A change in plans
For the past five years Fr. Francis Vu Tran, SCJ, has been doing graduate studies in scripture, first earning a licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Gregorian Pontifical University in Rome, and since then, working on his doctorate. He returned to the United States last year to finish writing his thesis and hoped that he would soon be putting his studies to work teaching.
“It was my desire from the beginning to teach at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology,” said Fr. Francis. “I want to be a part of the SCJ presence there.”
But as the old saying goes, God writes straight with crooked lines. Or as John Lennon sang, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”
Instead of SHSST, Fr. Francis is heading to Vietnam.
“My religious life has always been full of surprises,” said Fr. Francis. “When Fr. General talked to me about serving in the Vietnamese District it was just one more surprise.”
Fr. Francis was in Rome to meet with his thesis advisor last fall. It was then that Fr. Heiner Wilmer, superior general, approached him about serving in Vietnam. Born there, Fr. Francis fled the country with his mother in 1988; he was just 11.
“I grew up in California, all of my family is there now,” he said. “I am an American.”
An American, but like many immigrants, he is one who straddles two cultures.
“Going to Vietnam I will have much to learn,” he said. “Language and culture are constantly evolving. The Vietnam that I knew as a young boy no longer exists. When I visit, Vietnamese know right away that I am a foreigner, the way I act and talk.”
But his background still gives him a greater insight into Vietnamese culture than most other missionaries.
“I think that I can be a bridge between cultures,” said Fr. Francis. “I think that is why Fr. General asked me to serve in Vietnam, to serve as a missionary to the country.”
“Missionary.” That is the word that Fr. Francis uses when he talks about ministry in Vietnam. He doesn’t view it as going “home” to minister. Home to Fr. Francis is the US Province. He is happy to serve in the land of his birth and hopes that he can make a contribution, but he also hopes to return to the United States with teaching experience, along with his doctorate in scripture.
The Vietnamese government has given permission for the establishment of an English-language Catholic University in the country, the first of its kind. Permission has also been granted by the Vatican to allow it to be a pontifical university. Scheduled to open later this year in Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City, the bishop directing the project asked Fr. Francis if he would be available to teach scripture in English.
It would be an opportunity to not only be a missionary for the congregation, but for the Church in Vietnam. “Teaching at SHSST would be easier,” said Fr. Francis. “Just the amount of resources available there is significant.” At a university that is just beginning to build its library, teachers will have to be creative in providing resources. “A lot of cutting and pasting, putting materials together as needed” is what Fr. Francis sees in the first years of the school’s development.
Teaching is important to Fr. Francis, but being a part of the SCJs’ presence in Vietnam will be his primary focus. Because it is a newly developing entity, most its ministry is tied to formation, preparing young men for SCJ religious life and ministry. Fr. Francis will be living in and assisting with the formation community. Although it will be his first time in such ministry, he has spent years working with the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement in the United States, training youth leaders and doing catechesis. “I’ll be able to apply many of the skills that I learned there in a new context with a Dehonian focus,” he said.
English is the official language of the congregation in Vietnam but sometimes it is easier to learn things in one’s mother tongue, or at least get an explanation of a new concept in words that are familiar. Fr. Francis hopes to translate into Vietnamese some of the research on Fr. Leo John Dehon that has been done in Italian and English (such as the work of Fr. P.J. McGuire through the Dehon Study Center).
Eventually SCJs in Vietnam hope to focus more on ministry to migrants. The district is currently very active with a school that serves migrant children.
“Parents come to the city for work, and find jobs working seven days a week,” said Fr. Francis. “The parents do not have enough money for school so their children are left to the streets. The school is a bridge that helps these children not only get off the streets, but get the education they need to later move into high school and build a better future for themselves.”
In the evenings, SCJs hold Bible-sharing sessions for adults, as well as catechesis. “They help these migrant families nurture their faith.”
The long-term goals of the district include serving in mission areas in the north where priests and religious are few.
Energy and change
In January, Fr. Francis took part in the district assembly in Vietnam. “There was so much energy there, so much vitality,” he said. “There is youthfulness and zeal for the congregation; that is energizing for me, it rekindles my own vocation.”
But at the same time, there is a bit of apprehension in going to Vietnam. “It is like the thrill of a rollercoaster,” said Fr. Francis. “Simultaneously it is both thrilling and scary…
“I love my life with the US Province; I am meant to be here. Going to Vietnam will mean living in a very different culture, different lifestyle, a different way of being. I will miss the United States, the SCJs here, my friends and family. I’ll miss hamburgers and Kopp’s frozen custard [a famous Milwaukee brand].
“But our congregation calls us more and more to have a missionary spirit, and a spirit of internationality. This is an opportunity for me to live my vocation as an SCJ missionary.”
Fr. Francis plans to move to Vietnam in early August. Until then he will work on his doctoral thesis; he plans to have the bulk of it completed before he leaves.
“I look at the next few months and I am excited, full of energy,” he said. “But there is still a lot of work to be done before I leave… and a lot of hamburgers to eat.”