He Was Persecuted, Imprisoned and Tortured — and Now He’s a Catholic Priest

“It is amazing that, after so long,” says Father Raphael Nguyen, “God chose me to be a priest to serve him and others, especially the suffering.”

Father Raphael Nguyen
Father Raphael Nguyen (photo: Jim Graves)

“No slave is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:20)

Father Raphael Nguyen, 68, has served as a parish priest in the Diocese of Orange, California, since his ordination in 1996. Like Father Raphael, many of Southern California’s priests were born and raised in Vietnam, and came to the U.S. as refugees in a series of waves following the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese communists in 1975.

Father Raphael was ordained a priest by Orange’s Bishop Norman McFarland at age 44, after a long and often painful struggle. Like many Vietnamese Catholic immigrants, he suffered for his faith at the hands of the communist government of Vietnam, which prohibited his ordination in 1978. He was delighted to be ordained, and has been relieved to minister in a free country.

In this time when socialism/communism is viewed favorably by many young Americans, it is beneficial to hear Father’s testimony and to be reminded of the suffering that would await America should a communist system come to the U.S.

Father Raphael was born in North Vietnam in 1952. For nearly a century, the area had been under the control of the French government (then known as “French Indochina”), but was abandoned to the Japanese during World War II. Pro-communist nationalists prevented attempts to re-assert French authority in the region, and in 1954, the communists took control of North Vietnam.

Under 10% of the nation is Catholic, and along with the rich, Catholics have been targets for persecution. Father Raphael remembered, for example, how such persons were buried alive up to their necks, and then beheaded with farm equipment. To evade persecution, young Raphael and his family fled to the south.

In South Vietnam, they enjoyed freedom, although he recalled that the war which developed between the North and South “always made us worry. We never felt safe.” He remembered waking up at 4 a.m. at age 7 to serve Mass, a practice which helped spark his vocation. In 1963, he entered the minor seminary in the Diocese of Long Xuyen, and in 1971, he entered the major seminary in Saigon.

While in seminary, his life was in constant danger, as enemy shells exploded nearby on an almost daily basis. He often taught catechism classes to small children, and would have them dive under their desks when the explosions came too close. By 1975, American forces had withdrawn from Vietnam and Southern resistance was routed. The North Vietnamese forces took control of Saigon.

“The country collapsed,” Father Raphael recalled.

The seminarians accelerated their studies, and Father was forced to complete three years of study of theology and philosophy in one year. He began what was supposed to be a two-year internship, and in 1978, was slated to be ordained a priest.

The communists, however, placed strict controls on the Church and wouldn’t allow Father Raphael or his fellow seminarians to be ordained. He said, “We did not have freedom of religion in Vietnam!”

In 1981, Father was arrested for unlawfully teaching religion to children, and was imprisoned for 13 months. During this time, Father was sent to a slave labor camp in a Vietnamese jungle. He was forced to work long hours on little food, and was severely beaten if he didn’t complete the work assigned to him for the day, or for any minor infraction of the rules.

“Sometimes I worked standing in the swamp with water up to my chest, and the dense trees blocked out the sun overhead,” Father Raphael remembered. Poisonous water snakes, leeches and wild boars were a constant hazard to him and the other prisoners.

The men slept on the floors of rickety shacks, which were severely overcrowded. The tattered roofs offered little protection from the rains. Father Raphael recalled the brutal treatment of the prison guards (“they were like animals”), and sadly remembered how one of their brutal beatings took the life of one of his close friends.

There were two priests who celebrated Mass and heard confessions secretly. Father Raphael helped distribute Holy Communion to Catholic prisoners by concealing the Hosts in a cigarette package.

Father Raphael was released, and resolved in 1986 to escape the “big prison” which his Vietnamese homeland had become. With friends he secured a small boat and headed for Thailand, but in rough seas the engine failed. Narrowly escaping drowning, they made it back to the Vietnamese shore, only to be captured by communist police. Father Raphael was again imprisoned, this time in a big city prison for 14 months.

The guards introduced Father to a new torture this time — the electric shock. The electricity sent excruciating pain through his body and caused him to pass out. When he awoke, he would be in a vegetative state for a few minutes, not knowing who or where he was.

Despite his torments, Father Raphael describes his prison time as “very precious.”

“I prayed all the time, and developed a close relationship with God. This helped me decide on my vocation.”

The suffering of the prisoners stirred compassion in Father Raphael’s heart, and he resolved one day to return to the seminary.

In 1987, when released from prison, he again secured a boat for an escape to freedom. It was 33 feet long, 9 feet wide, and would carry him and 33 other people, including children.

They set off in rough seas and headed for Thailand. Along the way, they met a new hazard — Thai pirates. The pirates were brutal opportunists, robbing the refugee boats, sometimes killing the men and raping the women. Once a refugee boat made it to the Thai shore, its occupants would receive protection from the Thai police, but at sea they were at the mercy of the pirates.

Two times Father Raphael and his fellow escapees encountered the pirates after dark, and they were able to douse the boat lights and outrun them. A third and final encounter occurred during the day when the boat was in sight of the Thai mainland. With the pirates bearing down on them, Father Raphael, manning the helm, turned the boat and headed back out to sea. With the pirates in hot pursuit, he steered the boat in a circle of about 100 yards in diameter three times. This tactic threw off the attackers, and the small boat made a successful dash for the mainland.

Safely on shore, his group was transferred to a Thai refugee camp in Panatnikhom, near Bangkok. He lived there for nearly two years. The refugees applied for asylum in several different countries, and waited for responses. Meanwhile, the occupants had little food, tight quarters and were forbidden to leave the camp.

“The conditions were terrible,” he remarked. “The frustration and misery got so bad that some people became desperate. There were about 10 suicides during my time there.”

Father Raphael did what good he could, organizing regular prayer meetings and soliciting food for the most needy. In 1989, he was moved to a refugee camp in the Philippines, where conditions improved.

Six months later, he came to the United States. He first lived in Santa Ana, California, and studied computer science at a community college. He went to a Vietnamese priest for spiritual direction. He noted, “I prayed very hard to know the way to go.”

Confident that God was calling him to be a priest, he met with the diocesan vocations director, Msgr. Daniel Murray. Msgr. Murray commented, “I was very impressed with him and with his perseverance in his vocation. Faced with the hardships he endured; many others would have given up.”

Msgr. Murray also noted that some other Vietnamese priests and seminarians of the diocese had suffered a similar fate as Father Raphael had at the communist government of Vietnam. One of Orange’s pastors, for example, had been a seminary professor of Father Raphael’s back in Vietnam.

Father Raphael entered St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo in 1991. Though he knew some Latin, Greek and French, English was a struggle for him to learn. In 1996, he was ordained a priest. He recalled, “I was very, very happy.”

Father likes his new home in the U.S., although it has taken time to adjust to the culture shock. America enjoys greater wealth and freedom than Vietnam, but he misses the traditional Vietnamese culture which shows greater respect for elders and clergy. He says older Vietnamese immigrants are troubled by America’s lax morals and commercialism, and its effect on their children.

He thinks that the strong Vietnamese family structure and respect for the priesthood and authority has led to the disproportionately high number of Vietnamese priests. And, citing the old adage “blood of martyrs, seed of Christians,” he thinks the communist persecution in Vietnam, as in the situation of the Church in Poland under communism, has led to a stronger faith among Vietnamese Catholics.

He has been delighted to serve as a priest. He said, “It is amazing that, after so long, God chose me to be a priest to serve him and others, especially the suffering.”