By: Hieu Tran
“Lord, even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” – Psalm 23:4
Since receiving Baptism more than a year ago, Mr. Tran Thien Khiem, now 94, former Prime Minister of the Republic of Vietnam (commonly known as South Vietnam), has been transformed. He said that the experience of “being with God” always made him feel secure, relaxed and happy.
Although being retired for several decades, previously he often felt stressed and was full of worries. Mr. Ba, his nephew, said that since becoming a Catholic he often felt joyful, and for whatever happens, he said, “God will take care of it.”
Every morning he starts his day with the sign of the cross and prayers, such as Our Father, Glory to God, Hail Mary, and some meditation. Every night he does the same. On Sundays, because of poor health, he watches Mass on television at home.
He said, “My faith is weak, but I experience God’s mercy. He would bear all my sins. He saves me, and does not allow me to perish.” With the thought of God present in him, he was willing to let God lead and forget about himself. “Knowing Christ suffered for me, I learned to accept misunderstandings and pains,” he said.
While being treated for a broken leg at a convalescent home in early 2018, he asked Mai, a close acquaintance who looked after him, “Do you know any Catholic priest nearby? I want to meet him.” At that time, Father Justin Tuong Le was visiting his own father in the next room, Mai immediately invited him to see Khiem.
When Khiem expressed his desire to become a Catholic, Father Justin asked him a few things in the Creed, then arranged a baptismal celebration for him. Normally a person who desires to join the Church needs to go through the Christian initiation process that will take time, but with Khiem, a frail, homebound nonagenarian with seemingly evident faith, Father Justin saw no need to go through normal procedures.
Father Justin said to him at his baptismal celebration, “Even before becoming a Catholic, you were already deeply convinced you’re a child of God. Now, being a faithful you have opportunities to give thanks to God. You are convinced that God has loved and arranged everything well according to His will … Being baptized is being born in God’s grace today and forever. Choosing God is asking God to lead us to our homeland to live with him forever. ”
Khiem was born on December 15, 1925 in Chau Thanh, Long An. More than nine decades later, through baptism on March 25, 2018 he was born again in faith, of his own free will.
Khiem was no stranger to the Catholic faith, beliefs and prayers. When he was a 9 or 10-year-old boy, living in the neighborhood of Huyen Si Parish, Saigon, Khiem joined his peers to participate in the Catholic youth group Valiant Hearts Valiant Souls, and attended Catholic school. When he was in the army, many American friends often called him “Catholic Khiem.” He said he did not correct them, “because I felt I was a faithful, even though I was not baptized.”
Among his family and relatives, many converted to Catholicism, including his younger sister, grandchildren, cousin Nguyen Van Huyen, former President of the Senate of the Republic of Vietnam, etc. But when he wanted to be officially a Catholic, the road to faith was not without obstacles.
Five years ago, through the arrangement of former Major General Nguyen Khac Binh and some friends in the Cursillo movement in San Jose, he met and had a long conversation with Bishop Paul Nguyen Thai Hop from Vietnam. After this meeting, his intention of being baptized was more intense. His friends paved the way for him to learn the Catholic faith, and he wished to be baptized by Bishop Paul Hop.
But things didn’t happen as he wished. Upon returning home in San Diego, he had a fall, hurting his leg, and his plan to study catechism halted. After getting back on his feet, Khiem went back to San Jose in early 2018 to meet with friends and attend a party. He fell again after the party and had to go to the hospital for treatment. Then he was admitted to a convalescent home. At that time he was feeling lonely and sad, but a ray of faith appeared in his heart inspiring him to seek something beyond the limits of his daily life.
When choosing the baptismal name, he wondered between Peter and Paul, one of whom denied the Lord, the other persecuted Christians, but they were completely changed, becoming devoted disciples of Christ. In the end, he chose the name of Paul, who fell then was raised up by the Lord.
Recalling the past, he said that the person who most deeply affected his religious conversion was Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan. While in exile, Khiem was invited to return to South Vietnam by President Thieu, and the one who came often to visit and comfort him was Bishop Thuan. It was Bishop Thuan’s attitude and tolerance that touched him deeply and made him felt the presence of God.
Khiem still has had difficulties and challenges, but he does not feel lonely. In addition to prayers, he also reads the Bible, listens to religious music, watches current events, and communicates with old and new friends.
He said, “It is very touching that after becoming a Catholic for a few months, Bishop Paul Hop came to the United States to visit me. I also had the opportunity to meet with Father Justin, who baptized me, other priests and many friends in San Jose.” With the grace of faith, he no longer has any other desires except to wait for the day when God calls him home.
Among his many favorite hymns, he liked “Năm Xưa Trên Cây Sồi,” a song honoring Our Lady of Fatima, which he listened to everyday, because the song reflects his feelings. It is also a prayer for his home country and people he always loves: “Mary, O Mary, I have listened to you. From now on, early in the morning and late in the day I repent. Mary, O Mary, answer us. May Vietnam the beautiful receive the light of faith … ”
*Hieu Tran, a parishioner of the Vietnamese Parish Our Lady of Lavang, is an ILM graduate, class of 2001.