Rome, Italy, Jul 15, 2011 / 03:53 am
“If I return now, they will throw me in jail and kill me.” These are the frank words that mark an encounter with Father Peter Nguyen Khai, a 41-year-old Vietnamese priest living in Rome.
His crime? Not hiding his Catholic faith.
“My parents taught me how to pray daily and keep the faith in our home, but we never went to church,” says Fr. Khai who grew up in the predominantly Catholic village of Phuc Nhac in the Ninh Binh province of northern Vietnam.
“I learned that the government did not allow the parishioners to gather for worship at the church. Attending Holy Mass, therefore, was a special treat for me.”
It is a situation that many Vietnamese Catholics simply had to learn to live with. For Fr. Khai, though, any thoughts of quietly co-existing with the regime evaporated following one particular boyhood experience.
“One day, I saw a mentally ill woman who used to wander around the village. She came to the church in tears, banging on its front door with her skinny hands and crying out with great anguish: ‘The church is still here, but where is Father?’”
“Father” was a local pastor, Fr. Matthew Hau, who a few years before had been arrested, tortured and killed by the local communist authorities. A vicious persecution of all the Catholics in the village then ensued – the Khai family included.
“After learning the story of Fr. Matthew Hau and his heroic acts to the end of his life in order to protect the faith of his people, especially the accounts of his arrest, torture and senseless murder, I suddenly had a strong desire to become a priest—a “Father” like him,” says Fr. Khai.