Christmas Reflection – Fr. Peter a life of witness

Merry Christmas! We celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, among barn animals and shepherds and eventually Kings with expensive gifts. Love came down from heaven and dwelt among us.

During advent we looked at a message series we called, “I come to do your will.” It is Jesus core principle. Everything he did was to do the will of the Father, the one who sent him. Over the four weeks we looked at aspects of God’s will. We looked at promise, God makes covenants first with the nation of Israel and them a new covenant fulfilled through Jesus where our sins are acquitted through the sacrifice of the baby whose birth we celebrate today. Glory was the theme of the second week, noting God created us that we may glorify God. When we glorify God others will see and choose to draw near to God. In the third week we look at making God known. We are God’s plan, we meet Jesus, learn more about God and do what we can to introduce others. Without us the story could end. Thankfully so far that hasn’t happened. In the final we look at doing God’s will, noting Mary’s openness to saying yes to God created Christmas for us. We must be followers who trust God  as Jesus did when he carried his cross to Calvary. God’s way is the best way, we go further on the way by doing the will of the Father.

On Christmas Day the reflection is on the readings from the day service, the Lectionary includes; Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalms 98:1, 2-3, 3-4, 5-6; Hebrews 1:1-6 and John 1:1-18. The readings bring forth the beauty of God rejoicing over a Son who comes to not only do the will of the Father but to establish a legacy and road map that we may all become a fulfillment of these readings. God speaks pride in a Son that does his will, but we as children of God can feel the same love and pride. God is a Father who loves his children. We have the chance to return this love through commitment to doing the will of the father.

The first reading from Isaiah describes salvation is coming to Zion the name often used to represent Jerusalem, the holy city. There will be glad tidings, good news and salvation brought by a messenger, specifically mentioning on his feet, proclaiming that the Lord is returning to the holy city. Seen as a victory parade including songs of joy and extolling the salvation brought by the Lord. We reach the highest degree of happiness imaginable because our God reigns, and we are able to behold our God. Paul uses the opening verse in his letter to the Romans, “And how can people preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring [the] good news!” (10:15) He is making the point that preaching is necessary if the Gospel is to be spread. Spreading the good news requires a pure heart, one that has been purified. We see Jesus in the message, as we celebrate his coming to spread the good news. But we should also see others, those whose feet follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Hopefully, we all know people who live pure lives and spread the good news, my friend Fr. Peter was very much in this category. We each should see how we can obtain a pure heart and live to spread the Gospels.

In the second reading from Hebrews we read that God has always been faithful and generous to the people. He has depended on prophets to speak, share and maintain his relationship. But now he has sent his Son. Jesus accomplishes purification of sin and sits at God’s right hand, the seat of authority. God calls to him, you are my son: this day I have begotten you. God is Father and he is Son, all the angels shall worship him, the firstborn into the world. God praises Jesus and proclaims his greatness. Paul begins these praises from God using the Psalms (see 2:7) a royal description. Paul is communicating the relationship and role of Jesus as the first in a new age (or covenant) who will re-mediate sin and set a path that all may call God Father. Paul in Hebrews 5:6 repeats Jesus Sonship, saying, “You are my son; this day I have begotten you; just as he says in another place: You are a priest forever.” Thus Jesus is the high priest, the first, the sacrifice he offers need never be offered again. But others are called to sacrifice so that the Gospels will be known, that God will be known, that the Father’s will be done in heaven and on earth. Applying the reading to others and ourselves we too are challenged to live out this parental relationship with God, we should accept God and accept our relationship as son or daughter, to be heir of the Kingdom, and to accept purification of sin. The Apostle Peter in his letter refers to a royal priesthood, by our incorporation into Christ, we have attained a kingly and priestly status, not as separate individuals, but as people of the Body of Christ.

The gospel is the great opening from John which speaks about the word becoming flesh and making his dwelling among us and we see the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. It also speaks of John the Baptist who testifies to his coming. It is John the Evangelist’s version of the birth of Jesus, speaking of his being present at the creation of the universe and then entering into humanity to be that purifier. We also read Jesus is the only one who has seen God and reveals God to us. Jesus provides intimate knowledge about God, even calling God Father, so we may know, and we may share with others what we know.

The readings very naturally express the Son coming from God, the proud and loving Father. On this day we celebrate God coming as a baby, completely dependent on humanity for life. Jesus grows and makes life available for all humanity through his priestly sacrifice offered with his own life. Christmas is the beginning of the story. But it also has a message of continuation through our role. We are called to be a messenger, to be a priest, to dwell in humanity, to claim the child of God in us, to proclaim Jesus story and testify to that story. So Christmas is about the baby coming to save humanity, we have a role to share and proclaim Jesus for those who are not believers, who have not claimed their child of God. My friend Fr. Peter is a good example of one who accepted this mandate to be a child of God and share the good news. I would like to tell you about him.

On this day we celebrate God coming as a baby, completely dependent on humanity for life. Jesus grows and makes life available for all humanity through his priestly sacrifice offered with his own life. Click To Tweet

Fr Peter

Peter Van Nguyen was born on October 10, 1932 in South Vietnam. He died December 14, 2018 in West Palm Beach Florida. We became brothers, although I did not meet him until 2007. Much of his life I only heard about, mostly from him as we worked and prayed together. I won’t always have the details right but I can’t forget his passion and aspiration.

For example, I wish I could tell you the town he was born in, or the names of his parents and or whether it was seven siblings or nine. We talked about these things but much of what we talked about was Jesus and so much of the personal stuff did not stick in my memory. Telling his story I will likely miss some details, but my point in writing here is to introduce the man I know. Some of the history he told me was important to his formation, and the development of his heart for God. There will be details I won’t remember, so please accept my apologies up front.

Before young Peter was even ten years old he knew he wanted to serve Jesus as a Roman Catholic Priest. But unlike other ten year old kids who had a new idea every few months young Peter was sure and supported by his parents (or they were glad to have one less mouth to feed.) Soon after his tenth birthday he was off to the Vietnamese equivalent of a minor seminary. He spent his youth in studies and training culminating with his ordination to the priesthood in Saigon, South Vietnam in 1960. He lived and served in the seminary in Saigon until 1968.

Fr. Peter went to Europe escaping the hostile climate in South Vietnam and studied in Belgium. A few years later he traveled to Washington, DC primarily to go to school, where he obtained a Master’s degree in Music. He stayed and work in Washington for several years. In 1983 Fr. Peter moved to Rockville Center diocese in New York. He was assigned to a parish and combined his pastoral work with his music. In the parish he was very proud of the work he did in creating a choir that would do many concerts, seemingly professional concerts, especially at Christmas. I remember the pride he would have when he played me video recordings of an extraordinarily large choir, with this very small (Fr. Peter was no taller than four feet, eight inches) maestro waving the baton directing. To my very unprofessional eye he was as deliberate and professional as any Lincoln Center maestro. It was a time he recalled to me with great fondness. His love for music was as much a call as being a priest. Trained in the priestly life and in music his life seemed perfect.

Fr. Peter was always on the move, latter in life he would tell me he is a little fireplug. A fireplug is the equivalent of a fire hydrant, the connection point by which firefighters can tap into a water supply to put out a fire. Fr. Peter was a spiritual fireplug, an endless source of spiritual energy that he freely made available to anyone, including those who would be surprised by his easy manner and would end up talking about their spiritual life although they may have thought they didn’t even have one. The level of energy I witnessed was much later in his life, near the end of his life, as a young priest he must have had so much spiritual energy you couldn’t touch him with your bare hand.

Soon after his work in Rockville Center he came to Florida. I suspect it had something to do with what he discovered as a struggle, his two calls. He was fully a priest and fully a maestro, and both were taking up too much time. So in the hardest decision of his life he knew he had to give up one or the other. He would say he lives for Jesus and music was becoming a distraction. Years later I could see he still yearned for music at the level he once enjoyed. He always stayed involved in one way or another, creating choirs in all the parishes he would serve. But for him this was more hobby than what he was capable of doing.

I must admit he never actually said he came to Florida to focus on his priestly life, but the giving up of his music “career” and coming to Florida always seemed to be in the same conversation.

In Florida Fr. Peter taught at the local seminary, he had a natural inclination to want to teach people, it could be music, the bible or the spiritual life, it didn’t matter which, but always he wanted to share and help others grow. It was a part of his pastoral side. When he first came to Florida, Fr. Peter served at a parish near the seminary where he taught.

Next he worked in a parish in North Palm Beach, St. Claire parish, where he served almost ten years. He was transferred to Sacred Heart Church in Lake Worth, Florida and in 1997 became their pastor, a role he remained in until her retired at age 75 in 2007. He transferred to Ascension Parish in Boca Raton where he stayed until he moved into an adult care facility in West Plan Beach. Of course in each of the places he served he left his mark. Usually with some kind of choir or children’s choir. But also by the people he touched. He never shared any one on one conversions in which he aided or provided pastoral influences, but there were many. I know from witnessing his pastoral side and from hearing stories of how Fr. Peter aided. Praise for him from persons struggling, or wanting to follow Jesus was almost universal.

In 2007 when I met him he seemed a bit out of sorts with the change. I think he was surprised that his retirement as Pastor actually took effect and he started to think that he was losing capability. He went on a thirty-six day retreat which incorporated the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola in California. It was a silent retreat. Prior to leaving for the retreat at a meeting he asked the group to pray for him. I took it seriously and every day I would mention him by name in prayer. I believe it brought me closer to him in ways I would never completely understood.

Upon his return the fireplug was re-energized and the first thing he started was a Four Winds Bible study group (from the passage in Matthew 24:31) In typical Fr. Peter style he started two groups, meeting a couple of times a week and he asked me (and others) to help him. For all the years we knew each other he was always pushing to do more, to do something to bring people to Jesus no matter what it would take. He began choir groups, Mary devotional groups, adoration groups and Divine Mercy groups. He did anything he could to impart some knowledge and help others to grow. He helped start a 33 Days of Morning Glory, a Marion consecration group. If there was something he could use to start a small group praying or studying, he was doing it.

Naturally he was pushing hard and not everything was thought through so there were rough seas, but nothing was a failure, he was never deterred, there was something else to do. If there was a way to talk to someone about Jesus, Fr. Peter found the way and used it. Music was often a big part of it, he never began a group that he wouldn’t compose a song for its opening (or closing) prayer and all of us who couldn’t sing, were singing.

Through the years we became very close, we stopped calling each other by name and just spoke of each other as brother. His strengths were his prayer life, people and music, but he wasn’t afraid of anything. So if a computer program could help him get things done, even thought he didn’t know the difference between a mouse and a gas pedal, he jumped right in. He built a thousand name email distribution list to send out daily reflections. Much of what he sent was available somewhere on the internet but he put it into one long file and mailed it daily. Then when he saw you he would ask, “Did you read it?” You got it at 2AM and it was now 8AM, you didn’t have time to read it, but all you were wondering was when did he sleep?

I had a background in computers so I fielded many of his computer questions. This led to some late night phone calls and request to stop by. When I reflect I could have ignored the 2AM call but it was Fr. Peter and if it was important to him, then it was important. After a twenty minute drive to investigate his computer issue that could be fixed in one key stroke the inclination might be to tell him next time to wait until we see each other, but somehow his positivity and energy took over and I was glad he was happily doing the work he was tirelessly performing. Fr. Peter would often remind me of Paul writing in the Second Letter to Timothy, “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” (4:7) Fr. Peter was racing to serve Jesus and though he would be stopped, or bumped off the road, he would circle around and figure out another way, for him the race was to be won.

But it wasn’t always heaven on earth working with him, helping could be frustrating at times. I might think what he wants to do is not important or is a hard way to solve something. But he never relented, he would smile and wait, then ask again if necessary and somehow it would be done as he wished. I learned to trust his style, somehow his way was a way to Jesus.

Fr. Peter became my Spiritual Director, he pushed me to respond to a vocational call to the Diaconate, he would constantly be checking in on me and my spiritual life. He wasn’t one to say you must do this and you must do that. He would bring me to his room and say, I do this prayer first, then I come over here and kneel here praying these prayers, then I sit here and meditate, and I do this and I do that. If something new struck him he would call right away and say you have to buy this book or read this article or try these prayers. It seemed as though he cared as much about my spiritual life as I did. Maybe even a little more. But, I wasn’t the only one, he cared for everyone the same way. He gave all of himself away for the benefit of someone else.

Fr. Peter gave all of himself away for the benefit of someone else. Click To Tweet

He was the same with his money. If you needed something he gave, and he would give one hundred times to the same person, if they convinced him it was important, which wasn’t too hard. When he served the parish he could live and give lots of money away, and he did. Once he stopped working in the parish he gave all his money away and had to ask his friends to help him and to help the people who asked for his help. Some of these people seemed like they might be conning him, but Fr. Peter gave with the intention of serving the person in need, he made it a holy transaction from his perspective. He died poor, tricked certainly, but also steadfast in knowing that he did for the least. When someone crossed his path they usually left enriched in some way, needy or otherwise. I know myself I gave money away at his request that seemed shady to me, but his innocence and love made it a donation to God. How the money was received never mattered.

Fr. Peter loved being a priest, even if he had never been ordained, he would have still lived a priestly life, he was born to it. He did his best work walking around the church, the grounds or in the market place. His manner was easy; a bright smile, and a laugh that was ever present. His personal traits made him very disarming. When I watched him with a third person I could see his advice was right but many times to the person he appeared too simple, or too easy to ignore and his advice would fall on deaf ears. But it didn’t bother him or stop him from loving the person. He would try again the next time. Never did he argue, or say a bad word about anyone. Even when he knew he was getting a bad deal, he kept his presence priestly.

I have been a manager, over seeing people and I am sure Fr. Peter’s bosses did not like his style at all. If the choice was to help someone or follow the rules, the rules might become bent a little. He likely received plenty of reprimands, and requests to stop doing what he was doing. And he listened, certainly, but found another way. He was a charmer, someone on a mission. I have no doubt rules were broken, paperwork was not done and money was given away and unaccounted for, but the person in front of him was Jesus and he would do anything to help as he was able.

He was a fireplug and it took half a parish to keep up with him. But always his intentions were to serve Jesus. As we read in the Christmas readings, Fr. Peter announced good news, he was a priest who wanted to bring people to the Father and he wouldn’t let anything stop him from trying. He was a priest who followed Christ the High Priest. He sacrificed everything so others would see God. Nothing was too important not to give away. Jesus offered his life to do the will of the Father. Fr. Peter offered all he had to do the same. As God came to dwell among us, Fr. Peter could be described doing his best work when he was among the people. He didn’t come from heaven certainly, but he walked with people so they would see his actions and know that he lived to do the will of the Father. Fr. Peter, never let vainglory or appearance stop a good conversion, even if he was converting someone at the gym. But, at the same time he never dishonored his Father or his office.

As time was coming when Fr. Peter was being called to live in an adult care facility, it was not something he wanted, if fact he prayed “let this cup pass.” But in the end he would say, my Shepherd is asking me to go, I have to believe this is God’s word for me and so I will go. I might have been inclined to fight or at least be disgruntled in going. And maybe to certain people Fr. Peter did act this way. But to me he was an example of obedience, reminding of the words we hear Jesus say, “I have come down from heaven not to do my will, but the will of him who sent me.” (John 6:38) It was a powerful teaching from my brother, not one I will forget.

In the end John the Baptist announces Jesus, and we are all called to do the same. Fr. Peter would never presume to be called John the Baptist but truly he tried to announce and point to Jesus always. He would have baptized on the street if someone sincerely asked, because joining the family of God was most important to Fr. Peter. Bringing souls to Jesus one by one was his life’s work. But never once did he declare a mission statement of vision statement, he simply lived it.

I don’t mean to be making Fr. Peter out to be Jesus or John the Baptist. He had flaws and I saw many of them. However even in the midst of seeing his flaw, and saying to myself this is crazy, I helped because I knew his intention was pure. He had a pure heart, the purest I have known. “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8) He was a priest who always pointed to his master, who always reverenced God through any means necessary. At his death, angels escorted him to the feet of Jesus and he heard the words, “well done my good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:21) He sees God.

I come to do your will

This reflection began looking at God’s praise for his Son and Jesus living to do the will of the Father. That is the beginning of the new covenant. From there the mantel is passed first to the Apostles, then other disciples and on and on until today we followers of Jesus are to share the Good News and pass the mantel to the next generation of disciples. We need to find examples in our life who we can imitate and receive support. My brother, Fr. Peter, has characteristics that motivates me to be better and work harder. This is why I tried to share about him so much in this reflection. I was happy to help and learn from him. I wish I was more like him. His urgency for the Kingdom was the greatest I have seen in real life, an urgency reminding me of the apostle Paul. Yet, he was easy to be with, and fun. Sometimes people who are pushing all the time can be difficult friends. Fr. Peter pushed with humility, it was up to me to accept. Like it is up to me to accept God’s will in my life.

The challenge is for you to be someone who does all you can for the Kingdom or to find a friend who is so motivated they can sweep you up in their energy. You need to find your fireplug. God speaks wonderful things about his beloved Son whose core belief is to do the will of the Father. God will say the same things about us, if we do his will. I am sure God is calling my brother Fr. Peter, beloved as they see each other face to face. This little man with the pure heart sees God, and undoubtedly always did.

Fr. Peter pushed with humility, it was up to me to accept. Like it is up to me to accept God’s will in my life. Click To Tweet

One Reply to “Christmas Reflection – Fr. Peter a life of witness”

  1. The Spirit of the Four Winds Bible study group lives on in New York <3 Fr. Peter's love and devotion to the church inspired me in so many ways. He will be missed greatly <3

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