SAN DIEGO — Father Christopher Nguyen is in his third year as director of the Newman Center Catholic Community at UCSD.
The Newman Center provides for the spiritual and sacramental needs of Catholic students at the University of California, San Diego, where classes resumed Sept. 19. The center uses the facilities of Good Samaritan Episcopal Church, located at 4321 Eastgate Mall, San Diego 92121.
Born in Vietnam, Father Nguyen emigrated to the United States with his family in 1975, as part of the first wave of refugees at the conclusion of the Vietnam War.
Discerning a call to religious life, he entered the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits, in 1990. Father Nguyen, 58, was ordained to the priesthood on June 16, 2001.
Question: What role has the Catholic faith played in your family?
Answer: Back in Vietnam, my father taught the older students in our K-12 parochial school. As a family, we always went to Sunday Mass and were very involved with our parish. Whenever my grandmother came to visit, she would go to daily Mass at 6 a.m. and take us with her.
On my father’s side, my family has always been Catholic. My mother was Buddhist, but converted when she married my father. The faith goes back many generations in my family, to the 16th century. Some of the Vietnamese Martyrs canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1988 are among my ancestors.
When did you first sense a call to the priesthood?
It happened when I was in college at UC Irvine. At the time, I wasn’t especially religious or devout. I went to Mass every Sunday, but other than that, a relationship with God was the last thing on my mind.
That started to change after some Catholic friends invited me to attend a silent preached retreat led by a Jesuit priest. They had already paid my retreat fee, so I felt obligated to go. For me, that retreat was the beginning of a personal relationship with God. After that, my friends and I founded an on-campus faith-sharing group that still exists today.
In my senior year, I took part in what’s called the 19th Annotation, an adaptation of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola for busy people who can’t get away to attend the traditional retreat. That’s when I first felt my calling.
However, while I was discerning and praying about it, the voice in my head said, “This isn’t the right time.” A week later, my dad lost his job and I felt obligated to go to work to help support the family. I’m the oldest boy among 11 siblings and, in the Asian culture, the oldest boy is responsible for the parents and the younger kids. So, I began working as a lab researcher in the medical school at UC Irvine.
About two years passed and, while in prayer one day, God seemed to say, “This is the right time.” I was unconvinced at first, but sensed that, if I didn’t apply then, it was never going to happen for me.
When I entered the novitiate, I was very much at peace about my decision and I trusted that God would take care of my parents. And that’s what happened. Some of my siblings, who had moved to other states, began chipping in a few hundred dollars a month to support our parents.
What was it that attracted you to the Jesuits?
What attracted me to the Society of Jesus was its charism: It’s all about evangelization. To me, evangelization isn’t just about going out and baptizing people. It’s also about helping people to encounter God in their daily life and to have a deeper and more meaningful relationship with Him. What better role for a priest than to help people to experience God?
What is the Catholic community at UCSD like?
The community consists mostly of students. But there are also professors and alumni, as well as adult professionals who live in the neighborhood, find it convenient to attend Mass with us, and just like the spirit of Newman and the way things are done here.
Often, you hear that young adults don’t participate in the Church anymore, and you tend to see only old people at Mass. But at a Newman Center, it’s the opposite. You see a lot of young people. You can see that the Church is vibrant.
Because I’m the only priest serving this community, I want the students to take charge of the ministry. So, I have a team of about 25 “student ministers.” My staff and I focus on empowering them so that they can empower other students. It’s sort of like a domino effect. When they graduate and return home, I want them to be leaders at their parishes.
The former director said we probably had about 450 people each weekend before the pandemic. During the lockdown, with Zoom Masses and a limited number of in-person Masses, we had about 150. Last year, when students wore masks and attended in-person, it was 400 at best. I think this year, attendance will be higher than last year.
What are some of the events and activities at the Newman Center?
We have two Sunday Masses, as well as daily Masses on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and weekly faith-sharing for the undergraduates, the graduate students and the residents.
On Wednesday evenings, we alternate between Eucharistic adoration and “contemplative Masses.” At “contemplative Masses,” instead of delivering a long homily, I will pose a question for the students to reflect on for about 10 to 15 minutes while other students play soft, instrumental music; this liturgy appeals to the senses through candlelight, incense and prayerful silence.
There are also regular social events, like community dinners and intramural sports, and service opportunities with organizations like Father Joe’s Villages, Birthline, and Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, which is run by the Jesuits. Though we didn’t do it last year because of the pandemic, we build houses in Tijuana over spring break. And we also offer retreats in the fall, winter, spring and summer.
What advice do you have for parents concerned that their college-age children might fall away from the faith?
I would say to tell your kids to look for a Newman Center.
Young people want to see their friends, to interact with their friends. If they make friends with other young Catholics at the Newman Center, that can provide the motivation to go to Mass.
If they want community, they’ll find that at the Newman Center. If they also want to grow in their faith or to find opportunities to help others in need, we offer that, too.