Father Gregoire van Giang, MEP, joined the minor seminary at age 16, but was ordained only at age 40. In between, he worked as a trishaw driver, was imprisoned for his faith, and became one of Vietnam’s ‘boat people’. Today, he has made Singapore his home, as he helps foreigners living here to do the same, he tells Daniel Tay
IT’S NOT EVERYDAY one meets a person who can speak eight languages. But Society of Foreign Missions of Paris (MEP) Father Gregoire van Giang can.
It is not out of interest that he picks up these languages, but out of necessity. This need is born from the love for people, especially those who are far from home, an experience that he is all too familiar with.
The multilingual Father Greg, as he is known, had been persecuted and imprisoned by the Vietnam communist government for his faith, and eventually sought asylum within France.
Twenty-four years as a seminarian
The first-born child of Vietnamese parents, Gregoire grew up in Cambodia where his father worked for a French company. At age 16, he joined the MEP minor seminary there.
The MEP is not a religious order, but an organisation of secular priests and lay persons dedicated to missionary work in foreign lands.
In 1970, as Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot began his rise to power, Gregoire’s father took his family back to their home town in South Vietnam. There, Gregoire re-entered the MEP seminary in Vietnam once more to continue his formation.
One year after the Vietnam War ended in 1975 with North and South Vietnam reunified, the communist government shut down all seminaries in the country. Once more Gregoire found his priestly formation disrupted. So he spent his time helping the church where he could – as choir master in his parish – while making a living as a trishaw driver.
It was in 1980 that his diocesan bishop presented a challenge to him and three other seminarians – provide the parishes with new hymn books. However, as all printing presses were owned by the communist government, Gregoire and his fellow seminarians had to work underground to carry out their task.
For three years, they eluded the government, but were eventually caught and sent to prison for three years. When they were released, their bishop offered them two options: Stay in Vietnam to wait indefinitely for the opportunity to continue their formation or take their chances outside the country.
The latter option was extremely perilous as they would have to leave Vietnam as one of the ‘boat people’ – hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who fled the country during the late 1970s and 1980s on small wooden boats. Once out in the open sea, they still had to contend with the forces of nature and elude pirates.
Of the four seminarians, only Gregoire chose to leave Vietnam. He was 37 when he finally left.
“I spent 39 days out at sea, together with 24 people on a sampan,” Father Greg recalled. He also braved a typhoon and was fortunate not to have encountered any pirates.
He reached Hong Kong and was placed in a refugee camp where MEP priests found him. They welcomed him to France to finish his twice-interrupted priestly formation. He was finally ordained on Jun 19, 1993.
His new home
When his superior had asked him about his preferred mission country, Gregoire had requested to serve in a country with Chinese people, expecting to be sent to Taiwan. But on the day of his ordination, he was caught by surprise when he found out he was posted to Singapore.
“I didn’t know where or what it is!” he said with a laugh.
Father Greg arrived in Singapore in 1994 where he was assigned to be assistant priest at Church of St. Francis of Assisi. When he saw the need for Mandarin Masses, he started learning the basics of the language from a Mandarin-speaking parishioner.
A year later, with the approval of then Archbishop Gregory Yong, Father Greg spent nine months learning Mandarin at the National University of Singapore.
In 2002, he was assigned as parish priest to Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. This remains his only archdiocesan appointment, although he was formerly the MEP regional superior, an appointment currently held by Father Michael Arro.
Now 57, Father Greg remains passionate about learning languages. He notes that foreigners living in Singapore prefer to have Mass celebrated in their native languages because worshipping in their own language makes them feel at home, he explained.
This is especially clear to Father Greg when meeting Filipinos. “When they find that I can speak Tagalog, they feel very joyful,” he said. “You can see it on their faces.”
Father Greg notes that it is not difficult to learn enough of a language to say Mass. For him it takes about five to six months. “However, to be able to speak and master the language, you need to work very hard,” he noted. “Everyday, I must learn five new words, and thank God, I remember.”
Today, he can speak and read in French, English, Mandarin, Indonesian, Tagalog, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Bahnar, a tribal Vietnamese dialect.
Father Greg feels blessed to have found a home in Singapore. “It is a good place to learn a lot of languages,” he said.
He likes Cantonese and Peranakan cuisines
Given some free time, Father Greg would like nothing more than to spend some time lying down on the grass, watching the sky, or reading a book in the shade.
He enjoys reading books, often comparing the expressions of sentences and phrases used by different languages. He is currently reading “Rome Sweet Home” by Scott Hahn, a Presbyterian minister and theologian who became a Catholic apologist.
He is looking forward to the Christmas season. “In France, Christmas is a season for the people. For us priests, we go back home, look at what’s in the fridge, and eat with the TV. Here in Singapore, people bring you out to eat and celebrate with you.”
Singapore food agrees with him because Vietnamese and Cambodian cuisines are similar to Cantonese and Peranakan food respectively.
Also, he is very much at home with his non-Vietnamese brothers and sisters in Singapore.
After all, he speaks their language. As he says, “When we speak their language, they feel at home.”
“When Filipinos find that I can speak Tagalog, they feel very joyful. You can see it on their faces.”
“I spent 39 days out at sea, together with 24 people on a sampan.”