08/02/2005, 00.00
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Catholic seminarians work for the first time in state-run leprosarium

The young men provided summer pastoral services in the Van Mon facility; patients and medical staff are grateful for the assistance offered by the future priests.

Hanoi (AsiaNews/UCAN) – Seminarians from Hanoi archdiocese were allowed for the first time to work with patients at a state-run leprosarium. The first-year students from the capital's Saint Joseph Major Seminary served in Van Mon Leprosarium as their summer pastoral activity in June and July.

The medical facility, in Vu Thu district (Thai Binh province), southeast of Hanoi, serves 476 adults and 118 children, very few of whom are Catholic, but for the first time, it received seminarians to serve as social workers.

The young Catholic men had much to say about how they tried out a hands-on approach to their priestly mission.

One seminarian, 30-year-old Joseph Nguyen Van Khiem, said that the experience "gave us a chance to express sympathy with patients, put God's love into practice, and learn how to work together in pastoral work."

Khiem, the group's leader, explained that their intention was to bring joy to patients and help relieve their pain. This summer pastoral activity, he said, was initiated by Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet of Hanoi, who is also Saint Joseph's rector. This on-the-spot training was designed to encourage a spirit of service in the future priests.

Khiem said that he and his fellow seminarians shared morning prayers, rosary prayers and liturgical prayers with leprosy patients in one of the leprosarium's two churches.

Joseph Ta Minh Quy, 25, said that they talked with patients and visited their families each day. They also taught children subjects such as biology, chemistry, English, literature, mathematics and physics, and showed the centre's medical doctors and staff how to use computers, photocopiers and printers. During the evenings, they played with the children, taught them dances and songs, or showed videos, screening some Catholic films like The Passion and the Ten Commandments.

Joseph Truong Van Luyen, 28, admitted that he and the other seminarians at first had no idea what the work would be like, and some of them had no previous contact with leprosy patients. After the experience, he acknowledged, "I really realised my limitations."

Patients were also pleased to have the seminarians. After talking to them, 85-year -five-year-old Paul Nguyen Van Giong said he found life more meaningful and hopeful.

Giong, a Catholic who has been at the facility since 1950, noted that every day patients just hang around in their rooms or in the yard and have very few opportunities to talk with outsiders.

Le Thi Mai, a patient from Nam Dinh province, said the seminarians did not offer material things, but "gave us their sympathy and spiritual gifts."

Marie Tran Thi Lien, whose children were taught by the seminarians, said the educational and entertainment activities that the seminarians conducted were just like a summer club for children, "joyful and meaningful".

Doctor Bui Huy Thien, head of the leprosarium, said that he learnt a lot from the seminarians and in turn shared with the them his own experiences in serving the patients.

He told them that he looked forward to see them back again. Next time, he said, he hopes they would teach English and French to students in the leprosarium so that they can communicate with foreign visitors.

The Van Mon leprosarium is the largest of its kind in northern Vietnam; it was founded 105 years ago by foreign missionaries.

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