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Singing Mary’s Song
Singing Mary’s Song
Singing Mary’s Songby Margaret Gaughan; From the pages of Maryknoll Magazine Oct 02, 2008
Maryknoll's newest priest is called to live the Magnificat as a missioner in Africa.
Hung Minh Dinh begins his life as a Maryknoll priest with a song in his heart—Mary's song. At his ordination on May 31, the feast of the Visitation, the young man accepted the challenge of the ordaining prelate, New York's Cardinal Edward Egan, to make Mary's Magnificat his theme song.
The Magnificat, the cardinal said, is a song of compassion, joy and mercy. "A priest must catch Mary's poetry in order to serve the People of God as they should be served," Egan told the congregation, which included Dinh's parents, Hien and Minh, his brother and two of his three sisters. Addressing the ordinand, the cardinal said, "May Mary's song always be yours."
Born in Hue, Vietnam, Dinh, whose slight build and boyish face belie his 42 years, heard the strains of a service call early in life. "I wanted to be a priest since I was a little boy," he says. "People seek a priest when they are struggling. I wanted to help them spiritually."
He got that chance as a Maryknoll seminarian doing his overseas training for two years in Tanzania. He was assigned to assist Maryknoll Father James Eble, pastor of Transfiguration parish in Mwanza, which encompasses a sprawling slum of 60,000 people. "Hung's main responsibility was visiting the sick in our 22 small Christian communities," says Eble. "As he prayed, sang and gave Communion, I was impressed at his gentle, compassionate way with the people."
For Dinh, the experience was the essence of mission. "Visiting homes I got to understand people's situations better," he explains. "In their own homes people felt comfortable sharing their concerns with me. Sometimes I was able to bring the needs of individuals to the whole community. Once, when I visited an old woman and found out she had no food, I was able to get her community to help her."
Every other month Dinh would leave Mwanza and travel two-and-a-half hours southeast to Shinyanga, where he'd spend a week with Maryknoll Father Daniel Ohmann and the Watatulu people he serves. "The people are nomads in the middle of nowhere," says Dinh. "They had invited Father Dan to stay and teach them. He lives among them in a tent and teaches them about God through his example. At first I didn't understand them. Sometimes it would take a whole day for them to open up. But I learned to relax and try to become part of them. That's how Father Dan does it. Then they share what's on their mind."
Ohmann, who has worked in Africa for more than 40 years and among the Watatulu for the last decade, was struck by the way they responded to the young missioner, whose desire to share his deep faith in Christ shone through. "The Watatulu don't always warm up to people the way they did to Hung," Ohmann says. "People of all ages were attracted to him."
For Dinh, the feeling was mutual. "I'm a person who always has a list of things to do," the new priest says. "But the African people taught me to be more patient and peaceful." Those were gifts he needed on his own vocation journey, which began in Vietnam. He entered St. Joseph Seminary in the Diocese of Saigon in 1987. "I was an 'underground' seminarian because I did not have the government approval needed to study for the priesthood at that time," he says, referring to the religious restrictions imposed on Vietnamese Christians following the communist takeover in 1975.
Those who had any authority under the previous government, including his father, suffered even more. "My dad was a teacher. When he was drafted into the army, he was made a captain," says his oldest child. "After the takeover, the communists said they were sending Dad to a re-education camp for 10 days. He was held as a political prisoner for six years." During the ordeal, Dinh says, his father and mother clung to their faith and never became bitter.
Meanwhile, the future missioner earned a bachelor's degree in physics from Ho Chi Minh City University of Science and served as choir director and catechist in a small rural parish on the outskirts of Saigon. "I had the chance to live with the poorest people, who had only one meal a day," says Dinh. "In 1993, when the U.S. government sponsored my family to come to Garden Grove, California, where I had everything, I realized I wanted to spend my whole life serving the poor."
Picking up a copy of MARYKNOLL magazine in his parish of St. Polycarp in Stanton, California, gave him direction. "It had an article about Maryknoll Father Bob McCahill in Bangladesh helping the poorest people, regardless of their religion. I liked that. I had grown up in a country where most of my friends were Buddhists. We are all children of one God."
He joined Maryknoll in 1998 and earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy and religious studies from St. Xavier University in Chicago as well as a master of divinity degree from Catholic Theological Union, also in Chicago. But his most important preparation for mission, Dinh says, was what he learned from the Tanzanian people and from his mentors, Eble and Ohmann.
The two veteran missioners stood behind him on his ordination day when he received his mission cross and assignment to return to Africa. Though Dinh is not yet sure where he will serve in Africa, he is certain of what he will do. "God loves people," he says. "We are called to share that love."
Mary said it another way: "God's mercy reaches from age to age."