March 24, 2017
Anh Tuan Phan and Richard Childress will take another step on their journey to the priesthood when they are ordained as transitional deacons on Friday, April 7, at St. Joseph Church in Madison.
It’s been a journey that has taken one of them halfway across the world and the other from a Protestant denomination to Catholicism.
Childress, who is studying as a seminarian at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, grew up as a member of the Church of the Nazarene. He calls his conversion to Catholicism and his vocation to the priesthood, “a circuitous journey.”
“The Nazarene Church is pointing toward a direction, it’s a good direction, but to get there you have to be a Catholic,” said Childress, who entered the Church in 2008. “It struck me that this is where I was supposed to be all along.”
For Phan, the first steps toward the priesthood started in his native Vietnam but weren’t completed until his family was able to move to the United States.
As a teenager in Vietnam, “I didn’t have the idea to become a priest,” Phan said. That was his brother’s dream. But when the newly established Diocese of Ba Ria announced in 2006 it was offering an exam for men interested in becoming a seminarian, Phan’s grandmother suggested he take the exam “and see if God wants you to be a priest.”
He was surprised when he passed the exam, “because I’m not a good writer,” he said.
Before he could enter the seminary in Vietnam, his family was granted permanent resident status to come to the United States in 2007 after 15 years of waiting. Phan, his parents, a brother and a sister joined his grandparents in Middle Tennessee, and he put aside his thoughts of a vocation to the priesthood.
Phan’s family became part of the Vietnamese Catholic Community that meets at St. Martha Church in Ashland City and he started to teach religious education classes. Father Peter Quang Chau, the pastor of St. Martha and the leader of the Vietnamese Catholic Community, asked if he had considered becoming a priest.
“I said, ‘Give me a week. Let me pray about it,’” Phan said. “I said I guess God is calling me. I gave him another chance.”
After another year of studying English, he was accepted as a seminarian at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans in 2010. “It’s been wonderful,” Phan said of his time as a seminarian at Notre Dame. “It’s like a second home to me, very supportive and welcoming.”
He is one of 15 seminarians at Notre Dame who are Vietnamese. “Most of them are from Vietnam. Only two are from here but they grew up in a Vietnamese family,” Phan said.
His own family has played an important role in nurturing his vocation, Phan said. After the fall of South Vietnam, Phan’s family was forced to move to a rural village and the practice of their faith was banned. Yet, they continued to celebrate Mass and teach the Catechism in secret, Phan said.
“I inherited most of my piety from my family,” Phan said. “Them keeping the faith really inspired me to keep my faith.”
For Childress, it was a search for a deeper understanding of his faith that led to Catholicism.
He was studying at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville with the hopes of becoming a Nazarene minister. By his sophomore year, he had growing questions about the theology he was studying and began to dig deeper to find answers.
His search ultimately led him to Catholicism. “When you encounter the Catholic faith,” he said, you realize “Oh this make sense. This is how it was originally.”
He entered the Church in 2008 with no intention of becoming a priest. But a year or two later, he realized something was missing, Childress said. A friend suggested he consider monastic life. “At first it seemed like this is for me,” he said. But after a lot of prayer and thought, decided the life of a monk was not what he was looking for.
That’s when he got a call from Andy Forsythe, a friend from Trevecca who also converted to Catholicism and is a seminarian for the Diocese of Nashville who will be ordained a priest this summer. Forsythe asked if he ever thought of being a priest. When Childress started researching it and talking to a priest who was a friend of his, “It was obvious this is what I should have been looking into,” he said. “When I was actually in seminary, it all sort of clicked. I haven’t had any second thoughts about the priesthood since I entered the seminary.”
Being ordained as a transitional deacon is one of the final milestones along the path to the priesthood. As transitional deacons, Phan and Childress will have the authority to preside at baptisms, weddings and funerals; they will be able to preach and assist the priest at the altar during Mass. Both are scheduled to be ordained as priests in the summer of 2018.
“I’m just excited and humbled that pretty soon I’m going to be assigned to a parish … doing these things for the people of God,” Childress said.
“I’m very excited to minister to the people,” Phan said.
When he first entered the seminary, Phan said, his goal was to save souls. “I said that but I didn’t really understand what that means,” he said. But after nearly seven years of study, that’s becoming much clearer to him. Saving souls is about opening God’s grace for other people, he said, and “being an instrument for that grace to work.”
Their ordination as transitional deacons will be at 10 a.m. Friday, April l7, at St. Joseph. Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville will ordain Childress and Phan, filling in for Bishop David Choby, who will not be able to be there because of his health issues.
A reception in the parish hall will follow the ordination, which is open to all people of the diocese.