Priest recalls fleeing Vietnam, with a hunger for the sacraments

Priest recalls fleeing Vietnam, with a hunger for the sacraments


HADDON HEIGHTS — In the midst of the literal storm, Father Joseph Pham found himself at peace.

“I prayed, surrendered myself to God, and trusted him. I was calm,” he said, remembering being on a small boat on the ocean on his way to America.

Describing his experience leaving his homeland, communist-run Vietnam, with his parents and 10 siblings for a better life, Father Pham had his audience fully engaged here, at the Collegium Center for Faith and Culture on Feb. 5.

The Director of Catholic Identity at Camden Catholic High School in Cherry Hill, Father Pham shared his story of growing up under a communist regime and the faith that brought him and his loved ones to the United States.

Growing up in the southern part of Vietnam, his town was invaded by members of the northern communist government. His father was arrested, and placed in a concentration camp.

The country’s shifting rule into communism led to the oppression of the Catholic Church and the incarceration of priests.

Father Pham and others “hungered for the sacraments” during these times. Faithful gathered in priest-less churches on Sundays, praying and reciting the rosary together.

Starting in sixth grade, he knew he wanted to be a Catholic priest, he told the audience of 40. However, when it was time to apply to high school in Vietnam, he was rejected after writing the word “Catholic” in the religious inquiry box.

After his father’s release, Father Pham’s parents knew that if their children were to have a life of freedom, it wouldn’t be found in Vietnam.

“My father said, ‘I know I and my mother have faith, but will our children have faith?’ It was then that they decided to leave Vietnam.”

Fleeing on a boat, he and his 11 other family members encountered raging seas, with walls of water on either side of the boat. Huddled in a corner of the vessel, Father Pham prayed.

“I knew that one of three things would happen: one, we die in this storm. Two, we get captured and sent back to Vietnam, in prison. Or three, we find freedom.”

“I trusted God,” he said.

The seas got calmer, and soon the family found themselves at a refugee camp in Malaysia and, later, in Philadelphia (his family still resides there) in 1987. Father Pham was 19 years old.

A few years after his arrival in the United States, he entered the seminary for the Diocese of Camden. And he relishes the opportunity to share the faith today with others, especially his high school students in his religion classes. The faith that his family shared with him, and brought him to freedom.

“Nothing is impossible with God. I strongly believe that,” he said, adding that his family’s escape from Vietnam is nothing short of a “miracle.”

“Don’t take freedom for granted. It is precious.”

Following his presentation, Father Pham took questions from and interacted with the appreciative crowd.

“It was captivating, to hear where he came from,” said Jennifer Perez, a Newfield resident and frequent visitor to the Collegium Center.

“When you hear his experience, you can’t help but know that there’s a God, and he’s looking out for you.”

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