“It is a ministry of life, of beginnings, looking toward the future,” said Fr. Quang Nguyen, SCJ, of his new role at the Catholic Newman Center of the University of Houston. “It is a time of possibilities, of planning, blooming.”
For nine years, Fr. Quang was the vocation director for the US Province of the Priests of the Sacred Heart. For several of those years he was also vice provincial superior, and local superior of the Sacred Heart Community at SHML.
In January, he moved to Houston to continue to work with young people in discernment. However, in his new role as a campus minister at the University of Houston’s Newman Center, the scope of the discernment is much broader. The students he sees aren’t necessarily discerning a vocation to religious life, but life itself.
“They are always looking forward,” he continued. “Their lives are wide open with possibilities. They are full of hope; it makes the ministry very life-giving.”
Fr. Quang said that the transition from the province vocation office to campus ministry has been a good one. “Serving in vocations was a solid base for me,” he said. “I often interacted with college students, so I had a sense of what their concerns were, what challenges they faced.
One of the most significant parts of Fr. Quang’s ministry on campus is simply being present.
“Students hunger for someone to walk with them, someone to confide in,” he said. “At this time in their life, they are constantly on the move. Everything is hurry, hurry, HURRY! I have patience. They know I am here. They know that I will listen. They can come here [to the Newman Center] and slow down and be heard.”
Besides Fr. Quang, the Newman Center staff includes a lay minister, an administrative assistant, and student interns in liturgy, prayer and music. Volunteers are also vital to the work of the center.
In some ways, the Newman Center is similar to a parish. There is regular Mass (two on Sundays), confessions, Adoration, and about a dozen prayer groups. Fr. Quang celebrated the Triduum services in the center’s small chapel, and at the Easter Vigil, welcomed four students into the Catholic faith (Fr. Quang is pictured with the students at the top of the page).
“It is like a parish, but one that is made up primarily of young adults,” he said, though noted that U of H alumni will pop in now and then.
Although most of the Newman Center’s ministry is with Catholic students, there are times when ministers of the various faith communities on campus work together to serve the university, such as in recent months in which they have offered spiritual support following two student suicides.
One on one, students come to Fr. Quang to discuss personal challenges. “At first, they just talked about difficulties with their classes,” said Fr. Quang. “But now that the students are getting to know me, they are becoming more comfortable in opening up. I am hearing more about family problems, relationship problems, their concerns for the future.”
A common concern of many is finances. “What are their job prospects? How will they pay their loans? Will they have enough money to complete their degree? These are the questions that are on the minds of students,” said Fr. Quang. And for some, it is not just their personal finances that keep them up at night, but those of their parents, some of whom have lost jobs in recent years.
“The University of Houston is a public university surrounded by several private institutions,” said Fr. Quang. “Our students are often from families who are from a less affluent background than the other universities. One of our students had to drop out this semester because a change in his major meant that he was no longer eligible for the funds that he was receiving. He hopes to come back, but it is not a given.”
Operating on a shoestring budget, the Newman Center itself is mindful of financial concerns. The archdiocese of Galveston Houston partially funds the program, but the budget never covers the actual cost of doing ministry. Even trash pick-up is an expense in which the center tries to cut corners.
“You have an event, you always have extra trash,” said Fr. Quang. “But the Newman Center is only allocated so much for trash removal by the university. Extra pick-ups cost $180. After we have an event, we ask the students to take a bag of trash to the dumpsters for us.” The center has also been helped by students in the ROTC program who occasionally haul a couple of bags of garbage to the university bins.
Trash removal aside, campus ministry has been a good fit for Fr. Quang. “It is really a joy to be here,” he said. “For years our province has talked about finding more ways to work with young adults. This is a way we can talk about who we are as Priests of the Sacred Heart, it is a way of sharing our Dehonian Spirituality.
“Another thing which makes this ministry so special is that our campus ministry students genuinely WANT to be here. They want to attend church. They want to learn more about their faith. That isn’t always the case in a parish, where mom and dad might be pushing them to attend Mass. The students don’t have to be here, but they choose to be. That is affirming. That is exciting.
“I am grateful for this ministry personally, and for our province.”
Our thanks to the Catholic Newman Center of the University of Houston for use their photos.