RMG - "Apostolic field for Church and Salesians is extremely vast": interview with Fr. Nguyen Thinh Phuoc, Councilor for East Asia-Oceania Region

17 March 2023

(ANS - Rome) - Interviewed by the Italian Salesian Bulletin, the Councilor for the EAO Region, Fr. Nguyen Thinh Phuoc, describes the reality in which Salesians live and work in the Region he leads, what it means to live in contact with other religions and what is the general situation of Christians.

Below, the full interview.

Can you introduce yourself?

My name is (Joseph) Nguyen Thinh Phuoc, born into a family of ten brothers who grew up in a traditional and devout Catholic environment. Catholic boys in Vietnam were encouraged in piety practices and, if possible, to think about priestly or religious life. In fact, all the first five boys in the family entered the aspirants of various congregations (Christian Brothers, Redemptorists and Salesians). After First Communion, the desire to get closer to Jesus the Lord became stronger and stronger, and my dream was realised when I was admitted to the Salesian High School Aspirantate. The family spirit, the closeness, the joyful familiarity between superiors, brothers, clerics and students, the high quality of Christian education in the Aspirantate made me immediately feel that God was calling me to this way of life, and I have never regretted answering this call day after day.

How did the Salesians arrive in South-East Asia?

The Salesians arrived in the Salesian Region of East Asia-Oceania at the beginning of the 20th century, with Macao (China) as their first destination (1906), fulfilling Don Bosco's missionary dream (his vision of Peking!). In the first 3 decades of the century, Salesians settled in 5 countries. After the Second World War, 5 more countries welcomed the missionaries. In the last two decades of the 20th century, the Salesians started works in 5 more countries. In the last 20 years of the 21st century, other presences (4 countries) were started by these consolidated Provinces as proximity missions that are becoming more and more autonomous in inculturating the Salesian charism.

What is the general situation of the Christians?

East Asia-Oceania is an extremely vast region that currently includes 22 countries with very evident differences in terms of culture, language, history, socio-economic development, political situation and, in particular, religious affiliation. There are countries where Christians are the majority, such as the Philippines (95%), Papua New Guinea (93%) and Australia (60% with Catholics at 22-23%). Others, with more moderate numbers, like South Korea (11%), Vietnam (7%). And in many other countries the Catholic Church, despite 500 years of evangelisation, is still a minority (Thailand, less than 1%; Japan 0.05%) and, recently, new missionary territory (Mongolia, 1000 Catholics out of a population of 3.3 million).

What is contact with other religions like?

For Asians and Pacific Islanders in general (and also for Australians who are very open to others), being different in religious adherence (beliefs, religious piety practices) is not a challenge but an opportunity. For thousands of years, the world's major religions have drawn believers to these two continents (Asia and Oceania) and transformed their lives in ways that have made them more useful and fruitful for their communities. Catholic teaching insists on the humanity of the individual as the basis of all the contacts, dialogues and collaborations that have been taking place day by day for centuries in Asia and the Pacific (since the 10th century, when the first missionaries arrived). Today we can find thousands and thousands of young non-Christians and non-Catholics, together with their parents, who consider the Salesian environment as their second home.

What is the current situation of the Salesians?

There are currently about 1433 Salesians (as of 2021) with an average age of 55. They devote their lives in 80 academic schools (serving 110,000 students) and more than 40 vocational (technical) centres (serving 10,500 students) and 73 parishes (serving 137,541 parishioners), together with more than 100 oratories (serving 15,000 young people) and hostels/pensions (45 serving 4,000 boarders). Of the seven Regions of the Congregation, it is the smallest in numerical terms but very lively in terms of evangelisation and sending missionaries ad gentes to other Regions. Statistics presented in General Chapter 28 (2020) show that 40% of the current missionaries come from this Region (2014-2020).

What are the most important countries and works?

The social changes after the colonial era brought many revolutions and many Asian countries entered the world arena with high expectations of reaching other states. Education has always been the most effective tool. Many Salesian missionaries have brought the Salesian charism with their missionary zeal, a charism that focuses on human and Christian development through traditional works such as schools, technical schools that can be attached to or surround a parish community. These are still very effective in several developing, semi-developed or even developed countries, as they target young people to turn them into good citizens and devout believers. Even in mission stations where evangelisation seems to be the focus, sooner or later the Salesians initiate some form of educational programme to uplift the lives of poor youth in these areas. Boarding schools or hostels with hundreds of boys are still widespread in many provinces of the EAO, because they respond to the needs of young people who desperately need a safe and suitable environment for their studies and religious formation.

It is well known that many of these works are highly appreciated by the government and a good number of them receive its support.

And those who inspire the most hope?

It is the young people who inspire the most hope. In many Salesian homes/schools/oratories we can find thousands and thousands of young people attending them to receive some form of training. In this context, the growth of the Salesian charism is ensured for the next generations, as many young people aspire to continue the good works that the Salesians have offered them and, in turn, will take responsibility for them. We can see that even in a society where the Church is a minority or where society is becoming increasingly secularised, God is still calling young Catholics to enter Salesian life.

There is still a strong family structure and bond that insists on the high value of community. It is not only poor young people who are uprooted from their village and family to go to the city to look for work, but also the most successful young professionals see the family as the foundation for continued prosperity in their lives. The more the Church works on family pastoral care, the more the Salesian educational institute inculcates and trains young people to live family values, and the more society is on the right track for its development, despite all external threats from the mass media or liberal propaganda. And this is a strong dimension nurtured by the Salesian charism.

What are the most acute problems of the moment?

The main one is how to live our Salesian charismatic identity. EAO Salesians have been very successful in running parishes, schools and oratories. Some Provinces have left undeniable legacies with glories in the past and also in the present. Many of the founders of the Salesian charism have been raised to the honours of the altars (Saint Louis Versiglia and Saint Callistus Caravario) or are in the process of doing so (Cimatti, Braga, Majcen Carlo della Torre). They left their countries to come to the Asian Far East, not only to educate but also to evangelise the youth and all people (!) Christianity has something unique and special to offer the peoples of Asia and the Pacific: Jesus Christ. Under the global impact, many EAO countries are also becoming increasingly secular, despite their religious family roots. As mystics in the Holy Spirit, Salesians are challenged to witness the complete Christian anthropology outlined by Jesus the Lord in their daily lives and services.

At the same time, cultural, ethnic and even religious differences, instead of being a common treasure to be shared, could be manipulated by power-hungry political forces and become disastrous factors to destabilise countries internally or regionally.

What are the most urgent needs?

Each country faces its own urgencies, which are quite different and somewhat conflicting. However, whatever state the country has reached in its social and economic transformation, 'the poor are always with you! By instinct, Salesians are careful to recognise the different forms of poverty that affect young people (ethnic minorities, immigrants, migrant workers, etc.). How do we ensure that internal forces reach these marginalised young people and provide them with a future?

Recognising these needs, it is difficult for a Salesian Province to offer the solution without entering into partnership with other Provinces, as the Rector Major calls for.

How do you see the future?

The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Together with South Asia, 33% of the world's population resides in this region. The apostolic field for the Church and for the Salesians in particular is extremely vast. At the same time, the Church invites its faithful in Asia and the Pacific to enter into a threefold dialogue: dialogue with the poor, with culture and with religions. With their charismatic missionary identity, the Salesians engage in education and evangelisation, giving priority to poor youth as a sensitive part of society.

Having grown up and worked in the Province of Vietnam, that lost almost everything during and at the end of the war (1954 and 1975), putting together something very humble to start again, I believe that no difficulty, no challenge (internal or external) can prevent Salesians from dedicating their services to young people in difficulty: God loves young people; Don Bosco loved young people; the needs of young people are evident, that is, the Salesian mission is meaningful. It is up to each Salesian to fulfil this mission entrusted to him and his community by God.  


ANS - “Agenzia iNfo Salesiana” is a on-line almost daily publication, the communication agency of the Salesian Congregation enrolled in the Press Register of the Tibunal of Rome as n 153/2007.

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