Healing at the heart of Jesuit priest’s vocation
September 20, 2019
Father Tho Vu could brag if he wanted to.
The Vietnamese immigrant and recently ordained Jesuit priest – who grew up in Holy Name Parish in Omaha – speaks seven languages, is trained as a paramedic, and is preparing to become a doctor.
He has completed studies at Creighton University, Boston College, Saint Louis University and the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Currently he’s brushing up on science at Loyola University in Chicago before going on to medical school there or at another Jesuit university.
“He just won’t stop learning,” his sister, Canecia Nguyen of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Omaha, jokes.
To Father Vu, his medical skills and advanced studies are just tools to serve others.
God gave him his talents, and they must be given back, he said. And he admits that no matter what he gives to those he serves, he gets more in return.
Father Vu says his life as a Jesuit – which he describes as walking as Christ’s companion and healing people in body and spirit, as his Master does – “gives me my own sense of humanity and a deep sense of joy,” he said.
Achievements didn’t always come easily for the 35-year-old priest, who emigrated from Vietnam at age 6 with his family. In addition to his sister, the family includes their father, Thuan Vu, and mother, Binh Le, now of Rockwall, Texas; and brothers John Vu, now of Dallas, and Loc Vu of Austin, Texas.
Each member of the family brought to Omaha just a small trunk of belongings, Father Vu said.
Holy Name proved to be a good spiritual home for the family because of the parish’s diversity and its welcoming spirit, he said. “They showed us a sense of belonging.”
But the family still had language and cultural barriers to overcome.
When he started at Dundee Elementary School, Father Vu said, “I didn’t know what recess was. I was just standing there.” He didn’t speak English, but he remembers one of the kids reaching out a hand to join him.
That experience gave him another early taste of belonging and community, he said, something that he later found and admired in the Jesuits. He now resides with a Jesuit community at Loyola in Chicago.
Father Vu graduated from Benson High School in Omaha, where he earned the respect of his teachers, said Jeanne Weeks, his high school Latin teacher who is now retired.
She described him as “an excellent student, but it wasn’t easy for him.”
With English as a second language, Vu had more hurdles than other students, said Weeks, a member of St. Cecilia Parish in Omaha, who also taught at the former Holy Name and Cathedral high schools.
“His struggle with Latin must have been something else,” she said. “He just worked and worked on it.”
The effort paid off. He became president of the high school’s National Honor Society and earned a scholarship to Creighton, where he graduated in 2007 with a bachelor of arts and science degree in emergency medicine and emergency medical services.
Father Vu’s interest in medicine began early in life.
His father, who fought for the South Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, learned different healing methods during his 12-year stay in a Viet Cong “re-education camp” following the war. He later taught his son those methods and had him put them into practice for the family.
Father Vu’s family also saw signs that he would become a priest, beginning at an early age in Vietnam.
They lived almost next door to a Catholic church and went to Mass every day at 4:30 a.m. Sometimes the older siblings grumbled when the bell rang, signaling Mass would be starting soon, his sister said. But not Tho, who was just 3 or 4 at the time and was eager to go.
Priests and nuns noticed her brother’s prayerfulness and willingness to help, Nguyen said. And so did his grandmother, the late Nu Thi Nguyen, who more than once predicted that he would become a priest.
His grandmother was instrumental to his vocation, Father Vu said.
His sister said their grandmother constantly urged her six sons and 17 grandchildren to pray, especially the rosary. “That’s all you need in your life, to pray,” she would tell them.
She prayed at least six rosaries a day during the Vietnam War, one for each son in the military, Nguyen said. And the grandmother credited the Blessed Mother for keeping them all alive, against great odds.
The Jesuits at Creighton also were key to Father Vu’s vocation, he said, as he regularly encountered them as a student.
One of those priests, his academic advisor, Father Thomas Schloemer, hinted that Vu might have a vocation with the Jesuits and eventually asked: “Have you ever thought of wanting joy in your life?”
That question struck his heart, Father Vu said. “It began to dawn on me that God was calling me to live a life of experiencing joy even when I am ‘going upstream,’ when studies, family relationships and other problems came upon me. Somehow thinking of serving God as a Jesuit priest became a real possibility for me. And at the end of college, I decided to apply to the Society of Jesus.”
Father Vu earned master’s degrees in divinity and theology from Boston College and studied philosophy at Saint Louis University and theology and other religious studies at the University of St. Thomas.
His formation had him serving in places across the United States, often with poor and minority communities, as a parish religious education director, catechist, campus minister, chaplain to a youth group and as a volunteer working with elderly with the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Outside the country, Father Vu served at a residence for the handicapped in Canada and as a missionary in India, Brazil, Honduras, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. And often, his medical skills were needed and put to good use.
“I’m just so proud of him,” his sister said. “He’s always done the best he can.”
She said her brother has always been prayerful and continued the practice of going to daily Mass when he was a student in Omaha.
But Father Vu also had challenges before he was ordained in 2018.
His cultural background instilled in him a “silent reservedness” that could have been an obstacle to being a Jesuit, because of the order’s public life, said Father Larry Gillick, a Jesuit who served as Father Vu’s spiritual advisor when he was a student at Creighton.
But Father Vu transitioned well, Father Gillick said.
Father Vu said his Vietnamese upbringing might make him more reserved, but it “enables me to listen and be present” for others. That culture also taught him a deep respect for the elderly, he said.
There are also times when a priest needs to be assertive, he said, and his training as a Jesuit has helped. “You have to be able to speak up as a priest, to make a decision and stand firm, to lead, guide and support.”
His Vietnamese heritage and Jesuit spirituality make a “good balance,” he said.
And his experience as an immigrant helps Father Vu sympathize with other immigrants and minorities, Father Gillick said.
He said he admires Father Vu’s persistence. He did not initially get permission to enter medical school. Persuading his superiors was a 12-year process, Father Vu said.
POWER IN HEALING
Healing – spiritually and physically – is what Father Vu thrives on.
“I never turn down a confession,” he said, because of the sacrament’s power and because it enables him to be with someone in need, to bring healing and alleviate suffering.
Simply “being with” people is an important part of Jesuit life, he said. “Ignatian spirituality has always taught me to be where people are at, not just physically, when they’re suffering and when they’re celebrating.”
Father Vu said he’s been told he has good bedside manner. He said he likes to linger and talk with patients and their families. “I just want to get to know them and be there for them.”
On a hospital or university campus, he said, he takes time to talk with the gardeners, nurses or other employees, who are sometimes surprised that he stops to visit.
“I never disregard those moments,” he said. “It’s not just to help them but to help me. It gives me energy and life.”