10 years in a cell for being Catholic

06 Aug 2008

By The Record

While Western journalists arriving in China to report on the Olympics complain about having Internet access blocked by authorities, one Perth priest was thrown in a cell not much bigger than himself for two years – all for refusing to renounce his Faith.

Perth priest Fr Hong Pham, who was imprisoned to 10 years in Vietnam for refusing to renounce his faith. He loves the priesthood. Photo: Anthony Barich

By Anthony Barich
The priesthood is a remarkable thing.
Proof that it can flourish in the darkest of places where the human spirit would be expected to crumble is in the story of Father Hong Pham’s response to God’s call.
His refusal to renounce his faith while a De La Salle Brother in Communist Vietnam in 1977 resulted in his imprisonment.
He remembers like it was yesterday: The Communists took over the South on April 30, 1975, but he continued his formation and made his Religious vows in August that year.
And while some priests and Religious fled the country, he stayed.
“This is my country,” says Fr Hong, now assistant priest at Good Shepherd parish in Lockridge.
“Even though the Communists aren’t friendly, these are my people,” Fr Hong Pham remembers thinking.
The government immediately took control of all the Catholic schools and started sacking the Religious staff one by one, bringing in their own teachers, telling Religious they could not teach or even pray.
By Christmas 1977 they had sacked over 500 Religious Brothers, Sisters and priests – Redemptorists, Dominicans, Salesians, De La Salle Brothers and Cistercians.
He remembers them asking him point blank to renounce his Catholic faith. He refused, and they threw him into a 2m by 1m cell for two years, with his wrists and ankles shackled. During his 10 years in prison he received two meals a day: a small bowl of rice with salt water for lunch and dinner. No breakfast.
Many of his friends ate grasshoppers, and even now he says they taste better than chicken. “I know you can’t imagine that”, he tells me, “they change colour like a prawn. We burn them and we eat them.”
Scorpions and centipedes were also on the menu, but “if you catch a rat it’s better. If you can have a meal with nutritious meat then that’s a good thing.”
Fr Hong and his prison friends also used to make hot dogs out of earthworms by washing them with water and ash.
After leaving them to ‘marinate’ for two days, they can be mashed and shaped into a hot dog, then boiled.  “It’s very good!” he says. “Now, I can be happy everywhere, eat everything. I never take anything for granted.”
This whole experience taught him three things about life, which also relate to the priesthood:
l Freedom is the most precious thing.
l Man proposes but God disposes, therefore divine providence can help you and lead you to do His will.
l Everything comes from God’s love.
The relentless faith of the priests and Religious he lived with in the most trying circumstances in prison stoked the fire of the Holy Spirit within him to want to become a priest himself.
“They said we can’t preach in prison, so another way to serve the people of God is by sharing the Sacrament,” he said. Waiting until all prisoners were asleep because some would dob them in, they would use a host and wine that families had sent them disguised as biscuits and medicinal wine for arthritis, the priests consecrated them into the body and blood of Christ and shared it with the Religious and other believers.
After being released in 1988 under the Vietnamese Government’s “open-door” policy, his Statement of Release said, “This man should present himself at the Central Police Station every Monday morning to report what he had done and whom he had met.”
As he tells this to The Record, he is not reading off the statement. It has been burned into his memory. Yet he laughs as he says it.
“I laugh at how you can possibly live there,” he says.
He finally found his opportunity to escape Vietnam in 1998. A keen martial artist since childhood, Fr Hong Pham was in Australia as coach of the Vietnamese national team at the eighth South East Asia Championship in Melbourne, preparing for the 2000 Olympics.
His whole team also defected and was accepted by the Department of Immigration. “When I look back, it was God’s grace, though at the time I didn’t know what was happening or why.” He decided to defect when the government asked him to spy on his fellow Religious.
Martial arts had given him concentration, patience and self-discipline – gifts that served him well both in prison and as a priest, which has been a liberating and fulfilling experience for him. He was also a Scoutmaster at Dalat University.
Now as a parish priest at Lockridge, he sees himself as a follower of Christ “when I am always ready to serve people. That’s it.”
His experiences have also taught him the value of self-sacrifice, service and celibacy in the priesthood, which go hand-in-hand.
“If I had my own family I must take care of them, but celibacy lets me serve more freely,” he says.
“My vocation has been a series of God’s call and my response at every stage of my life.”