Moving in a circular motion and united as legs of a caterpillar, members of eight groups howled with joy as they tried to protect the individual holding their team’s shield in a game called “Dragon Tag Shield.” One by one, teams were eliminated until a lone victor stood.
Their handmade paper shields revealed much about the source of the game – their Catholic faith – with team names such as “Eucharist”; “Who Dat? Jesus Dat”; “Light of the World. You Are the Way”; “True Religion. Protect the Faith”; and “Team Water.”
In the end, all were victors, because they learned techniques to cooperate and support each other at the annual Vietnamese Youth Catholic Students’ “Reconnect YCS 2011” conference held Dec. 29-Jan. 1 at Mary Queen of Vietnam Church in New Orleans East.
“We would like to see the youth learning the spirit of YCS, and we want to learn the needs of the young people now,” said Margaret Nguyen, regional advisor for the Vietnamese Young Catholic Students.
“The point of the conference is to gather brothers and sisters and share our experiences over the past year,” National Youth Catholic Students group secretary general Hai H. Hoang of New Orleans said. “Our guidance is the Gospel, but our main purpose is to learn about life, to be a good person and to get together.”
The 30th annual conference featured Mass, an open forum to hear what’s on the minds of Vietnamese youth age 13 and older, and speakers including Father Paul Tung Nguyen, pastor of St. Peter Church in Covington, who discussed the history of the Vietnamese Young Catholic Students movement and how to live according to the Gospel with ages 13-20; Redemptorist Father Tat-Thang Hoang of New York and Daughter of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Sister Sandy Nguyen, who spoke on “Gospelization”; and Cao Chuba of Dallas, who talked with students 21 and older about Young Catholic Students Reconnect. A Mass and New Year’s Eve celebration with youth showcasing their talents also was held.
“It’s a good movement for young, high school and college students,” said Father Paul Nguyen, the first New Orleans-area YCS chaplain. “Members have to be holy themselves to help others be holy and evangelize in their environment.”
Father Nguyen said YCS’ strength is in establishing spirituality in youth. It certainly influenced him. While a youth leader in YCS in Vietnam, a YCS chaplain invited him to consider a vocation to the priesthood.
“He encouraged me to think about vocations and he guided me to realize my vocation as a priest,” he said.
The history of Young Catholic Students began in the 1920s in Europe, said Margaret Nguyen, YCS’ regional and national advisor. By 1946, the International YCS was formed after World War II to “bear witness to the Gospel values through the daily life and activities.”
Since the Vietnam conflict, groups diminished in the United States, Father Nguyen said. Today, active groups are based at churches in New Orleans; Falls Church, Virginia; and Houston.
Margaret Nguyen, originally from Vietnam, said she helped establish the local group in 1981 with the blessing of the late Archbishop Philip Hannan. She sensed an urgency to assist Vietnamese families who had migrated to New Orleans after the fall of Vietnam.
“I saw a need for the youth since their parents were working so hard,” she said.
Hoang, who is a member of the Vietnamese Young Catholic Students at St. Agnes Le Thi Thanh in Marrero, said the group puts their faith in practice through Bible study and community activities. The New Orleans group meets monthly on the second and fourth Mondays at 7 p.m., and members also teach catechism in their parishes of St. Agnes Le Thi Thanh, Mary Queen of Vietnam and St. Joseph Mission.
Hoang joined YCS six years ago after attending a conference and witnessing the vibrancy of young Vietnamese Catholics.
“It inspired me to go back to my church – St. Agnes Le Thi Thanh – and start a youth group, and it continues to motivate me to do more,” he said.
Father Joseph Vien, pastor at St. John Bosco in Harvey, is the local and national chaplain. He’s seen the lives of young adults change from their association with Vietnamese Young Catholic Students. Members become leaders in their community and church parishes.
“They learn a lot of techniques of how to share their lives, inspired by the Gospel,” Father Vien said. “They find an issue in society today and discuss it based on the Gospel. We see (the issue); we judge it (based on the Bible) and we act. Those are the key words of the motto of this group.”
In a breakout session entitled “Gospelization,” Father Tat Hoang and Sister Sandy – vocation leaders in their religious orders – reflected on relevant details of Jesus’ life with students and had them identify events in Jesus’ life that they relate to and had them formulate ways to evangelize wherever they are.
They pointed out how society glorifies, discusses and wears jerseys of local sports heroes after they break records and win games, but people don’t give Jesus as much attention and, yet, he made the blind see, the lame walk, walked on water and rose from the dead.
“How about Jesus?” Sister Sandy said. “Are we excited about Jesus? Are we that proud of Jesus? … If you don’t know who Jesus is, and you don’t know the Gospel, you can’t do gospelization,” Sister Sandy said.
Father Tat emphasized the importance of getting to know Jesus through the Gospel.
“To make this Gospel alive, make the resolution this year to read one Gospel,” he said, adding that just reading the Bible is not enough.
“Each one of us should find the best way to eat this book and become one (with Jesus). If we don’t become one, we can’t gospelize. If you gospelize, you have a great relationship with Jesus and one another. … Don’t just follow Christ, but become Christ-like.”
Margaret Nguyen said the time is now for youth Catholics to stand up for and display their faith openly.
“This is the new Pentecost,” she said. “Let them share (their faith) with others.”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at email@example.com.