By Dave Luecking
Upon his appointment in August as Provincial Assistant for Formation, Fr. Hung Pham, SJ, became a frequent traveler, visiting Jesuits in far-flung outposts nationally and internationally. Gone for weeks —sometimes months — at a time, he rarely was in St. Louis to use his office at the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province headquarters.
All that changed in mid-March, with shelter-in-place mandates throughout the world because of the global coronavirus pandemic. Just like that, his frequent flights came to an abrupt halt, but not his essential work in Jesuit formation. In fact, other than travel, Fr. Pham’s mission has remained the same, just performed differently.
From the office, Fr. Pham has met with young Jesuits via Zoom, a video conferencing platform in which participants hold virtual meetings in real-time. The platform has been a godsend for businesses during the pandemic, and for worship and formation work such as Fr. Pham’s.
Father Pham described it as “second best” to in-person meetings.
“We’re fortunate to have the technology to do this,” he said a few weeks into the lockdown in late March. He described a typical day. “Today, I did Zoom videos for a Vietnamese Mass for a parish in Hawaii. I’m teaching two courses online for the Jesuit scholastics in Vietnam, one in the morning and one late at night. In the daytime, I take care of the guys here (of the UCS Province).
“It keeps me busy. It’s the same kind of activity.” It just all happens via a computer.
According to Fr. Provincial Ronald A. Mercier, Fr. Pham’s activity is an essential aspect of formation for men in the Society of Jesus. Father Pham brings a wide range of practical experience to the role, including the past seven years as assistant professor at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University in Berkeley, Calif.
“He has long experience working with people in formation, giving his time teaching in Berkeley,” Fr. Mercier said. “He’s a renowned scholar in Ignatian Spirituality, and the formation of our young men is so important. He brings real skills in that area and helps them to grow in such an important part of our Jesuit charism.”
Plus, he has intangible qualities ideal to connect with and accompany men on the journey of formation.
“He has very good interpersonal skills,” Fr. Mercier said. “He’s very easy to be with, and he’s able to challenge when necessary. He also has a warm personality.”
Father Pham describes himself as “pretty much an extrovert,” though that quality took a while to reemerge after his family immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1985. The youngest of seven children, with four sisters and two brothers, Fr. Pham was 16 years old when the family settled in Denver. Although his family is sixth-generation Catholic – “very traditional and devotional,” he said – he attended public high school, rather than the Catholic high school in the area.
“My family couldn’t afford Catholic school then,” said Fr. Pham, who addressed the language barrier with his high school classmates by speaking the common language of math, chemistry and biology. “When Asians first came over to the U.S., there were lot of challenges in terms of language, so science and mathematics came easier for us. The symbols were something familiar.”
Still, the spoken language created a barrier.
“I was like a stranger, not really knowing anybody,” he said, adding of his high school years that he was “just trying to survive. I think on top of that, being a teenager and growing up, there are a lot of different layers. Mostly, I stayed home. I didn’t do a lot of socializing then.”
All that changed after he won a math scholarship at Regis University, the Jesuit college in Denver. Father Pham blossomed socially in the small-school environment of Regis, overcoming the culture shock of his high school years and developing an understanding of and appreciation for American culture. He continued to excel in math, chemistry and biology, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1993. In the spring of the same year, USA Today selected him as one of the 20 best and brightest students in the country, naming him to the All–USA College Academic Team.
Most importantly, Fr. Pham encountered the Jesuits at Regis, and the rest, as they say, is history. He entered the Society in August 1993, and now he’s in position to help men in formation, just as many others helped him along the way.
“I can accompany them with their own struggles and own questions because I’ve been there,” he said. “My own formators were so loving, kind and patient with me. In return, I just want to care for our men because I have been the recipient of that patience, that kindness, that care, that love. That’s what I remember, and that’s what I want to give.”
Father Pham describes his years of formation as “a very adventurous journey, most definitely a non-linear one,” with many twists and turns as he grew along the way to become a Jesuit grounded in Ignatian Spirituality.
When he entered the Society, “I didn’t know what I was getting into,” he joked, adding, “They always say, ‘the reason you enter is very different from the reason you stay,’ right? I entered with a lot of ideals and everything I admired (about Jesuits and the Society). I admired the Jesuits at Regis. I enjoyed the service trip to Mexico during spring break. These Jesuits were fun and full of life sharing their passion and ministries in community, so that’s what I aspired to follow.”
A 30-day silent retreat during the first year of novitiate caught the extrovert by surprise, but he adjusted quickly to the deep inner movements of the spiritual foundation and formation.
“I loved my years in the novitiate; I just fell in love with it,” he said. “We were exposed to a lot of different ministries and different experiences. Not only did I learn about the Society of Jesus, but about different places in the U.S.”
Father Pham worked locally in Denver, made a pilgrimage to Los Angeles, served in Amarillo, Texas, participated in Habitat of Humanity in St. Louis and volunteered at Catholic Charities in St. Paul, Minn. He also made a trip back to his native Vietnam, with a side trip to work with street children in Manila, the Philippines. Visiting Vietnam for the first time in 10 years created a bit of an identity crisis. He began to question, “Am I American? Or am I Vietnamese?”
During the first trip to Vietnam, local Vietnamese Jesuits called him, “American Boy,” and though feasting on Vietnamese food, he found himself missing American food after a while, indicating how American he had become in the past decade. Ultimately, he concluded that his livable identity is that he embraces both the Vietnamese and the American.
“It was a good reality check to see how much I had grown,” he said, calling the visit to his homeland “an incredible trip,” and calling his novitiate experience among the “best two years of my life.”
After novitiate, Fr. Pham earned his master’s degree in philosophy at Saint Louis University in 1998. He spent two of his regency years as a chemistry and biology teacher at St. Louis University High School. For the third year, he was sent to serve a mission with the Jesuit Refugee Service of Asia Pacific, training math and science teachers in a Burmese refugee camp in the Mae Hong Son province of northern Thailand.
“You’re right in the middle of a jungle, without running water or electricity, yet it’s one of most beautiful places with the most beautiful people on earth,” he said. “The living conditions were challenging, but our [JRS] presence was so very meaningful. That’s what I love about the Society; that’s what I want to continue pursuing.”
Still, he had doubts after a year of studying theology at Berkeley. Ordination was coming up and Fr. Pham was questioning whether his future was as a priest or as a family man, with a wife and children.
“When I began my theology studies, my doubts really rose to the surface,” he said. “It was in the back of my mind, wrestling with my vocation. Do I really want to be a priest, or do I want a family? It was a time for deeper reflection and discernment.”
He returned to St. Louis and participated in the program at the Consultation Center, where he met with professional counselors and spiritual directors who audaciously and generously accompanied him through personal inner work as well as the ongoing process of vocation discernment. He then completed a year in the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program, learning how to listen and minister to the dying at the Research Medical Center in Kansas City, Mo.
This period was hard, Fr. Pham says, but he grew as a result. The two years of discernment led him to continue pursuing his Master of Divinity and Licentiate in Sacred Theology from Weston School of Theology in Boston. He was ordained a priest in June 2006.
After a year and a half teaching Ignatian Spirituality, as well as being part of the Campus Ministry Team at Regis University, he went on to earn a doctorate in Ignatian Spiritualty from Universidad Pontificia Comillas in Madrid, Spain, in 2011.
After his time in Madrid, he was missioned to the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, where he taught Ignatian Spirituality for seven years. In April 2015, the Society called him to his final profession. At the Provincial Congregation in 2015, he was elected one of the three delegates of the UCS Province to attend the Thirty-Sixth General Congregation of the Society of Jesus.
“During the voting at the Provincial Congregation, I was thinking to myself, ‘I would be happy if my name would be called once or twice, then go back to business as usual,’” he recalled. “But then, I heard my name called again and again. I was overwhelmed with joy and love by the trust and confidence the province had placed in me.”
Father Pham considers attending the General Congregation in 2016 a once–in–a–lifetime experience of learning, appreciating and loving the Universal Society.
When Fr. Mercier missioned Fr. Pham to be the Formation Assistant of the UCS Province, he gave him a special mandate: “to help our men to love the Spiritual Exercises.” Such a mission, Fr. Pham said, is “consistent with my love for the Spiritual Exercises and what it means to be a Jesuit – in everything, love and serve [en todo, amar y servir].
“My heart is to do the Exercises.”