As a non-Vietnamese speaker, it’s difficult to respond, but despite this you can feel the Spirit of God surrounding you. Signs of peace, frequent kneeling, and the words “amen” and “hallelujah” throughout the service are symbolic reminders of the similarities that unite Catholics around the word regardless of their mother tongue or cultural context.
We are lucky to live in one of the most vibrant and multicultural countries on earth — from the oldest continuous culture of our First Australians to the cultures of our newest arrivals from around the world.
While we embrace our diverse and inclusive society, there is no doubting we are cultural creatures. It is nearly impossible for us to disregard our cultural identities. We are not universal people, we are born and bred in a specific context with its own customs, traditions and languages.
The Vietnamese Catholic Community was first “discovered” residing in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle in the late 1970s. In 1994, the Vietnamese Ecclesiastical Community was established, belonging to the chaplaincy of the Vietnamese Catholic Community of the Archdiocese of Sydney.
In the early years, Fr Paul Chu Van Chi from the Archdiocese of Sydney was appointed the spiritual director of the community here. Because he lived so far away, only the important Masses of the Liturgical Year were celebrated.
But 2009 was a turning point for the Vietnamese community in our Diocese with the arrival of Fr Thoai Ngoc Nguyen from Vietnam. With the permission of Bishop Michael Malone, Fr Thoai Ngoc Nguyen began celebrating Mass in Vietnamese for the community on the occasion of solemn and traditional ceremonies.
In March 2020, Bishop Bill Wright authorised the community to have weekly Sunday Mass in Vietnamese. The establishment of the Vietnamese Catholic community was recognised as fulfilling an important spiritual benefit in the Diocese, and Bishop Bill officially approved the formation of a local chaplaincy.
The Vietnamese community celebrate Mass each Sunday at Christ the King. Due to the pandemic, the average number of attendees ranges from 30 to 50, depending on the usual Sunday Mass, or special celebrations such as Vietnamese Martyrs, Tet Nguyen Dan (Lunar New Year), Christmas or Easter.
Fr Thoai Ngoc Nguyen says celebrating Mass in the Vietnamese language is a huge blessing for the community.
“It is easy for them to participate in the liturgy,” he says. “When the homily is delivered in mother tongue, it really makes sense.
“When people come to Mass, they do not do it just to comply with the precepts of the Church, or else they would attend Mass anywhere it was on. They come to meet others, they come to talk to each other.
“The Mass in Vietnamese for the Vietnamese community is not just the ritual, it is the celebration of faith, of culture and of life sharing.
“Attending Mass in mother-tongue language gives the community a sense of remembering where we come from and the need to promote the beauty of the multiculturalism in Australia.”
Indeed, as a united Catholic community, we can be very proud and particular about our own identities, and still be perfectly in harmony with people from other cultures.
Cultural diversity during Mass serves to enhance genuine harmony and can be a blessing for everyone.
During a Vietnamese Mass, Fr Thoai Ngoc Nguyen says it is tradition to decorate the altar with flowers – except for Lent and Advent. When the pandemic ends, the community look forward to being able to share local Vietnamese food after a special Mass such as Lunar New Year, Christmas or Easter.
These are not only important, but beautiful and unique culturally specific celebrations.
The Catholic Church has come a long way in its acceptance of celebrating Mass in different cultures and languages. From 1563 until 1965, the Catholic Mass was said entirely in Latin. Now, Catholics worldwide celebrate Mass in their own native language.
Currently, the inner-Newcastle parish of St Benedict’s celebrates Mass weekly in three other languages apart from English.
Polish Mass is celebrated every Sunday at 11.30am in the Sacred Heart Cathedral at Hamilton, Italian Mass is celebrated every Sunday at 10.30am at St Laurence O’Toole at Broadmeadow, and Vietnamese Mass is celebrated at 5.30pm every Sunday at Christ the King Church, Mayfield West.