Vietnamese Benedictine seeks new religious order after prohibition from working with drug addicts

The drug rehab center was built by donations from Fr. Francis Xavier Tran Van An's relatives and benefactors. (Peter Nguyen)

Hue, Vietnam — A Benedictine priest who has been prohibited from running a drug rehabilitation center after working with drug abusers for three years said he has been treated unfairly and is petitioning to join another order to continue his mission.

"I was forced to leave the center. I am eager to remain serving drug abusers," Fr. Francis Xavier Tran Van An, who gave the ownership papers of his center to the Benedictine order, told NCR. He has been banned from working at the center since January.

At a Feb. 17 meeting held at the center, visiting Fr. Frere Pierre, secretary of the Benedictines at Subiaco, Italy, said An's ministry to drug abusers was not suitable for the contemplation life of Benedictines and asked him to return to the Thien An monastery in Hue.

Benedictine Fr. Gregorio Tran Van Tuan, who does not have experience dealing with drug abuse, was appointed to head the center starting March 1.

An said the Benedictines plan to use the facilities to cater to pilgrims visiting the nearby La Vang Marian Shrine in the central Quang Tri province. In recent years, some congregations have bought land and built facilities around the 217-year-old shrine to accommodate visitors and sell Catholic items to tens of thousands of pilgrims.

An said he is worried that his departure means many of the addicts will leave the center and return to their habits, which would lead to the closure of the center. Of the 48 drug abusers who were at the center, 23 did not return the Tet festival holidays in February.

"I don't really need the drug facilities, but I do need souls of drug abusers," said An, a former addict himself prior to becoming a Benedictine.

In 2012, Abbot Stephan Huynh Quang Sanh, former provincial superior of Benedictines in Vietnam, allowed An to provide ministry to drug addicts. An raised funds from his relatives and benefactors and built the rehabilitation center on a 20,000-square-foot plot of land near Marian shrine.

The center provides free rehabilitation, spiritual healing, health care and vocational skills to hundreds of drug addicts. Because of the center, 180 people have kicked their habits and returned to normal lives. Many of them returned to the church and joined religious orders.

They plant vegetables, fruit trees, and bonsai and raise pigs, fish, and poultry for their food. They also produce rosaries, souvenir items and drinking water to sell to support orphans and the poor.

Paul Le Doan Ha, a 53-year-old former drug addict who manages the center's activities, said drug addicts wanted to live at the center to change their lives and expressed their worries about closing the center.

Tuan said the addicts can continue to stay at the center "and pray for our general superior," who will decide their future. The center is the first step to test Benedictines' new ministries to drug addicts that are strange to monks who live and pray in silence and solitary places, he added.

An, 45, said he has applied to join the Brotherhood of the Virgin of the Poor, an indigenous congregation based in Ho Chi Minh City. Its members work with lepers, disabled people, alcohol and drug addicts, and those infected with HIV/AIDS.

The priest, who just finished a seven-day retreat at a Brotherhood of the Virgin of the Poor monastery on Tuesday, said the order would welcome him with approval from the Benedictines.

"It is ridiculous that the Benedictines promised to create conditions for me to join another order but they asked me to retreat at their monastery for three years before I leave," An said. "I am still a Benedictine, so I must obey my superior." He said he will return to his monastery this weekend.

An said he asked a priest to contact Archbishop Francis Xavier Le Van Hong of the Hue archdiocese to deal with his case.

"The priest told me that the archbishop appreciated my job. He advised me to join another order," he said.

An previously wrote to Hong, requesting him to ask the Benedictines to allow An to pursue his mission at the center, but he received no reply.

Fr. Anthony Nguyen Van Tuyen, who ministers to college students, said he supports An's activities and often calls him and consoles him in this difficult time.

The life story of An, who was born into a wealthy family and spiraled down through gambling, drinking, drug abuse and prison before becoming a Benedictine and the symbol of hope, has inspired many students to return to God, he added.

Sr. Francisca Nguyen Thi Bang, who works at the La Vang Marian Shrine near the center, said drug addicts from the center often clean the shrine and live a good life.

"It is regrettable that the center has refused to admit drug addicts since Father An was asked to leave it," she said.

[Joachim Pham is an NCR correspondent based in Vietnam.]

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