As a little boy, Deacon Tang Phan had always wanted to be a teacher.
“[My] teachers were very lovely. They have good hearts. They were kind towards me and they cared for me. I wanted to be one of them . . . to teach others,” he said.
He aimed to do that, but things didn’t work out quite as he hoped, so he took up Information Technology instead in his homeland of Vietnam.
A homily given by his uncle who was a priest put him onto the path to priesthood, but perhaps, with a different approach.
“He gave a homily saying that Jesus is the best teacher ever. I thought, I want to be a teacher. It might be the way he (Jesus) is calling me,” he said.
After two postponements due Covid-19 restrictions, Deacon Tang is being ordained to the priesthood on September 19 (to-be-confirmed), at St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Christchurch. [Update: the ordination has been moved to October 10, 2020.]
“We were thinking of July 11 but, because of lockdown level 4 during Easter time, we decided to move it so we can have more people, and everything will be open to everyone. We decided to move it to August 22,” he said.
But because New Zealand is again under Covid-19 restrictions, Christchurch Bishop Paul Martin and Deacon Tang decided to move it to September.
Deacon Tang said he took longer than others to find out about the mid-August change in alert levels, because he was at a retreat.
“On Wednesday (August 12) when I came in the church for Mass, I said, ‘oh, there’s something different today’,” he said.
Upon realising Christchurch had been moved up to level 2, he became “a bit worried because of my ordination and many people have planned to come. Everything would be postponed again”.
After much prayer, he said he felt at peace.
Deacon Tang said that, when he was a little boy, he often accompanied his grandfather to the parish centre, where his grandfather worked.
The idea of becoming a priest wasn’t foreign to him but, during his primary and secondary school years, he became more interested in teaching.
Deacon Tang was teaching IT at a university when his uncle asked him (Deacon Tang) to help in his uncle’s parish.
It was at this parish where Auxiliary Bishop Pierre Nguyen Van Vien, who was still a priest back in 2012, asked Deacon Tang if he wanted to become a priest in New Zealand.
“He (Bishop Vien) studied in Sydney and he came back. He said, ‘New Zealand is in need of vocations. Would you like to come to New Zealand?’ I said, ‘where is New Zealand?’,” he said with a laugh.
Deacon Tang asked for some time to think about this. With some encouragement, he contacted Msgr Brendan Daly. Deacon Tang came to New Zealand by the end of October in 2012.
He said his father was fine with him going to New Zealand, but his mother wasn’t happy at first.
“I’m closer to my Dad. Whenever I go home, I normally have a long chat with him. I said to him, ‘Dad, I’m going to New Zealand to study (to be a priest). He said, ‘ok, whatever you want and wherever God calls you’,” Deacon Tang recalled.
His mother, however, was not happy about him being so far away.
“Mum was saying ‘don’t go, because if you go, you cannot come home to see me often’. I said to her, ‘I’ll go home often to see you.’ But since I came here, I have been home twice. Hopefully, later on, I can see her more often, but more than once every two years,” he said.
But after seeing that he was happy here, his Mum became happy for him as well. And now, his younger brother, Joseph, is in Christchurch discerning a vocation as well.
“He’s still learning English in Christchurch. We hope he can get through it. He’s six years younger than me,” Deacon Tang said.
Deacon Tang said his priority as a priest is to be “a man of prayer, and to focus on the sacraments that we are called to celebrate and administer to the people”.
After these, his next priority would be his pastoral work. “I would love to see the people in the parish, maybe have a chat with them, to share my story or listen to theirs,” he said.
Deacon Tang said he will be a teacher of faith as every priest is called to be.
‘I never thought I was going to New Zealand. But wherever God leads me, then I’ll follow. I’m happy with that. Every priest has to be a teacher, that is the path of my vocation,” he said.