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Aug 26, 2021 264 Father Tao Pham,
Encounter

Braving the Storm

Father Tao Pham shares his breathtaking journey through the storm, in spite of his crippling disability

To fulfill my dream of becoming a priest, I had to overcome a lot of challenges and difficulties. Many times, when the pain seemed unbearable, I prayed that my sufferings would be united with Jesus in His Passion. I knew that He could do anything, so if He wanted me to become a priest, then one day I would be a priest.

I was born in the north of Vietnam, the 7th of 8 children. We grew up in a very poor village where schooling ended at Year 9, but I felt that Christ was calling me to the priesthood. This was only possible if I received tertiary education. When I was 14, my brother and I sorrowfully bid farewell to our family so we could attend high school.

At that time, the Communist government in North Vietnam had closed all the seminaries, so after high school graduation, I spent 4 years assisting our parish priest full-time, 4 years at university and 4 years teaching before I finally began seminary training in the south. My dream was finally coming true, but this was just the beginning. When I’d finished 3 years of Philosophy, I was invited to complete my study for the priesthood in Australia.

Unforseen…

After 3 more years studying Theology and a year of pastoral placement, I finally received the happy news that the bishop had chosen the date for my ordination as a deacon. A few days before the big day, I had a little mishap when the car boot fell and squashed my fingers as I was removing my luggage. The other seminarians cleaned me up, but the fingers became so swollen and painful that after 3 days, I finally went to the hospital. To my surprise, the doctors told me that I had less than 50% of normal blood volume because I was bleeding internally. They discovered a stomach ulcer which needed an emergency operation.

When I woke up, I was astonished to find myself tied to the bed. The doctor said I had been shaking so much that they had to tie me down so that I could receive a blood transfusion. They told me that I had tetanus, but after 40 days treatment, I was well enough to go back to the seminary to begin the intensive study prior to ordination. After several weeks, the Bishop asked me to come and stay with him. It was wonderful to be attending him at Mass, but I suddenly collapsed in the Cathedral and had to be rushed back to hospital.

They put me into intensive care because I had developed a catastrophic blood infection and was not expected to live. I stopped breathing and had to be put on life support. Since the doctors were certain I would die, they sent for my family and my brother came from Vietnam. After receiving the Last Rites, life support was turned off, but I didn’t die. After a couple of hours, they turned on the machines again. A couple of weeks later, they turned the machines off again, but I still survived. I ended up being in a coma for 74 days and was operated on 18 times.

Cutting Off

When I woke up from the coma, I was still in a lot of pain. I could not talk because there was a tube in my throat. Even after the tubes were removed, I could not speak. It took months to slowly and painfully learn to talk again. My condition was still critical so the doctors prepared me for another surgery, which my brother had already consented to, but when I read that they were planning to cut my leg off, I refused. The doctor told me that I would die if it was not amputated, but I did not want this to prevent me from being ordained as a priest. I would not give up my dream of becoming a priest even though my family and many good friends were telling me that it was hopeless, to just go home to Vietnam and get married. It was very challenging, mentally and physically, but I put my hope and trust in God.

After a month on “Nil by Mouth”, I was desperately longing to receive Our Lord in Holy Communion. If I could receive even a drop of the Precious Blood, I knew that I would be healed. The next day Father Peter brought the Precious Blood to me in Holy Communion. As he trickled a few drops into my mouth, I visualized it moving into my body and touching the infection. The following day, I felt much better. Tests were done and the infection was gone.

After more than a year in hospital, we had a meeting with the staff of the hospital to discuss my future. The bishop attended on my family’s behalf. The doctor reported that I would never be able to walk again and would need high level care 24 hours a day for the rest of my life. They said that I would not be able to look after myself, shower myself or even get in or out of bed without help. It was devastating to hear this and even more devastating to hear the bishop’s decision that he would not ordain me as a deacon or priest. After all the years of study and waiting, my dream seemed to be over.

It was very difficult for me, however I kept praying. I was determined to walk again, so I worked hard at all the painful exercises I was given, offering up my suffering in union with Christ for all the people who needed my prayers. The rehabilitation took years. Often I felt like giving up, but I held onto my dream and that gave me the courage to go on.

Glistening Eyes

Despite all these challenges and obstacles, I still felt Christ calling me to become a priest to serve His people, even in my weakness. So, one day I sent a letter to the Archbishop of Melbourne asking him to accept me for ordination. To my surprise, he arranged to see me straight away and discuss what he needed me to do. He agreed to ordain me, even if I had to lie in a bed or sit in a wheelchair, but he told me that I would get better and better, and I would be walking. At that stage I was still in a wheelchair, but I continued to work at my exercises while I finished my study, so when ordination day came I was able to join the others walking in procession. The Cathedral was filled with the jubilant faces of friends. Many of them had met me when I needed their care in hospital so they knew how astonishing it was that I had lived to see this day. Tears of joy filled my eyes and I could see their eyes glistening too. I could not believe that this day had finally come, 30 years after I set out from my village in pursuit of my dream.

Now, I work with 2 other priests in a busy community with 4 churches, several schools and 6 nursing homes. Every day when I walk in to say Mass is like a fresh miracle. I do not think that I will ever tire of it. Then, strengthened by the Holy sacrifice of the Mass, I go out to visit the children in the schools and the elderly in the nursing homes. I feel blessed to bring His presence to them. The long wait to share in Christ’s priesthood is over and I can share with them the fruits of my suffering in union with Him.

Persisting through all my difficulties has enabled me to understand and help people in their adversities. I have learned that thinking about the needs of others and putting on a smiling face for them diverts me from my own afflictions and transforms my suffering into joy. When people come to me for assistance, I can draw on the strength I gained from my ailments to encourage them to persevere through their trials. Because they can see that I suffer a disability, it is easier for them to relate to me in times of trouble so that they can receive the Church’s support to maintain hope in the darkest times.

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Father Tao Pham

Father Tao Pham is a priest in the Archdiocese of Melbourne, assisting in the Greensborough North, Greensborough and Diamond Creek parishes. This article is based on his testimony and the Shalom World program “Triumph”. To watch the episode visit: www.shalomworld.org/show/triumph

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