By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
Three retired priests from the Archdiocese of Louisville said their recent travels to three different countries — Vietnam, Cambodia and Australia — showed them the beauty and connectedness of the universal church.
The first stop for Fathers John Burke, Joseph Graffis and Gerald Bell was the Southeast Asian country of Cambodia, where they visited and learned about a ministry to the deaf led by Father Charles Dittmeier — a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville who has served in Cambodia since 2000.
Father Dittmeier is a Maryknoll associate priest who serves as director of the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme which tends to hundreds in the city of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, and beyond.
The Louisville priests said during an interview following their June 6-28 trip that Father Dittmeier’s ministry is an answer to Pope Francis’ call to go to the periphery and be a church that walks with the poor. The ministry, noted the priests, offers sign language education, vocational training and basic life skills to deaf individuals.
Father Dittmeier leads a staff of about 80 people, said Father Graffis and they are currently working to promote a national sign language and developing deaf programs in different areas of the country.
Father Bell said Father Dittmeier “goes out into the countryside to people who are isolated and can’t communicate even with their parents. He brings them in, offers housing, teaches them and sends them back into their community,” where they are able for the first time to lead somewhat normal lives.
Though Cambodia is a largely Buddhist country, Father Burke noted that Father Dittmeier has said he’s not there to convert people, but to serve the most marginalized.
“He’s such a leaven for good,” said Father Burke. “Pope Francis said we should be a church of the poor. Father Charlie models that. Here’s what a church committed to serving the poor looks like.”
The second leg of their journey took the three priests to Vietnam, where they said they witnessed the “beauty, vibrancy and joy” of the Catholic church, despite oppression from a communist government. The visit to Vietnam was the reason they set out on the 24-day global journey to begin with, the priests said.
Months before the trip, newly ordained Vietnamese Fathers Kien Nguyen and Minh Vu, still seminarians at the time, invited all three to attend Masses of thanksgiving in their native country. Fathers Vu and Nguyen were ordained priests for the Archdiocese of Louisville May 26.
Fathers Vu and Nguyen celebrated Masses of thanksgiving in their home parishes in the city of Vinh in mid-June.
The three retired priests were a part of a larger group from the archdiocese that traveled to Vietnam for the Masses of thanksgiving. Among the group were Father Peter Do, associate vocation director of the Vocation Office; newly-ordained priests Fathers Robert Barnell and David Farrell; Deacon Steven Reeves, a seminarian in formation for the Archdiocese of Louisville and a group of parishioners from St. Michael and St. Patrick churches, including Deacon Scott Haner and his wife JoAnn Haner.
Father Graffis described the celebrations as “stunning and mesmerizing.” Entire villages, adding up to thousands of people, came out wearing their finest, said the priests. Men and boys beat giant drums as the priests and the congregation processed into the church.
“The liturgy was stunning,” said Father Graffis. “They (the priests) chant everything and the parishioners respond. It was mesmerizing. The significance of it went right through me.”
The priests said having a vocation in Vietnam is treated as a “real honor.” The church in Vietnam reminded them, they said, of the churches they attended in the 1950s. Back then, they said, families were more close-knit and the church was the center of people’s lives.
Fathers Bell, Burke and Graffis also witnessed a Mass and celebration of the feast day of St. Anthony of Padua at the Shrine of St. Anthony in the city of Vinh. They were surprised to find that about 70,000 people turned out for the early morning Mass, which was followed by a feast. It was as though everybody paused to take part in the celebration, said Father Graffis.
The most “humbling” experience came, the three agreed, when hundreds of people surrounded them asking for blessings following the Mass.
That was a “sign of the universal church,” said Father Bell. Though the priests were strangers from another land “we were accepted as one of them. We were all connected.”
The final leg of the journey took Fathers Burke, Bell and Graffis to the continent of Australia, where they visited Father Tung Do — a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville currently serving as a teacher at the Australian Catholic University’s campus in Melbourne.
The priests stayed at the Corpus Christi Seminary there, where they said they met seminarians from all over the world — another sign of the universal church.
The church in Australia is very different from the church in Vietnam, noted the priests. Some priests they spoke with in Melbourne are concerned that the sex abuse scandal in the Australian church has affected Mass attendance and the vibrancy of the faith. Yet, these same priests told them Catholic schools funded by the Australian government remain well attended.
Father Graffis also noted that the church in Melbourne, despite the scandal, is doing work in social services.
The trio said they returned to the U.S. with a better sense of how diverse the Catholic church is.