Introduction: In July 2019, the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) held a General Chapter in Vietnam. A very democratic process, a General Chapter is comprised of friar delegates from around the world. Here, they make important leadership and legislative decisions for the worldwide Order of Preachers.
The following is a personal reflection from Fr. Peter Do, O.P., a delegate of the Western Dominican Province and native son of Vietnam.
This past July I participated in the Elective General Chapter held in Long Khanh, Vietnam. It was the first Chapter of the Order held in a non-Christian, communist country. It was also a memorable time for me as my family fled Vietnam in the 1970s following the fall of Saigon.
After Vietnam was divided into north and south in 1954, many Catholics, including my family, moved south. The South Vietnamese government gave the Catholic immigrants a parcel of land in Xuan Loc where they rebuilt their homes.
Before building their own homes, these Catholics first built many churches. Growing up, I thought everyone in the world was Catholic, since there was a church every seven blocks! I had no clue most people in my country were Buddhist.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, things were very hard for everyone. Catholics especially didn’t feel safe. People who had been tied to the U.S. war found themselves in a very bad situation. It was so bad that floods of Vietnamese refugees began trying to escape by boat. Our family was one of them.
At the time I was just a boy. My parents and my aunt held many secret meetings to make our escape plan.
One night, they told me I will have a better future if I get out Vietnam. They decided that my mom, who had just given birth to my youngest brother, would stay here with my younger siblings, and my dad and I would go first.
One morning, at 3:00 a.m., my father woke me. He told me “get dressed, get ready,” so I did. I didn’t say goodbye to anyone. He grabbed me by the hand, a small bag in his other hand, and we left.
We stood on the sidewalk and waited. Finally, a big van came along and we got in. My dad reminded me, “Don’t say anything. If anyone asks you anything, you don’t know where you’re going.”
We were dropped off in a forested area, where we stayed hidden, all crammed together in a small shed, for many hours.
When it was dark, my father said, “I want you to go with this woman. She will take care of you.” The men went on ahead, carrying all the food, supplies, gas, and so forth. Then, the rest of us – about sixty – filed out of the storage shed, in total silence and total darkness.
Soon I heard ocean waves in the distance. The lady was holding my hand trying to keep a good, steady pace.
Finally, we got to the beach. But the boat was out in the water and we still had to get to it.
I experienced tremendous fear. I didn’t know how to swim. The ocean waves were so big.
Everyone was running/pushing/swimming for their lives trying to get to the boat. The lady was holding my hand, but the water was getting higher and higher, pulling me in deeper. I was sinking…then, the lady was gone.
I started shouting for my dad— “Ba, Ba!” Taking in saltwater, I lost consciousness.
The next thing I knew I was in the boat, coughing up saltwater. Many years later, I realized I could have jeopardized us all, yelling like that. If the soldiers guarding the beach had been nearby, they would have caught all of us.
God was with us that night. God used my father’s hand to save me. Had my earthly and my Heavenly Father not heard me and pulled me out, I would have been like that little Syrian boy who washed ashore…
By the grace of God, after two weeks of drifting, we finally made it to a makeshift refugee camp on a Malaysian island. I was so happy to see so many other Vietnamese people on the beach!
And then, the rest of my life began, eventually leading me to join the Dominicans in the West. Fast forward to today, I was very happy to return to Vietnam for the General Chapter because it was only one hour from my hometown.
Located at St. Joseph Major Seminary in the diocese of Xuan Loc, the location of the Chapter gave me the opportunity to visit my relatives. It has been ten years since I last visited them and almost 35 years since I escaped from Vietnam with my father.
In the first week of the elective General Chapter, the capitulars met to discuss possible candidates for the next Master of the Order. We were divided into linguistic and regional groups to name possible candidates. Each group then had the opportunity to interview the candidates. Finally, the capitulars convened to elect the new Master of the Order.
Making history, this chapter elected the first Asian as the new Master of the Order. The next three weeks were devoted to meetings and the work of different commissions. We met every day except Sundays.
I was assigned to the commission focused on the challenges and renewal of fraternal life. I also served as secretary on this commission, with the responsibility of taking notes, editing, and revising the commission document.
Frs. Christopher Fadok, O.P., Michael Sweeney, O.P., and I used one of our days off to visit my relatives and hometown. We had a wonderful time touring my uncle’s estate, which has seven fish lakes and a farm. We spent the afternoon having lunch together on one of the lakes, before heading back to Long Khanh.