Thousands of people paid tribute to Vincentian Father Augustine Nguyen Viet Chung, a former Buddhist doctor known for serving the sick and the poor, at his funeral held in southern Vietnam on May 13.
Father Chung died of a liver-related illness at the Lazarist House in Saigon on May 10. He was 62.
“The loss of Father Chung is a great blow to many people, especially poor ethnic villagers and patients in Kon Tum Diocese,” said Bishop Aloysius Nguyen Hung Vi of the same diocese who presided over the funeral in Phat Diem Church May 13.
“His friends knew him to be a good-natured priest who lived in poverty and showed mercy to poor and ailing people all his life,” he said during the funeral Mass.
Joseph A Juih, a Rongao ethnic villager from Dak Tan parish in Kon Tum Province where Father Chung served eight years until his death, said “We are mourning the passing of a merciful way of life. We will never forget him.”
Juih, 58, said the late priest loved them as his relatives.
“He built houses for those who lived in ramshackle homes, offered us cows to raise for a living, gave money to patients to get medical treatment at hospitals or brought patients to hospitals in Saigon,” said Juih. “He also provided rice, books and bicycles to children to go to school, and did other charitable things for us,” he said.
Inspired to become a Catholic
Doctor Phan Van Tu said Chung was born into a Buddhist family but was inspired to embrace Catholicism by two foreign missionaries when he was a medical student.
One of the missionaries was Belgian Father Marcel Lichtenberger, a professor who taught him histology and genetics in the city of Saigon. “Chung admired his holy life and erudition,” said Tu.
The second missionary was French Bishop Jean Caissaigne (1895-1973) of Saigon Archdiocese (now renamed Saigon Archdiocese), who lived among ethnic minority people suffering leprosy and who himself died of the disease in Lam Dong Province.
Before becoming a priest, Father Chung rode a tricycle to earn money to cover his medical studies and to support his family. Tu said after he became a doctor, Father Chung volunteered to work at a center for lepers in Binh Duong province where Daughters of St. Vincent de Paul nuns inspired him to dedicate his life to the sick.
Father Chung’s friends said the priest overcame challenges from his family to follow his vocation. His parents wanted him to become either a Buddhist monk or to work as a doctor to support his impoverished family.
As a priest, Father Chung was known for living a simple life. Riding a motorbike to conduct visits, Father Chung looked after and ministered to people with HIV, elderly people without relatives, and ethnic people in remote areas.
Father Chung became a Catholic in 1994 and entered the Congregation of the Mission that year. He was ordained a Vincentian priest in 2003.