New deacon had a lifetime mission
Lieu “Leo” Tran does not believe in coincidences. He sees the hand of providence throughout his life, positioning him right where he is today – a candidate to be ordained a permanent deacon Dec. 1 along with 19 other men.
“When God calls you to follow him,” Tran said. “He insists on you doing that.”
Tran said he and his wife Van-Ha have experienced endless generosity since they fled Vietnam as teenagers in 1975 and came to New Orleans as refugees.
“We have been on the receiving end for 30 years,” Tran said. “God has led us and showed us the way. He prepared us to be here.”
“We are walking in the path that he leads us to,” Van-Ha Tran added. “I believe he was called to the diaconate, not just five years ago, but he slowly worked his way into it until he was ready.”
A challenging life
Thirty-seven years ago, Tran could never have envisioned becoming a deacon. In fact, he was studying to be a priest, having been in the seminary in Vietnam since age 11.
The communist takeover of Vietnam in 1975 forced Tran to escape to Thailand at age 18 with his uncle, who was a Catholic priest and Vietnamese Navy chaplain. A fishing boat brought them to Bangkok, where they spent five months in a refugee camp.
At that time, the United States was accepting Vietnamese refugees. Tran landed in Fort Chaffee, Ark., and was sponsored by the Holy Cross Fathers in New Orleans.
“I was a seminarian when I was in Vietnam,” Tran said. “I put on the application (at the refugee camp) that I would like to continue my religious education. Ten days later, I was called and told a group of priests in New Orleans was looking for seminarians. That’s how I ended up in New Orleans.”
Studied for the priesthood
The Holy Cross Fathers – with whom he studied for two years – sent him to St. Mary’s Dominican College to learn English and also to Loyola University New Orleans to learn philosophy. While walking down St. Charles Avenue to class, he first saw his future wife, then a Buddhist, studying at Tulane University, where she was on scholarship with her sister.
College was difficult for Tran. Even though he was a mathematical wiz, he said the language barrier made philosophy impossible, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy or theology was required in the seminary. “I wasn’t good at either one of them,” he said.
Limited communication between the United States and Vietnam made contact with his family almost impossible. He didn’t learn of his father’s death until after it happened. When he realized his mother was struggling to raise four remaining children, Tran, being the “eldest son of the eldest son,” asked to leave the seminary to work to send money home.
“It was hard for me and hard for them,” Tran said. “They thought I had died during the escape.”
As he juggled two jobs and studied toward a degree at Loyola University on grants and loans, Tran said he found an angel in a teacher, Jesuit Father Henry Montecino. When Tran didn’t finish a required essay for a philosophy course, Father Montecino called him to his office.
Kindness of Fr. Montecino
Instead of failing him, Father Montecino discovered that Tran was working more than 30 hours a week outside of school. Father Montecino, the director of the Jesuit Support for the Needy program, offered Tran rent money that enabled him to reduce his work hours. He received
tecino during his college years.
“I couldn’t believe that people were so generous,” Tran said.
Tran then began learning traits that would serve him well as a deacon – wisdom and selflessness – while volunteering at Our Lady of La Vang Catholic Church for the Vietnamese community in the early 1990s. He was earning a Ph.D. at the time.
The pastor asked him to be the parish’s English/Vietnamese translator. He initially declined due to his full-time job, two kids and studies.
“If you get your Ph.D., it will help you, but if you help me with the Catholic church, the whole community benefits,” the pastor said. Tran put the doctoral program on hold for a semester to find a permanent home for the parish, which he did at a bargain-basement price.
A vocational encouragement
His meek demeanor causes people to often mistake Tran for a priest, Van-Ha Tran said. At the dedication of Our Lady of La Vang in 1992, then-Auxiliary Bishop Robert Muench asked Tran if he had ever considered the priesthood, not realizing he had a family.
“Father, I have two children and I am married,” he told him.
“Maybe you want to become a permanent deacon,” Bishop Muench replied.
“That’s what planted the thought in my mind,” Leo Tran said.
Tran will participate in his first Mass of Thanksgiving after ordination at Our Lady of La Vang, even though he is assigned to his home parish, St. Jerome, in Kenner.
“Our Lady of La Vang has a special place in my heart,” he said, adding how his wife converted to Catholicism there.
Tran realizes he faces a challenge being accepted in the Vietnamese community as a deacon. He is only the second Vietnamese deacon in the archdiocese, due, he thinks, to the Vietnamese Catholics’ misconception of the deacon’s role. Many only think a deacon helps the priest at Mass and don’t realize they are ordained and can baptize, perform marriage ceremonies, distribute the Eucharist, preside at funerals, minister to the sick, and lead Communion services in the absence of a priest.
“Permanent deacons are perceived as a common man serving on the altar,” Van-Ha Tran said.
When he returned to Vietnam in 1994, even his grandmother said she would quit the Catholic Church if he became a deacon.
He put the diaconate out of his mind until 2006 when his mom was diagnosed with cancer. When he visited her in February 2007, she came out of a coma, saw him and died several days later. He saw it as a sign and, a month later, asked to apply to the next class of deacons. That class began with 107 at the first discernment meeting. Forty-five men applied, and 24 were admitted to the program in December 2007.
Tran has marveled at the many connections he’s had with wonderful people in the diaconate program. His first came with Deacon Larry Murphy.
When Tran was 9 and living with his chaplain uncle on the Vietnamese Navy Base, Deacon Murphy was stationed at that same base for the American Navy, but they had never met.
“He cried. He couldn’t believe it,” Tran said about Murphy learning they were at the same place and time 40 years before. Deacon Murphy became his mentor and friend during the diaconate process and will vest him at ordination.
Deacon Bill Jarrell provided another link to Vietnam as a helicopter pilot in 1966-67. He exemplified compassion upon their first interview when he arrived in Kenner from the West Bank at 6 a.m. to accommodate Tran having to bring his son to Lafayette.
“I wish I could be like this person to see how dedicated this person is,” Tran said. “I see so many deacons who are servants of God. I want to follow their footsteps and become a servant.”
By chance, Tran found a third link, this time with diaconate candidate Jim Simmons, at a discernment meeting where family members were invited. Simmons not only had a Ph.D. in math from Tulane University like Tran, but he was the Tulane advisor for all three of his sons, Jonathan, Nicholas and Michael.
Everyone has gifts
Tran said the dynamics of the diaconate program have made him acutely aware of the God-given gifts of all deacon candidates, all from different walks of life – a lawyer, fireman, engineer, FBI agent, professor, CFO and Internet technology specialist.
“When you put us together, there are a lot of gifts, and we know how to help each other,” he said. “The common bond is faith.”
“I appreciate more of the gifts that God gave me, and I see more of my limitations,” he said. “Everything is a gift from God, and I see my gifts from him and I have learned to turn my gifts into charisms for other people.”
Gift that keeps giving
Van-Ha Tran, who has accompanied her husband at class throughout the process and grown much in her faith, sees gifts as multipliers when they are given to others.
“The formation helped us realize all these gifts that others gave us,” Van-Ha Tran said. “It forms a huge picture. It’s my turn helping somebody else to be better, and they will help others. We can change the world one person at a time.”
Leo Tran sees his life as “a gift from God, and I appreciate that.”
At the ordination, Tran said he will put his hand on the Book of the Gospels and be told, “Believe what you read, teach what you believe and practice what you teach.”
“To practice what you teach is the hardest to follow,” Tran said. “I hope I can practice what I teach and what I believe. I want them to see the way that I live is what God wants.”