By Junno Arocho Esteves, Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Among the thousands of young altar servers braving the sweltering Rome heat, a group from the United States sat patiently in the shade of the colonnade in St. Peter’s Square waiting to take their seats.
“Rome is really cool, but it’s really hot,” Francis Tran, an 11-year-old altar server from the United States, told Catholic News Service July 31.
Tran was among the 85 boys, girls, young adults and parents who traveled from Mary Queen of Vietnam Parish in New Orleans for an international pilgrimage of altar servers with Pope Francis.
The annual gathering, which began as a meeting of German altar servers with the pope, has expanded worldwide and brought an estimated 60,000 young men and women from 19 countries to the Vatican.
Tran told CNS that he likes being an altar server “because you get to be close to God, and it’s a good feeling.”
But like many of his peers, he is also excited about seeing the pope for the first time. “I like that he’s religious and that he has my name!” Tran said.
The idea of bringing the first U.S. group to the pilgrimage came when a couple presented it to Deacon Vinh Tran over a year ago.
“The parents were excited. And after talking to the kids, they were even more excited about going to Rome. So, we started fundraising as much as we could for the kids to be here,” he told CNS.
Members fundraised for an entire year, raising $53,000 by selling donuts monthly after Mass since August 2017. Parents contributed the rest of the money, so the altar servers would have the opportunity to go, said Jennie Nguyen, altar server coordinator at Mary Queen of Vietnam.
Understands the importance
As a former altar server himself, Deacon Tran said it was important for the new generation of altar servers to see that serving God is no small task. He also said the international meeting was an opportunity for them to interact with altar servers from around the world and learn more about their faith.
“Now as a deacon, I am still serving at the altar, serving God,” the deacon said. “The kids told me that by being altar servers, the closer they are to the altar, the closer they feel to God. It makes them feel happier.”
The group also prepared a liturgical dance performance for the event, and several were chosen to carry the U.S. flag. Altar server James Vu Nguyen was chosen to read five lines in English from a Scripture passage, and altar server Gabrielle Nguyen presented a gift of a scarf to the pope. James attended with his sister, Anna Nguyen, 17, a student at Mount Carmel Academy in New Orleans.
“I was quite nervous, but when I saw the prayer (from St. Francis), I knew it, so it was alright,” Nguyen said.
Honoring their Vietnamese heritage, the group performed a traditional fan-and-flower liturgical dance accompanied by a song titled, “The Greatest Love,” a Vietnamese hymn inspired by the Gospel of St. John.
James Nguyen, 24, said the group performs this dance probably three times a year during Vietnamese religious days.
The song and liturgical dance, Deacon Tran explained, also are a tribute to the 117 Vietnamese martyrs who died for their faith in the 18th and 19th centuries and were canonized by St. John Paul II in 1988.
To give one’s life is “the greatest love a person can give to somebody. This implies Jesus Christ who died for us. So, our ancestors died for their faith, they died for that greatest love,” Deacon Tran said.
Gabrielle Nguyen, a 14-year-old altar server, was among the liturgical dance performers. She told CNS that despite her joy, the chance to perform in front of the pope and thousands of young men and women is “very nerve-wracking.”
“Back at home our parish is very small, so we’re used to performing in front of 400 people,” she said. “But going from 400 to over 50,000, it puts a lot of pressure.”
Nevertheless, Nguyen said the international meeting meant a lot to her and to her fellow altar servers who “don’t often have this opportunity to just come out to Rome and be here and experience the city.”
“It’s just a really special gathering of people who share the same passion. We love serving for the Lord. We’ve met many people, and we’ve made many friends,” Nguyen told CNS.
Her group also paid a visit to the tomb of St. Dominic Savio, the patron of altar servers, where Deacon Tran led a prayer service.
“I hope to live this experience and deepen my faith in God. That’s really it,” she said.
James Nguyen, an altar server for approximately 13 years, considered the trip a religious pilgrimage.
“I’ve been raised Catholic my whole life and attended Catholic schools (Jesuit High School; Loyola University, earning an undergraduate degree in biological sciences with minor in chemistry; and now am in pharmacy school at Xavier University of Louisiana),” Nguyen said. “It really hit home when I had a chance to go there and see St. Peter’s Basilica and all these monuments. It was meaningful to me,” and being surrounded by hundreds of thousands sharing the faith “knowing that others share a common goal in life.”
Christine Bordelon, associate editor of the Clarion Herald, contributed to the story.