Fr. Bang Tran, SVD
A Cultural Lesson
By Fr. Bang Tran, SVD
Fr. Bang C. Tran, SVD was born in Saigon, Vietnam. He arrived in the United States in May 1981 at the age of 14. After graduating from high school in Houston, Texas in 1987, he entered Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa and graduated in 1992. He entered the novitiate in August of that same year. Fr. Bang professed First Vows as a Divine Word Missionary on August 21, 1993. During his theological training at CTU, he did his CTP experience in Paraguay from 1995 to 1997. He took his final vows on September 1999 and was ordained on June 3rd, 2000. Currently he is ministering in Togo, West Africa.
I am still “getting my feet wet” in Togo, Africa, so every day provides an opportunity to learn something about my new home. A couple of weeks ago, I was helping at one of our parishes and I was asked to preside at a funeral-my first as a priest. The funeral was for a man who had died a week before. I had an entire week to prepare for the homily and the ritual of the funeral Mass.
The family told me the funeral would be in the morning, but no precise time was mentioned. When Saturday came, I got up at my usual time and dressed in black clericals. I was having breakfast about 7:30 when the catechist arrived. I vested and joined six altar boys who carried their processional cross, incense, holy water and candles. We processed to the home of the deceased. As I got close to the house, I could hear the loud music of a marching band. Many people, dressed in very bright colors (not in black as I was) had gathered. Children were playing while adults were talking, cooking and washing dishes.
With the altar servers, I entered the room where the body was lying. When I approached the casket, I could see that the body was clothed in white. I said a prayer, and the attendants closed the casket and loaded it onto a truck to begin the slow procession back to the church. No one was crying and one old woman was dancing and waving to the casket as we left the house. During the entire time the band was playing.
We arrived at the church about twenty minutes later. When it came time for the homily, I spoke about the sadness of losing a loved one and about God’s love and comfort for those who mourn. While I was delivering the homily, still struggling a bit with my French, I already had a feeling that my message was a bit divergent from the mood.
After the funeral Mass I thought we would proceed to the cemetery. Instead, we processed back to the family home and buried the deceased man next to his house. I offered the closing prayer and blessing at the gravesite. The family then invited me to stay for a simple lunch with all the other mourners.
The next day was Sunday, and after Mass the deceased man’s family invited me to their home for a dance. “Dance?” I said to myself. “Didn’t we just bury the man yesterday and today we are going to have a dance?” I really thought that I had misunderstood the custom, blaming the error on my still primitive French skills. But I hadn’t. In the afternoon, I went to the dance and festive celebration.
Many people were already dancing when I arrived. There was a band of five drummers and three other musicians playing the traditional flute. Before each dance, dancers would approach a group of elders. They bowed or knelt in front of them, asking their permission to perform the dance. The dancers were very graceful and the mood was joyous.
During my conversations at the dance, I learned that the funeral for an elderly person really is a joyous celebration of a good and full life. I definitely filed that useful information away in my head so that I would preach a more appropriate homily at the next funeral Mass.
I am sure that I’m going to be surprised by other customs in my new home. I will undoubtedly make some mistakes, too. But there is no other place where I would rather be.