Dear parish family and friends,
As we embark upon a New Year, once again, we find that we are still dealing with many dark realities, such as the ongoing pandemic and its aftermath, the inflation and the rising costs of living, the problem of poverty and violence in our own city. More and more people seem to have been pushed to their limits in terms of mental and emotional health.
I don’t know about you, but perhaps there was a sense of hope last year at this time that, as we turned the page to a new year, this would all be behind us within a few months. But that’s not the case. Like you, at times I feel frustrated at the slow pace of our society’s return to some form of “normalcy”- how things used to be only a few years ago. As a parish priest in one of the most densely populated neighborhoods of our city, and certainly in one of the most challenging areas in terms of pastoral needs, I find myself directly affected by the dark realities that many of you are facing. As an example, many of you have expressed concerns that our neighborhood is no longer safe as it once was. Civility and respect are certainly down, while vulgarity and violence are up. Patience, tolerance, fear of God and other virtues are largely absent in the streets these days, and even in church, some would say. Sadly, these concerns are all validated by my own daily experience in our parish, increasingly more so in the last few months.
It might not be news to some of you who are at church regularly and have witnessed the confrontational way in which some people have approached me, or one of our priests between Masses. At times, this has happened in the parish office to our parish receptionists. Almost always, such a confrontation involves someone who is either mentally challenged, dependent on medications, or has had a history of legal troubles. People like these are naturally attracted to the Church because they are often not treated with compassion anywhere else. While I have always tried to be as kind to them as Christ would want me to, I must admit that satisfying all their unreasonable demands is not humanly possible or even advisable. Often, an angry person would confront us solely to vent his or her rage and explosive outbursts over some little thing that she or she does not like about the parish, about someone in church, or about how this parish has changed and no longer meets his or her demands. Such confrontations, which often go along with verbal abuse, harassment, and even assault, have caused traumas to me and some among our priests and staff. When speaking with law enforcements about the issue, I learned that, sadly, this problem is not unique to our parish at this time, although our neighborhood does have a higher share of troubled individuals who need more than the help that any priest or any parish can give. I also sense everyone’s powerlessness about it. Most people blame it on the pandemic; I don’t quite know. I do know that the church is frequently a target for attack.
In this situation, it can be a real temptation to focus on the negative experiences. Nevertheless, I believe that this is no time for despair, and it is no time for retreat. Instead, it is time to focus on the many bright lights that still shine in the darkness. The goodness of so many of you in this parish, who genuinely love God and support His ministers, continues to sustain me in my current mission. While being a priest these days is not a vocation for the faint of heart, I still believe in that higher calling. God, the one who calls me to this life of service, is ultimately in control. He is “the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last”. (Revelation 22:13). While I cannot possibly know what the future holds, I know who holds the future! This conviction puts my mind at ease about the troubles that come my way, and about the troubled brothers and sisters that I am called to love despite the crosses that they bring to me.
So dear brothers and sisters, no matter what it looks like right now for you, God is still in control. As you begin the New Year, I invite you to join me in renewing our sense of Hope. Ultimately, our Hope has a name, and His Name is Jesus! Let’s live with Hope and continue to serve Him, with perseverance and without fear.
A Blessed and Happy New Year to each of you from Vietnam, my homeland, where you are remembered daily at the Altar. See you again soon!
Msgr. Cuong M. Pham