A continuation of the Register's series celebrating the Year for Consecrated Life. See also: Sr. Patricia Radek, M.S.; Sr. Mary Maximilian, C.K.; Sr. Ana Maria, O.S.F.; Sr. M. Thérèse, ISSM; and Sr. Karen Marie Wilson, M.S.
By Sr. Theresa Thanh Thao, CMRM
A boat quietly departed in the ghostly darkness on a late December night in 1985, headed for the Gulf of Thailand. Onboard were more than 50 Vietnamese people of all ages. Hearts were brimming with hope that they would reach the promised land of freedom outside of Vietnam.
Morning came and began a beautiful day; the sky clear and sunny. Everyone on board knew there was no going back. They would either make it to safety or die somewhere in the immense and unforgiving sea. Fear of the uncertainty and the unknown lingered in their minds. Were they heading in the right direction? Would they survive? Would they be hit by a storm or face cruel pirates? No one had any answers.
For the Nguyens and hundreds of thousands of their fellow South Vietnamese, it was the beginning of a decades-long nightmare—one that prompted one of the largest mass exoduses in modern history as political refugees fled, year after year, in rickety boats across the China Sea.
On the third day of our trip, dark clouds hovered overhead and strong winds blew against the tiny wooden boat. The calm ocean became violent with ferocious waves that drove the boat off course. There was no sight of land. The scared people were crying for help. The people were also running out of food. Raw fish had become the main source of nourishment, but even that was rare. One could especially hear the children whining for food while parents helplessly watched.
As the boat sailed into deeper waters, a massive storm bore down. With each wave, we all thought the dinghy would go to the bottom of the sea. People threw up on each other, people screamed and cried… it was horrible. The storm carried on throughout the night, and then I heard people pray and sing.
Everybody on the boat prayed in their own way… all of us chanting all of a sudden—it just came on at once. It was a sound I would never, ever forget. From a distance we heard a helicopter; my youngest baby brother was held high to show that there were children and women under the deck of the boat. The people gave us fresh water and ice to drink. That cup of fresh water tasted like heaven! Then they pointed us toward land and the boat made it through the deluge to Thailand Island.
My family and I left the boat to face immense challenges in numerous refugee camps for two years. I saw the determination of men, women and children who risked everything—home, friends, family, even life itself—for a chance at freedom. We survived the odds, despite the fact that 1/3 of the Vietnamese boat people died at sea either by murder, storms, illness, or food shortage (reported by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees).
In the summer of 1987, my dream finally came true when my family and I safely arrived in America. I grew up in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. My home parish was Our Lady of Assumption in Claremont, Calif. It was there that I attended the Fatima Youth Movement (Phong Trào Thiếu Nhi Fatima) that instilled in me a special devotion to Mary and the rosary. I am convinced that praying the rosary was one of the great magnets that drew me into full communion with Jesus.
In 1990, my family moved to St. George Parish in Ontario, Calif. My love for God and the Blessed Sacrament grew in the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement (Phong Trào Thiếu Nhi Thánh Thể Việt Nam). The story of God’s extraordinary works in our ordinary lives is a mystery in which words can only tell a fraction of the story. The voice of the Lord was not heard in any dramatic way; rather, like Elijah, through gentle, persistent breezes. His voice was so gentle that it took me years to notice this Divine Calling.
The Landers earthquake struck California in 1992, claiming the lives of many, injuring others, and forever altering the course of my life. I was able to safely escape from my room, but was powerfully shaken by the events of that night. I began to ask myself a flood of questions: Why had my life been spared? For what purpose? Had I made any meaningful contributions with my life thus far? Could I in the future? If so, how?
Surprisingly, I received some answers. I came to realize that there was something more being asked of me, and that God had a plan for me. I reached a deeper self-awareness that led me to an exploration of my faith and into a deeper relationship with God. The questions prompted me to take a 12-year journey in faith that would ultimately lead me to dedicate myself to God and the Church.
Next came a pilgrimage to Rome—a visit to the heart of the Church in the Jubilee Year, 2000. Surrounded by thousands of young people so alive with faith, as I walked the streets that thousands of saints have walked, I felt strengthened and truly alive.
The night of our prayer vigil with St. John Paul II, I stood in the crowd of pilgrims, overwhelmed by the encounter with the living Church. I saw Jesus in their faces. As I waited, praying, watching for the Holy Father, Jesus gave me the grace of firmly knowing what He was asking of me and the courage to not turn back.
With four years in religious life with the Sisters in the Congregation of the Sisters of Mary Queen of Mercy, I grew more deeply in love with their life of prayer, simplicity, joy and unity. More so, I grew in love with my Lord Jesus.
On June 10, 2008, I had immense and incomprehensible grace of being eternally espoused to Jesus Christ through vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. This day will stand forever as the most important of my life. It was the day that I freely gave my whole self to Love. Escorted down the aisle by my parents, joyfully surrounded by family and friends, and spurred on by the faith and example of my religious sisters, I dared to approach the altar of mercy to lay down my life in union with my Spouse.
Moments later; my Spouse, through the hands of the bishop, lovingly placed a ring of betrothal on my finger. Then through the hands of His Bishop, He united my humble gift of self to His Own just as He offered Himself to the Father in a Supreme and Eternal Act of Love. In the Eucharist, our hearts were bound together in the greatest of mysteries. I am forever and entirely His; and He, forever and entirely mine.
All these years, my life continues to be a response to an invitation from God and the experience of the love of God. The invitation is so powerful that one senses the need to respond by placing one’s life in God’s Hands. It is an invitation to share in the life and the mission of Jesus; making Him present in the world by living as He lived: chaste, poor and obedient.
Being a sister is not a choice I made once; it is a choice I make every day! Becoming and being a faithful companion of Jesus takes a lifetime! Today, I joyfully give thanks to the Lord for God’s faithful love in my life and for God’s Call.
During the Year for Consecrated Life, you can pray for the religious of the Lincoln Diocese by going to www.lincolndiocese.org/YCL-adopt - sign-up and adopt a Religious Community.