My Vocation Story
I was born in 1952, to a devout Catholic family of three boys and three girls.
I grew up in Cambodia and our family of three generations used to walk church on Sundays. The Church of Russey Keo was just half a kilometre away. In my teenage years, I joined the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP) minor seminary.
Because I joined the MEP minor seminary, I managed to get a secondary school education. Every day, we attended a public secondary school before returning to the seminary for catechism.
I had two reasons for joining the seminary. The first is a little mundane, as I knew I wanted to study and the seminary would take care of that. My family could not afford to pay the school fees otherwise.
The second? During the Benediction, there’s a moment where the priest elevates the monstrance and everyone bows. It was so grand, solemn and powerful. I wanted to be part of that.
When my parents and grandparents knew that I intended to join the seminary, they were very happy. The family was very religious. ‘I wish you can bless my coffin,’ my grandfather said. My grandmother kissed my finger before I went inside the seminary.
My father cycled to the seminary every Sunday with cake. It was his way of supporting me as the seminary was not too far from our hometown. The small cake was something we could enjoy together.
Once Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot began his rise to power in 1970, my family moved to South Vietnam. I joined the MEP seminary there.
My uncle was French and a rich man. He told me that I would not have much money as a priest and that I should be a doctor instead. So he came up with a plan to send me to France to study medicine. I left the minor seminary as a result.
We went through the process. But all of a sudden, just 20 hours before I was set to leave, my uncle was expelled out of Vietnam. So I was left behind and came back to the seminary soon after. My classmates used to tease me: So now, doctor or priest?
The communists arrived in 1975. They closed down all the seminaries in Vietnam, and confiscated all the prayer and song books. They changed it all. I went back to live with my parents and helped out in church as a choirmaster and assisted priests with their duties. Even then, I was still very involved.
I also worked as a trishaw driver to help my family out. It was very hard work, but under communist rule, I could not have a proper job or work in a company.
In 1980, Bishop Alexis Pham asked me and three other seminarians to print prayer and song books for the church. The communists had confiscated all the books.
We had no machines at all, so we printed books for the church manually, page by page. We hid and worked in a storeroom for three years. As a result, many books were printed. But nothing can be hidden forever, so the communists came to know and caught us.
We were found guilty of illegal printing and sent to Chi Hoa Prison. I spent three years there. The hardest thing about being inside is not knowing when you will get out.
The prison was huge as the Japanese built it during World War II for prisoners of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. I was very deep in and couldn’t see the light of day. I had no idea if it was day or night. There were no books, no pens, no paper, nothing. I played with the ants to pass time.
In the beginning, I stayed in a single cell and was called up for interrogation whenever they wished. They didn’t torture us, but we had to regurgitate details of the crime we committed and reasons behind it. I think I was made to report at least 50 times.
It was then that I grew angry with God. It was the Bishop who asked us to print the books and I was doing church work. Yet we were in prison with such a tough life. I blamed God and asked Him why I was put in this situation. Was He there? I banged on the door, the wall, nothing. God didn’t respond.
Prisoners were given two meals a day, so I kept track of them to know how many days had passed. I also made markings on the walls and realised through the scribbles that many had done the same.
Our meals were rotten yellow rice with what we called ‘ocean soup’ – essentially just salted water. Things were especially hard at night as the air was filled with the cries of the people who were going mad. Every day I wondered: When will I get out of this hell?
During my second year in prison, I received a tin of dried food that tasted something like acar (pickled vegetables). My mum had sent it by bribing the police. This was very precious to me so I ate it a little bit at a time. One day, I found layers of plastic inside the tin. I slowly peeled away the layers and at the end, I found a consecrated host. I cried and asked God for forgiveness because I thought He had abandoned me.
After that moment, I found peace and solace because God was with me. This was my most important takeaway.
After the time in prison was up, they tried to charge us for inciting people against the government. The communists took issue with The Lord’s Prayer that had the line: Give us today our daily bread.
Rationing was conducted during that time and they accused us of asking people to pray because there wasn’t enough food. We convinced them that the prayer was not just said in Vietnam, but in all churches across the world.
Being released from a physical jail didn’t mean that I was free. I had to go to the police station to report every week. The police will often come over to my house and find out what I did during the week, where I went and who I met. They were trying to exert control.
So the Bishop called the four of us and said: You have finished time in the small prison, now you start a bigger one in your life. With such scrutiny, you can’t perform your religious duties and be ordained.
He gave us two options. One, stay and accept the situation. Or try to get out of Vietnam as one of the ‘boat people’ – hundreds and thousands of Vietnamese who fled the country by sea – for a chance to continue our vocation elsewhere.
The second option cost money, but the Bishop was willing to pay for the trip. I was the only one who took it. Even though it was not an easy option, it was my only chance at a better life.
Taking the trip would mean being on a small boat in the rough sea. There were many dangers, the first being the police. When people go out of Vietnam, they typically bring along all their gold, so there’s more incentive to catch them.
Thai pirates were also dangerous. They were fishermen, but catching ‘boat people’ allowed them to gain gold and the women on board. A small boat is like a needle in the ocean, so the typhoon was a very scary possibility too.
I travelled to North Vietnam, where Halong Bay is, to board the boat. It was less dangerous to leave from the North at that time. The journey took longer – with 39 days at sea – but it had smoother conditions and less risks.
There were 24 people on board with me. Because we sailed along China’s coast, it was very beautiful. I can still see fish jumping alongside the boat. We edged closer to Hong Kong and at that point, we could all see Macau and everyone was very happy.
That was the moment that I thought to myself: Following Jesus is so tough. It comes with hunger and suffering. In my mind, I told myself that once I reached Hong Kong, goodbye God, I don’t want to follow you. I don’t want to be a priest.
Almost immediately, a typhoon came. Everyone else was Buddhist and I was the only Catholic on the boat, so I knew it was because of my evil thought. I prayed to God to give me a sign. In less than seven minutes, the typhoon disappeared. Our boat capsized upon nearing the shore.
Once we arrived in Hong Kong, we had to stay in a refugee camp and were called up for interviews with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. A key question they asked was if we were persecuted in Vietnam. Those without any proof were sent back. I was allowed to stay because I spent three years in prison.
This is why I strongly believe in the hand of God. The hand of God put me in prison so that I could gain refugee status.
Ask Fr Gregoire
Do you have a favourite Bible verse?
For me, it is very clear. John 15:16. ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last – and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.’ I could escape the police, pirates and typhoon, but I could not escape God.
Some MEP priests found me in the refugee camp and I completed my theology studies in France.
Long before the chosen date of ordination, I asked my parents in Vietnam to do all the necessary paperwork so they could be there. Even with the intervention of my superior and the French embassy, there was no news.
As the date drew close, my parents remained hopeful. They reached the airport just two hours before my ordination and went straight to the cathedral. The Bishop was so surprised that he went down to hug them.
I was ordained on 19 June 1993, at age 41.
Pope John Paul II had canonised 117 Vietnamese martyrs on this date, so I picked it. It didn’t mean that I was striving to be a martyr, but it reminded me that my ordination was based on the foundation of martyrs before.
I had requested to be posted to a place with many Chinese people because the world is full of them, but not many were Catholic. I thought I would be posted to Taiwan. After the mass, they announced that I was being posted to Singapore. I didn’t even know where it was.
In 1994, I was appointed Assistant Parish Priest at the Church of St Francis of Assisi. I studied English at the British Council here.
Fr Nicholas Ho, who was Parish Priest, had asked then Archbishop Gregory Yong for someone to say the Mandarin mass. It was a language that I didn’t know.
I found a parishioner to teach me the language for two hours every week. After a year, I started classes at the National University of Singapore. Many of the parishioners spoke Mandarin, so I had someone to practise it with almost every day. It was not a big parish, so I managed to study in the day and develop my language skills.
Ask Fr Gregoire
We hear that you speak eight languages. How is that so?
God gave me a skill for languages. I started with Khmer in Cambodia, then Vietnamese, and I picked up French in school. When I was a seminarian, the Bishop sent me to a village in Vietnam and I learnt to speak Bahnar in two weeks. They were so pleased and adopted me as a son of the village. After I came to Singapore, I mastered English, Mandarin, Indonesian and Tagalog.
In 1997, I was moved to the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour (OLPS), where I served as Parish Priest. OLPS was a big parish. We had meetings every evening, 64 organisations and more than double the parishioners. Sure, it was tougher and busier.
I started visiting inmates on death row at Changi Prison. They gave me a card and as long as I followed a procedure, I was able to visit once every two weeks.I was asked to visit because there was a Vietnamese man with Australian citizenship on death row. Nguyen Tuong Van was arrested for carrying heroin in transit at Changi Airport in 2002. His plea was supported by Sydney’s Archbishop Cardinal George Pell, but it fell through.
He was a Buddhist who had later asked for baptism on his birthday. He was very good inside, and even the prison wardens noticed that he was a very special young man.
Normally, inmates are handcuffed while walking to the gallows, but Nguyen was allowed to walk. He wanted to wear all white so I gave him a cassock and shoes.
Before Nguyen was hung in December 2005, he went to each cell to say farewell. He then asked me to hug him on behalf of his mother, before saying ‘Fr., see you up there’. And then he was gone. It was very peaceful.
As prison chaplain, I come in to share my experiences. I say mass, lead religious songs and give them a human presence beyond the television that is provided.
When compared to Vietnam’s prison, Changi is the Hilton. They even get ice cream on their birthdays here. They laugh when I make the comparison and it’s easy to talk to them because I was an inmate before.
But it is different because I knew that I was getting out one day. For them, the end of their life is there. That is the toughest thing about ministering to inmates on death row.
I was juggling my duties in prison with my responsibilities at OLPS. Sometimes it was easily 16 to 17 hours of time every day. This happened when we had hospital visits after evening meetings, and morning mass the next day.
Even so, I love being a priest. Every time I say mass, I feel like it is the peak of my life. It stems from the consecrated host I received in prison. This is the most important Sacrament that God has put in my hands.
Ask Fr Gregoire
What is your advice to those considering religious life whose parents are not willing?
Sometimes it is good to get a priest to hear their concerns. Many people pray for more vocations for the children of their neighbours, but not for their own children. They have the mindset that a religious life means cutting off from the family. They need to see that priests continue to pray for the family and help it grow. In January, I went back to Vietnam to celebrate the death anniversaries of my grandparents. More than 250 people gathered as I celebrated mass, and told me that I connected the big family as a priest. They were so happy to gather like that.
There is a trend of falling vocations as countries get richer and materialism sets in. There are many vocations among Vietnamese refugees now, but I think it may fall once the country gets richer. Family support is very important in nurturing and encouraging an individual.
Last June, I was assigned as Parish Priest of the Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea. The demographic here is more middle class, so I’m taking time to understand and listen to their needs.
Following Jesus is very difficult. On the day of my ordination, I told God that following Him is very tough. But since He chose me, to please be with me and guide me.
My only advice to people considering vocations is to be open.
Fr Gregoire van Giang’s Vocation Journey
|14 Oct 1952||:||Born to a devout Catholic family of three boys and three girls|
|1968||:||Joined the MEP minor seminary in Cambodia|
|1970||:||Family moves to South Vietnam after Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot began his rise to power, joins MEP seminary in Vietnam|
|1972||:||Leaves MEP seminary, before rejoining soon after|
|1974||:||Vietnam War ends|
|1975||:||Communist government shuts down all the seminaries in the country, confiscates prayer and song books|
|1980||:||Bishop Alexis Pham asks Fr Gregoire and three other seminarians to print prayer and song books in secret|
|1983||:||Found guilty of illegal printing and sent to Chi Hoa Prison|
|1986||:||Released from Chi Hoa Prison, made to report regularly to the police|
|1989||:||Travelled to North Vietnam and left as one of the ‘boat people’, spending 39 days with 24 people on a small wooden boat|
|1990||:||Arrives in Hong Kong, gains refugee status|
|Late 1990||:||Found by MEP priests and continues studies in France|
|19 June 1993||:||Ordained to the Priesthood|
|1994||:||Posted to Singapore, appointed Assistant Parish Priest at the Church of St Francis of Assisi|
|1995||:||Studied Mandarin at the National University of Singapore|
|1997||:||Parish Priest, Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, regularly visited prisoners on death row at Changi Prison|
|2015||:||Parish Priest, Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea|
For enquiries on vocations to the diocesan priesthood contact:
Fr Valerian Cheong
Diocesan Vocation Director
For updates on all diocesan vocation promotion activities in the archdiocese visit www.sfxms.org.sg
Graphics : Christopher Wong
Editor : Annabelle Liang
Managing Editor : Fr Richards Ambrose