November 8, 2013

Seminarian’s journey deepens his life of faith

Above, Seminarian Tony Hollowell poses with some of the college students to whom he taught English during three weeks in China. (Submitted photo)

Above, Seminarian Tony Hollowell poses with some of the college students to whom he taught English during three weeks in China. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

The first interaction between seminarian Tony Hollowell and the stranger in Vietnam seemed headed for a heated confrontation.

The scene unfolded in a park in Hanoi, Vietnam—part of the amazing, recent three-month journey that took the 31-year-old Hollowell to three continents and six countries.

Hollowell was sitting on a bench after lunch when a stranger named Hung approached him.

“I was listening to music on a park bench, getting ready to lie down because the sun was hot and my stomach was digesting a few spring rolls from lunch, when a Vietnamese asks to sit down exactly where I was already leaning to lie down,” Hollowell recalled. “I very angrily say, ‘Sure,’ and though I knew I was acting like a 5-year-old who was pouting, I couldn’t help it.”

Yet instead of turning into an ugly moment, what happened next led Hollowell into a surprising personal connection and an even deeper appreciation of his Catholic faith during the Year of Faith.

An unexpected conversation

“Luckily, God prevents me from screwing up the entire thing,” Hollowell continued. “We begin to talk about school. He is studying engineering. ‘Cool,’ I say. ‘What do you do?’ he says. ‘I am studying to be a Catholic priest,’ I say.”

That’s when the conversation took a turn Hollowell never expected. He recalled the exchange in this way:

Hung: “What’s a Catholic priest?”

Hollowell: “Do you know what a Catholic is?”

Hung: “No.”

Hollowell: “Do you know what Buddhism or Islam are?”

Hung: “No.”

Hollowell: “Do you know what prayer is?”

Hung: “No.”

That’s when Hollowell asked the big question, “Do you know who God is?” When Hung said no again, Hollowell led him on a walk to the nearby Catholic cathedral.

Inside, Hollowell showed Hung a crucifix, explaining that Jesus is God and died to save people from their sins. He also showed Hung a statue of Mary, the mother of God.

When Hung said, “I know her! That is Maria!” Hollowell noted: “This guy doesn’t know anything about Catholicism, religion, prayer or God, but he knows about Mary.”

So Hollowell showed Hung the Mass schedule and told him he could come to the church any day to pray to Mary. He also told Hung that the church is where Catholic priests minister, and he could talk to one in Vietnamese if he ever wanted.

Outside the church, Hung and Hollowell continued their conversation, drinking watermelon juice and eating white chocolate cake before exchanging e-mail addresses and saying goodbye.

Hollowell later reflected on that connection, writing in his journal: “He was a very humble, kind, young man, and I wonder what that encounter was all about, and how God wants to use it in both of our lives to fulfill his plan. I am convinced that it was for not only the good of my soul, but also for the people I will one day serve.”

Hollowell also added in his journal: “The most amazing thing that exists on this planet is the human person. It took me five continents, 16 countries and 31 years, but I leave the summer with this conviction firmly planted in my mind and my heart.”

It was a summer during which Hollowell learned from Maryknoll priests in South Korea, taught English to students in China, and traveled with archdiocesan priest Father John Kamwendo to his home in Tanzania in Africa.

There, Hollowell had another memorable encounter—this time with an 89-year-old German missionary living in Tanzania.

‘We share a common nature’

The life story of Benedictine Father Ulrich Stoeckl fascinated Hollowell.

He learned that Father Ulrich was born in Germany in 1924, and was forced to fight in the German army in World War II. During those years, he was shot three times, captured by the Russians and forced into a labor camp for a few years.

After his release, he entered a Benedictine monastery and was ordained a priest in 1950. In 1955, he was sent as a missionary to Africa where he served for more than 50 years. During that time, he influenced Father Kamwendo, now associate pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis, who also assists with sacramental needs at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis.

“On the last day of my visit, Father John and I knelt on the wooden floor to receive his blessing,” recalled Hollowell, a 2000 graduate of Roncalli High School in Indianapolis and a 2004 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. “His hunched frame rose slowly. He extended his thin, frail hands, proclaimed his blessing in Swahili, and sent us on our way. When I stood up to shake his hand, he had tears in his eyes.”

It was an emotional moment for Hollowell, too.

“I think it likely I will never see him again on this Earth, but he touched my soul in a deep way. I hope that his blessing works through my priesthood so that others can know the love of the Father.”

Father Ulrich and Hung were among the countless people that Hollowell met during his three-month journey. Even though language differences were often part of those interactions, the encounters have deepened the faith of Hollowell, who has returned to his studies for the priesthood at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.

“I find the Catholic proposition to be quite convincing: I believe in one God, the Father almighty,” he said. “There is one Father, and all people are his children.

“We share a common nature that comes from our common inheritance of being made in the image and likeness of God. What I was able to communicate with these people from all around the world was not some base, unimportant dimension of the human person. Rather, we were talking to one another about love and compassion, guilt and shame, peace and joy.” †

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