ORLANDO | It is the eve before the first day of the lunar calendar and the Vietnamese community of St. Philip Phan Van Minh prepares to ring in the new year with their traditional Mass. Yellow flowers of the ochna trees adorn the sanctuary space, and women dressed in multi-colored ao dai, are witnesses to the hope the Lunar New Year brings. Their colorful tunics celebrate new life.
The gong loudly heralds the liturgy as priests from the area process in. Bishop John Noonan and St. Philip Phan Van Minh pastor, Father Chau Nguyen bring incense from the people to honor their ancestors living and dead.
For Father Ivan Olmo, vicar forane of the North Central Deanery and pastor of Annunciation Parish in Altamonte Springs, the experience was powerful. It was his first Lunar New Year Mass and for him, the drums were “a call to prayer, a call to attention, to recollect yourself and be present because the Father is about to create.”
He said in prayer, the Lord gave him “a vision of going from something old to something new.” “All the vivid colors, all the people were a new sort of creation that was happening. It was a new beginning, a new life in Christ we were entering into,” he explained.
For the Vietnamese people, the New Year is all of this and more. It is especially an honoring of elder family, paying them homage and asking their blessing through offerings of incense, fruit, and cakes.
Although she has lived longer in the United States than in Vietnam, Sister of the Incarnation-Consecration-Mission Marie Nguyen said she reveres the tradition, sharing it is sort of a combination of Christmas, Thanksgiving, and a birthday for the Vietnamese culture. “At New Year’s everyone becomes one year older,” she said, without having to wait for their birthday. This is why children receive red envelopes with a gift inside. It is a chance for all to begin again.
She pointed to the theme of harmony, emphasizing it is a time of peace and unity. Noting the Vietnamese believe at midnight “heaven and earth are in great harmony and the people are great part of that.” She explained how the offering of fruit includes two cakes—one square representing the earth and one round signifying heaven. The people are at the center. All is one at that moment and is being renewed. Thanks is given to family, elder parents, and the fathers who lead them.
Father Nguyen noted, “It is important for this parish family to come together in thanking God, praying for a blessed and peaceful year. It is much more meaningful when the bishop, the father of the family, is present among us.”
Noting the “resplendence” of Father Nguyen’s face, Father Olmo was moved by his description of Bishop Noonan as father of the community. “They were showing their love and respect for our shepherd as a father. And that he gathered all his children in his home, in the Father’s house, to help us to enter into a new year with his blessing. It was so profound for me,” Father Olmo said.
As the leaves from the ochna trees fell throughout the Mass, Father Olmo thought of the Spring about to bloom. “Imagine, in place of each petal are the lectors wearing red; those who brought the gifts in blue and green are now the flowers on that tree; the little children who presented the clergy with the flowers in all the beautiful colors – the people in this new year become flowers or petals that will bear fruit in this new year,” Father Olmo said.
He found it particularly significant, in light of the uncertainty of the pandemic, of what is ahead, but he also embraced the anticipation of new hope and joy. “The Father is blessing us so we can go forth and be the fruitfulness of this evening. We can go plant those seeds so the life of the Church, in this new year, can be flourished in our family.”
By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic Staff, February 2, 2022