Vietnam: former drug addict now an inspiring priest

 Only after spiraling down through gambling, drinking, drug abuse and prison did a man born into a wealthy family become the symbol of hope he is today: a priest who knows how a prodigal son can return to God.

Father Francis Xavier Tran An, 39, now lives at the Benedictine monastery in Hue, central Vietnam, where he receives others who have struggled through a troubled past before seeking spiritual growth.

Most of the numerous visitors from many provinces have had lifestyle problems - gambled too much or abusing alcohol and drugs - and some are living with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that usually leads to AIDS. But they all want to turn a new leaf, Father An said in a recent interview.
For this they seek the advice of this once-wayward monk, ordained a priest in January 2008. Many come for confession and catechism.

Two school drop-outs, aged 19 and 23 with a history of gambling and selling their families' belongings, turned up recently. Fr An not only heard their confessions but arranged for them to study computer skills as a way to make a new start.

"I listen to my visitors and share my life story," he said. "God loved me and saved me. So I try to do something useful for the poor, the sick and the sinners."

Born into a wealthy family in Vinh, about 320 kilometres northeast along Vietnam's coast from the former imperial capital of Hue, Father An made a lot of money trading gold and antiques after he graduated from high school. But he quickly spent it all gambling, drinking and using drugs.

When the expenses of his profligate lifestyle exceeded his legitimate income, he resorted to stealing from his family and other people.

Soon he joined a local group of gangsters and got involved in their fights, until he ended up in a prison - a grim place where he spent a year and was beaten severely. He also felt loneliness grip him when he learned his girlfriend had married another man.

Once free again, however, he slipped back in with his old friends. His moment of truth came only when his mother caught him using drugs at home. Her agony and shock was so deep that it moved him to pray to God for help. He then made up his mind to leave drugs and his dissolute lifestyle behind.
In 1992, his father sent him to stay with a parish priest. Two years later, he joined the Benedictines, a monastic order.

Even so, family members did not believe him when he wrote that he had taken his perpetual vows, he recalled. They did not understand how much he had changed until local Benedictines confirmed he would be ordained.

Family, friends and even some former gangster associates attended the ordination and congratulated him.

"They said they could never have imagined I would become a priest," Fr An said. "Now I am very happy that people from my home parish warmly welcome me and ask me to pray."

A 25-year-old Catholic man, who became infected with HIV after sharing needles with other drug users, acknowledged that Father An's story has inspired him.

"The priest treats me as his friend, he listens to me," said the man, who visits Fr An regularly for confession from Da Nang city, 100 kilometers away. He added that his own relatives avoid meeting him for fear of being infected.

Another HIV-positive man said local nuns introduced him to Fr An. "The priest taught me how much God loves sinners like me," he said. "So I decided to become a Catholic." This man, 64, studies catechism with the priest three days a week and is scheduled to be baptized at Easter.

Father An said his day now begins each morning at 4am, when he gets up for prayers and Mass. During the day he teaches other monks, receives visitors and goes to see people in need. Other Religious communities also invite him to talk during their retreats.

He uses the parable of the Prodigal Son to encourage people to return to the Church. "I am a modern prodigal son," he says.

Source: UCAN

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