by Becky Sindelar
May 9, 2014 — Jesuit Father Chi Ngo first encountered the Jesuits not in high school or college, but at an Ignatian retreat — one that not only led him to his Jesuit vocation but also to his work as a spiritual director.
“Ignatian spirituality is everything for me,” he explains. “I encountered the Lord in that first retreat and from that moment on it has continued to touch me deeply.”
Fr. Ngo’s journey was not an easy one, and today he says he still feels a deep empathy for those who are suffering. Born in Vietnam during the war, Fr. Ngo, 49, is the youngest of 11 children. When the war ended, he came to the United States at the age of 10 with his sister and her family. He grew up in Pasadena, Calif., and eventually most of the rest of his family came over as boat people. His father, however, died of hard labor in a "re-education camp" in Vietnam in 1979 when Fr. Ngo was 14.
After high school, Fr. Ngo studied engineering at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. It was during his senior year in college that he attended that life-changing Ignatian weekend retreat, given by Jesuit Father Julian Elizalde, a Spanish missionary who traveled around the country to Vietnamese refugee communities giving retreats.
“I’m a cradle Catholic, but I didn’t really know God. I went to Mass on Sunday and prayed when I was in trouble,” he says. “It was through that first retreat that I encountered Jesus and experienced a conversion of heart. It was the beginning of God helping me to discover myself and my relationship with the Lord.”
After graduation, Fr. Ngo worked as a civil engineer for a year and a half while he was discerning what to do with his life. He believed he wanted to be a lay missionary and work with refugees. “There is a deep love for those who are suffering because of my own experience of suffering. I thought that was how I wanted to serve my life,” he says.
But then he had a breakthrough: He was not only being called to dedicate his life to a good cause — he was being called to dedicate his life to God.
“Everyone around me, all my friends, said, 'Chi is joining a religious order and becoming a priest?’” Fr. Ngo recalls laughing. “God has a sense of humor, and I can certainly attest to that.”
He entered the California Province of the Society of Jesus in 1989, and after two years at the novitiate in Montecito, Calif., he was missioned to Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., for two years of philosophy studies. Next he worked at St. Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco for three years, teaching religion and working in campus ministry.
“It was an awesome time,” Fr. Ngo says. “Ignatius was so ingenious to insist we test what we’ve learned by loving service — giving yourself to the mission. It really affirmed during that time that I’m called to be a Jesuit, a contemplative in action.”
Next he studied for three years at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., earning his Master of Divinity degree, followed by a year of training at the Guelph Centre of Spirituality in Ontario, Canada.
After his ordination in 2000, Fr. Ngo was missioned to the Loyola Institute of Spirituality in Orange, Calif., for six years where he engaged in spiritual ministries and founded the Ignatian Spiritual Formation Program, training others in the Spiritual Exercises.
“We were mobile so we could go anywhere that was needed,” Fr. Ngo says of the Institute. “We served the local church and diocese, giving parish missions and retreats and teaching classes in Ignatian spirituality and the Spiritual Exercises.”
He next served as the Formation Director for the California Province for six years before coming to the Jesuit Retreat Center of Los Altos - El Retiro San Iñigo in California last fall. “I liken it to being in the vineyard,” says Fr. Ngo of his work at the retreat center. “I’m discovering something new every day in the vineyard. I didn’t realize how busy it can be at a retreat center, partly because we’re short on pastoral staff. We need Jesuits to go into this ministry because this is so at the heart of Ignatian spirituality.”
The Jesuit Retreat Center, founded in 1925, offers a variety of retreat programs, including weekend retreats, privately directed retreats and spiritual direction. In the summer, the 30-Day Spiritual Exercises are offered, as well as three eight-day retreats. The center also offers a three-year formation program in Ignatian spirituality for lay people and a retreat internship program for Jesuit scholastics to train them in giving retreats.
“It’s a sacred ministry and place for so many people,” says Fr. Ngo. “We have some retreatants in their late 80s who’ve been coming for 50 or 60 years.”
Fr. Ngo says one thing they are working on is cultivating the next generations of retreatants. “We’re dealing with the younger generation who are caught up in modern technology and media — the instant generation — and so we’re figuring out how to reach out to them. They’re hungry, but yet at the same time they don’t know how to access this deeper sense of faith and God. We have our work cut out,” he says.
It’s not that the universal spiritual themes are changing, according to Fr. Ngo, but that they must be explained to younger people in a language that they can listen to. One universal truth, for Fr. Ngo, is reminding people over and over again how much they are loved. “People come with so much baggage and part of the spiritual growth and insight is to leave our baggage behind,” he says. “Surrender and let go of our agenda and let God lead us.”
So how does he help people do that? Humbly. “We don’t pretend to do much on a weekend retreat or one session,” Fr. Ngo says. “But we trust that people are genuine and they’re searching, so we point them in the right direction, and it’s in their relationship and encounter with the Lord that something breaks open.”
As a retreat director, Fr. Ngo also considers how to help people stay focused on their prayer life once they leave the center. He offers suggestions, including focusing on the positive; trying to live more grounded, day-by-day; and practicing the Examen if they can.
“When people discover a newfound relationship and appreciation of this very personal God, they begin to trust that relationship, and things in their life change,” he says.
For Fr. Ngo, his journey is a mystery. “The more I walk with the Lord, the more I realize I don’t know where I’m going. I often call it an adventure in grace. Grace keeps pouring grace upon grace.”
Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuitvocations.org for more information.