One of the few people you meet in your life who is practical, capable, an over-achiever – yet, caring, kind, gentle, loving.  He is Bishop Paul Nguyen Thank Hoan.  His country is Vietnam.  At 77, he is in his prime!


He is originally from the northern part of his country.  In 1954, the war with the French was finished and his country divided – freedom in the south, Communists in the north where confusion reined and priests were imprisoned.  He feared for his life.  The next year he moved south, but not far enough.  The next war found him managing an orphanage when the Communists pushed south and the South Vietnamese and we Americans were unable to stop them.  He led a slow month-long march farther south, away from the fighting, with 345 orphans, finally settling in a small city, Phan Thiet, about a 3 hour drive east of Saigon.

Today, he is the Bishop of that diocese.  His passion is to help the poor.  To this end he started a new order in 1995, called the Community of Charity and Social Services.  You may recall that many priests and religious take 3 vows – personal poverty, chastity, and obedience.  Members of his order, first and foremost, take an additional vow – to serve the poor.   SERVE THE POOR.  Remember the gospel story of Jesus washing the feet of his apostles?  That story has special meaning in the East Asia, where the feet are considered the most repugnant part of the body.  But Bishop Paul will have that image as the symbol of his order – Jesus kneeling, washing the feet of Peter!


His relations with the provincial and local governments to further his work are delicate, if not amusing.  “I spend a lot of time these days as a diplomat”, he explains.  “But I’m not afraid to speak my mind and I generally win my points.  We are careful not to proselytize.  We are here to serve the poor.  If they convert by our example, that’s fine, and many do”, he continues.  Indeed, 70% of the poor they help are not Christian.  “Its not uncommon for a patient at our clinic to fall in love with one of the sisters and propose marriage” he chuckled.  “They do, indeed, have difficulty, at times, understanding who we are, and why we do what we do.” 

He relates how, recently, an undercover cop came to his clinic for treatment.  Treatment over, the cop offered up what he considered the normal fee plus some bribe money (expected for every government service here).  This surprise, the sister/doctor told him the service was free, but that there was a donation box by the exit should he wish to contribute.  He left double his original offer, and walked away scratching his head!

If faith and prayer are the lofty guides for Bishop Paul’s community, its foundation is PIGS!  The concept is simple.  The brothers oversee the birth of hundreds of piglets, give them to poor families to raise to full grown porkers, then sell them on the local market as meat.  The brothers return a portion of the profits to the poor families who raised them, and the rest is seed money to buy additional starter pigs, and feed.  The piglets are raised by the women of the household, giving them status with their husbands as income earners, and raises their self esteem.  Even the dung is used as fertilizer and as a source of methane gas to cook all the meals for the Bishop’s community.

His followers offer many services to the poor – a health clinic with a medicine processing facility, new houses, clothes, potable water – but, in my view, the pig farm is their flagship enterprise and income earner.  They get no government support, and rely heavily on donations. 

“Retirement” looms!  In a few months, he will relinquish his duties as leader of the diocese.  He will focus on his passion – his community and its service to the poor.

Will his work continue?  “I’m very impressed by the younger generation”, he says.  “There are many vocations here, and the youth are drawn to helping the poor.”  “In the clinic I can’t get them to take breaks!” he says with a smile of satisfaction.

His future dreams?  “I just got government permission a few days ago to start a facility to treat drug addicts and HIV/Aids patients”, he said.  “Abortions are another concern,” he laments.  “We must get the pregnant mothers jobs, and assure them of day care and education for their children – so they will choose life”.

So on and on he goes, walking in the footsteps of Christ, and often stooping to wash some feet.

(Mr. Mele, a retired U.S. diplomat, writes occasional articles on Catholic Mission work around the world).