By Lois Rogers | Correspondent
Jenny Nguygen arrived in the United States from Vietnam when she was four years old.
Now grown and the mother of two sons, she remembers how when she was a child at this time of year, “all everyone talked about was Chinese New Year.”
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She recalls thinking that no one in her Monmouth County area seemed aware the Lunar New Year celebration goes by many names and is observed with equal enthusiasm and a multitude of national customs, traditions and foods in scores of countries including Vietnam.
There, the ancient festival is known as Tet Nguyen Dan – Vietnamese for “Feast of the First Morning of the First Day” – which heralds the beginning of spring. And on Feb. 7 – New Year's Eve – all those customs and traditions linked through the centuries to Tet in Vietnam began to unfold, much to her delight, in St. Rose of Lima Church, Freehold.
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A member of Christ the King Community of Vietnamese who gather weekly for Mass and fellowship there, Mrs. Nguygen and a team of organizers had bustled from the parking lot to the nave with decorations that included traditional spring blossoms to adorn the sanctuary. Soon, the procession which would escort Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., began to form.
Among those in the procession was Mrs. Nguyen's son, John, 17, senior at St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel, who serves at the Vietnamese Mass which meets at 5 p.m. every Sunday. One day, she hopes, the family's second son, Alex, 7, will also be an altar server.
The beat of a ceremonial drum signaled the arrival of of Bishop O'Connell and Divine Word Father Peter Trinh, who lives in the Divine Word Missionaries residence in Bordentown, and Father Joseph Pam, a priest of the Camden Diocese, who serves the community as needed. The members of the multi-generational Christ the King Community focused all their attention as procession moved toward the altar and Mass began.
In his homily, translated for the community by Father Trinh, Bishop O'Connell spoke of how “in the Diocese of Trenton, Holy Mass is celebrated in ten different languages. I'm very happy to celebrate with you in your language,” though, he said with a smile, “I do not speak it.”
He spoke of how he was happy to be with the families gathered with him on this auspicious day, to celebrate the year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis, urging them to recognize in Jesus the profound Mercy of God.
“God's name is Mercy,” he said. “Mercy is the most important message – it is so important. It reminds us as we enter a new year to take Jesus at his word and to not be afraid.”
When the Mass drew to an end, Father Trinh thanked him on behalf of the Vietnamese Catholic Community of Freehold. “Your presence is a blessing and a gift from God,” he said, asking God to bless the Bishop.
Phuong Nguyen, president of the community, spoke of the joy of having Bishop O'Connell present “with your priests on this most important day of Tet.” It was the first visit of a Bishop to the community since it was founded in 2003, he said. The visit lifted the spirits of the community as they strive to pass their traditions to younger generations, he said.
In concluding festivities, the community presented the Bishop with a picture of Jesus, the Good Shepherd and the Bishop took delight in handing out the traditional “red pockets” of lucky money to the many children and venerable adults who were present.
On this first day of the New Year,” Mr. Nguyen wished the community a “happy, healthy and prosperous year and offered a prayer that God would send them a full-time Vietnamese chaplain in the New Year.
In his closing remarks, the Bishop called it a “great honor and privilege for me to be with you. As bishop, I wish you every good thing,” in the New Year.
He went on to share with them that when he was a young seminarian, sisters from the Congregation of Lovers of the Holy Cross, “took care of us. They were beautiful people,” he said. “Very kind, very merciful, and very good cooks. I continue to pray for them and I will continue to pray for you.”
At the celebration that followed in the parish center, Huong Nguyen reflected on the Bishop's visit, explaining how important it was to the Christ the King Community.
Huong Nguyen played the keyboard and sang with the choir conducted by her husband Tuan during the Mass.
A convert from Buddhism, she spoke of how seriously the community takes the faith. “Going to church,” she said, “is so important. For us it was so important to meet the Bishop. In Vietnam, it is very hard to meet a bishop. My husband says that no everyone will be able to do that in their lifetime,” said Huong who arrived in the United States at the age of 9.
The parents of three children, Anthony, 14, who is also an altar boy, Victoria, 9 and Cynthia, 7, she said that there is no way to express the joy everyone felt at sharing the New Year with Bishop O'Connell.