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Vietnamese Monsignor Serves as a ‘Father’ to Younger ‘Spiritual Sons’

Msgr. Cuong M. Pham (second from left) got together with brother priests and some of his “spiritual sons” at a recent diaconate ordination. (Photos: Courtesy of Msgr. Pham)

 

ASTORIA — Msgr. Cuong M. Pham is a father of fathers.

The 50-year-old pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Astoria is a mentor to young priests with whom he keeps in close contact and to whom he offers advice and counsel as they navigate their way through life.

In taking on this mentoring role, Msgr. Pham, who was born and raised in Vietnam and came to live in the U.S. as a teenager in 1990, is part of a Vietnamese Catholic tradition dating back centuries in which experienced priests actively work to encourage vocations and then become father figures to younger clergymen. 

Msgr. Pham’s spiritual family is currently made up of six priests serving in dioceses in all over the country, including two newly minted priests ordained on June 1. One of those two men, Father Randy Nguyen, a Vietnamese American who grew up in Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, was ordained at the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph.

A seventh man, a seminarian studying for the priesthood, is also a “son” of Msgr. Pham. 

The whole group has regularly gathered together in recent years for reunions at events like ordinations.

In some cases, the young men seek him out and ask him to become their spiritual father. Once he accepts, he makes a formal announcement in church and introduces the young man as his spiritual son.

As part of the Vietnamese tradition, the older priests regularly check in with their younger brethren to see how they’re doing, listen to their struggles, and offer advice and counsel — just as any proud parent would do.

The experienced priest is also there to offer financial support, if necessary.

 

It’s not just priests that Vietnamese clergy have the privilege of mentoring, said Msgr. Cuong M. Pham. They also serve as mentors to nuns.

 

It’s not just the young priest who benefits. The older priest also becomes a de facto member of the young priest’s family — getting to know the priest’s parents and siblings and taking part in family celebrations just like any other relative.

Msgr. Pham, who was born in 1973 during the Vietnam War in what was then called Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), came to the U.S. with his family in 1990 as a political refugee. Back in Vietnam, he was mentored by a priest in Saigon, who is now retired but with whom he still keeps in close touch. In 2001, Msgr. Pham was ordained a priest in the Diocese of Brooklyn.

The tradition he is upholding dates back to the 16th century, when Spanish and Portuguese missionaries brought the faith to Vietnam. 

“A priest literally would become a mentor, a friend, a member of the young man’s family and would inspire that person and support that person throughout the whole discernment process and even beyond that. After ordination, for example, a young man who’s adopted into a spiritual family would belong to a much bigger family than his own blood family,” he said.

With 7 million Catholics out of a total population of 98 million, Vietnam has the fifth largest Catholic population in Asia.

Here in the U.S., Msgr. Pham’s mentoring comes during a time when the Catholic Church is experiencing a decline in priestly vocations.

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), the number of priests serving in the U.S. dropped from 58,909 in 1975 to 34,344 in 2022.

Msgr. Pham said he believes that part of this is due to the fact that not enough people are actively encouraging young men to consider the priesthood. 

A young Father Cuong M. Pham got the chance to meet Pope Francis shortly after the pope’s 2013 inauguration.

 

“I say, ‘Well actually, look around. There are many, not one, but many in every parish. But are they personally invited?’ That’s very important,” he explained.

Msgr. Pham said enthusiasm is the key. “You have to be very dedicated. And have to be passionate first about your own vocation because if you’re not passionate about your own vocation, you won’t inspire anybody,” he explained. 

“Most priests are extremely busy nowadays with many other commitments. And to actively accompany somebody else in their discernment process requires that you spend quality time with the person,” Msgr. Pham added.

Msgr. Pham is careful not to take on too heavy a load when it comes to mentoring. He limits his fathering to a few people, fearful of spreading himself too thin.

While he limits the number of sons, he doesn’t hesitate to reach out to help others. 

Under his leadership, Our Lady of Mount Carmel enjoys a reputation for welcoming seminarians from all over the country who come to Astoria to spend some time soaking up his wisdom before heading back to their seminaries.

Msgr. Pham points to Jesus as the reason he works to increase vocations. “When people ask me, ‘Why are you so passionate about vocations?’ I say it is because without priests, there’s no Eucharist,” he explained.