Since the time of St. Ignatius, the Society of Jesus has served at the frontiers — whether four centuries ago when the first Jesuits left their homes in Europe to establish missions in China, or today at the U.S.-Mexico border where Jesuits serve undocumented residents.
The Jesuits’ call to teach, pray and serve was reaffirmed this past summer when Pope Francis said: “Your proper place is on the frontiers. This is the place of Jesuits.”
Frontiers can be found in many forms: geographic, interreligious, educational and social justice, to name just a few. This week, meet Jesuit Father Anh Tran, a professor of interreligious studies at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif.Father Anh Tran, SJ: Interreligious Dialogue and the Search for Mutual Understanding
In some ways, Jesuit Father Anh Tran has been preparing for his work as a professor of interreligious studies his entire life. Born in Vietnam, he and his family left after the fall of Saigon and moved to Indonesia as refugees. During his teen years, Fr. Tran’s family moved again — this time to California — where he had to navigate yet another vastly different culture.
In California, Fr. Tran started a new life in the Silicon Valley. He completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering at the Jesuits’ Santa Clara University and then worked in the semi-conductor industry.
“Life was normal; I was living the American dream,” he recalls. Despite his success, his contact with the Jesuits continued to influence him.
Fr. Tran encountered his first Jesuit in Indonesia. Father Gildo Dominici, an Italian Jesuit who spent most of his priestly life serving the Vietnamese people, made a lasting impression on Fr. Tran as a teenager.
“For the first time in my life, I met a foreign priest, a Jesuit, in a place that was very remote and I asked myself, ‘What is it about this man, his lifestyle and his vocation that allowed him to come to the refugees and care for us like this?’ ” Fr. Tran recalls.
After graduating from Santa Clara, Fr. Tran began making Ignatian retreats and got involved in Dong Hanh, the Vietnamese version of Christian Life Communities, a lay Ignatian organization. “I was at home with Ignatian spirituality,” says Fr. Tran. However, it took him a long time to think about a vocation because he was resisting the idea of being a religious. “I enjoyed the worldly life very much,” he says, laughing.
When he turned 30, Fr. Tran began to think seriously about a vocation. He spoke with the Franciscans, but they told him he “had too much Ignatian ‘stuff’ in his heart and in his mind” and perhaps it was best if he were to join the Society of Jesus. When Fr. Tran entered the California Province of the Society of Jesus in 1995, he said it was “like going home.”
After the Jesuit novitiate, Fr. Tran received a master’s in health care ethics at Loyola University Chicago before returning to his alma mater, Santa Clara University, to teach in the school of engineering and to serve as associate director for health care ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
In addition to discovering his vocation as both a teacher and a researcher while at Santa Clara, he also began to travel outside the U.S., returning to his birth country for the first time in 20 years, as well as visiting China, the Philippines, India and other countries in Asia.
His travels allowed him to get to know the Jesuits in Vietnam. “It helped me in rediscovering my roots and seeing that the world was bigger than just the U.S.,” he says.
After his teaching assignment at Santa Clara, he went to the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley to obtain his Master of Divinity degree, and his provincial appointed him to the U.S. Jesuit Advisory Board on Interreligious Dialogue in 2005, the same year he was ordained.
“For me, interreligious dialogue is part of my identity,” Fr. Tran says. “My father’s side is Catholic and my mother’s side is Buddhist, so I negotiated the tension all the time. It comes naturally.”
Fr. Tran decided to pursue interreligious studies at Georgetown University, where he received his Ph.D. in religious pluralism in 2011. Next, he returned to the Jesuit School of Theology, where he is currently an assistant professor teaching courses in systematic theology and interreligious studies.
“The Society of Jesus has been at the frontiers of interreligious dialogue since its founding. St. Francis Xavier traveled to Asia, Matteo Ricci to China, Roberto de Nobili to India — we have a long history of interreligious dialogue, which is a part of the evangelization work that is at the heart of the Society’s mission,” explains Fr. Tran. “I’m continuing that tradition in a new way, in the context of the 21st century.”
While many people associate interreligious dialogue work as something done in academic settings through courses and conferences, Fr. Tran says that today’s world has created new frontiers that call for more practical applications.
“In the post 9/11 world, it’s even more crucial for us to recognize that we have to learn how to work with our Muslim brothers and sisters, and we have to make sure our American politics don’t interfere,” he says. There are more than 1.5 billion Muslims around the world and most of them do not live in the Middle East.
No matter what the context, whether in the classroom or in the community, Fr. Tran says the idea of interreligious dialogue is to foster friendship and to come to mutual understanding — and ultimately to build a better world. “Religious pluralism now is very much a part of the reality of our lives.”
His work at the Jesuit School of Theology also includes taking students to theological immersions in Asian countries, as a part of the interreligious dialogue work and contextual theology that was started by Jesuit Father James Redington at the JST in 2003. Last January, students engaged in interreligious dialogue in North India; in January 2014, Fr. Tran will accompany students to Nepal for Buddhist-Christian dialogue.
While the work itself is not new, Fr. Tran says in the past people thought of interreligious dialogue as work of a Christian missionary. One had to leave his or her own country to encounter other religions. “Now, with the globalized world, religious ‘others’ come to us,” he points out. “It’s not a spectator sport when they become your next-door neighbors or someone who goes to your school. Questions come up that no one had to worry about before. We have to figure out how to get along and how to live with one another.
“Interreligious dialogue has become much more complex and much more personal,” says Fr. Tran. “The frontier from afar is now next door; it’s your neighbor.”
When Fr. Tran reflects on choosing to pursue his doctorate in interreligious studies, rather than engineering or health care ethics, he says “It was an easy discernment. It was something that was implicit in my life becoming explicit. Living in a multi-religious environment is a part of many people’s experience today; my own experience reflects that.”
Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuits.org/become for more information.