Fr. Mahn Tran, new Jesuit at St. Paul’s

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Dreams of teaching and priesthood come true for Jesuit

 

By Gene Fadness
Editor


BOISE – Two new Jesuits have arrived on the campus of Boise State University, and both have fascinating, but wildly disparate, life stories. 
One escaped from the communist regime in Vietnam that killed his father. The other was the starting center and an All-American on a Carroll College football team what won four national championships and, later, chief of staff to the president at the same college. 

Father Manh Duc Tran, SJ, was ordained in 2004. Kyle Baker is more than half way through his process to be ordained. Both arrived on the Boise campus earlier this month and will be living in community with Father Gregory Vance, SJ, who is chaplain at Bishop Kelly High School and at the Diocesan Pastoral Center.

When Father Tran and Baker made an initial visit to the Boise campus last February, they were impressed not only by the students, but also by the involvement and interest from the non-student community.

Father Tran and Baker hope to expand the Jesuit ministry here by transforming St. Paul’s into a center for Ignatian spirituality, where students, lay people and priests can receive training. Part of that training can be in helping people to become spiritual directors, Father Tran said.

In past assignments, Father Tran has been instrumental in the formation of a Christian Life Community, an international association of lay Christians who have adopted an Ignatian model of spiritual life, based on the Spiritual Exercises developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits (or Society of Jesus). 

Father Tran, born in Vietnam, was only 9 years old when Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, fell to the North Vietnamese communists in 1975. In the weeks before the fall of the city, the Viet Cong were dropping bombs on the city, espe-cially near the airport to prevent people leaving. One of those bombs fell on his father as he was visiting an aunt who lived near the airport, killing him. 

One of 11 children in his family, Manh Duc Tran lived under communism for five years before escaping in 1980, one of the thousands of “boat people” who fled the southeast Asian country. Only 14 at the time, he fled with his 35-year-old aunt. He lived in a refugee camp for the next several months, his aunt leaving a month before him after she found a sponsor family. Finally, he was able to join his older brother, a pilot, who had escaped in 1975. A younger brother was able to escape in 1982 and the rest of the siblings arrived in the 1990s.  

His entire family were devout Catholics. He recalls first thinking about priesthood when he was 12 or 13 when he said he had “daydreams” of being a teacher or a priest. Under communism, both of those professions, for him, would have been practically impossible. He likely would not have been accepted as a teacher because his dad worked for the U.S. government. Becoming a priest would be even more difficult in a country where the government had closed the seminaries.

He didn’t understand the reason for the dreams of becoming a priest, particularly since he was not influenced positively by priests. “Most of the priests I encountered were boring or very mean to me, but somehow I kept dreaming about it,” he said. Those thoughts persisted through high school, so when he enrolled at St. John’s College in southern California, he chose philosophy as a major. 

However, by his senior year, thoughts of priesthood were gone. “I was still dealing with my father’s death, the escape from Vietnam and the challenges that came up philosophy class. I felt like I didn’t have the time to grieve or process what all this means. Where is God in all this? If there is a God, why did these things happen to me?” 

After graduation, he took a job in data entry. A boss who was impressed with his work agreed to have him trained as an accountant. After working in accounting for three years, he was invited by a friend to return to Vietnam for a visit. This was 1991 and by that time, the government had eased its travel restrictions considerably. 

Seeing his mother, his home and even the beggars in the streets “re-awakened in me in my true self.” The hopes and dreams of teaching or being a priest returned. The reunion with family members “reawakened a childhood that I had buried. I feel that that God really graced me with a lot of healing from childhood trauma,” he said.

He knew then that he could not see himself as an accountant for the rest of his life. “This is not my calling,” he told himself. When he returned to the United States, he quit his job. 

A friend from his parish choir in California invited him to attend an Ignatian retreat, even though he had never heard of the Jesuits. He and several of his fellow choir members signed up. 

That 1992 retreat also brought healing. “I encountered God through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, a God who is so good and merciful. It was a coming home to God and to myself. If God is so good to me, I want to be generous, I want to love God and serve the poor.”

The experience reopened the door to priesthood, although he initially leaned toward diocesan priesthood. But then a Jesuit priest, Father Kevin Leidich, helped him through the process of discernment by praying St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises and leaving him with a number of reading resources. He also had a heart for education and a yearning for community life, both hallmarks of the Jesuit life.   

He entered the Jesuit Novitiate House in Culver City, Calif., in 1993 where he lived and studied for two years. After he professed vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in 1995, he studied at Loyola University in Chicago, earning his Master of Arts in philosophy. Then came the Regency portion of his preparation, 
a time to enter into active Jesuit ministry, typically teaching at a high school or university. Finally, come three to four years of study in theology at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, where he earned his Master of Divinity. 

On June 12, 2004, 11 years after entering the Novitiate House, he was ordained a priest in Los Angeles. His years since have been involved in campus ministry, first at Loyola Marymount University from 2004-10, then at Santa Clara University from 2011-17 and then at the Newman Center at the University of California at San Diego from 2017-20.   

He was impressed during his visit to Boise last February at the vibrancy of the students at Mass, his experience at a student-led Bible study and the presence of the FOCUS missionaries on campus.

One student told me how much her Bible study group meant to her. That and so many other little moments led me to feel that this was the right place,” he said. 

“There are lots of opportunities here for us to contribute uniquely to the student center and to the diocese,” he said. 

 
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