By Theresa Carson
Religious life has come full circle for Father Thịnh Cường Ngô SVD, 32. On Saturday, Most Rev. Ronald Hicks, auxiliary bishop of Chicago and appointed bishop of Joliet, ordained him and three of his confreres.
Some future priests begin thinking of a religious vocation while in elementary school but not Father Thịnh. As a high school student, he explored different potential career paths—business marketing, emergency medical technology, firefighting—but when his grandfather died in the summer of 2008, his questions about the future became more profound.
Four days after the funeral, he attended Marian Days in Carthage, Mo. That gathering of Vietnamese Catholic changed his life. He noticed the radiant joy of the priests and brothers at the event and decided that he wanted that same sense of peace.
Father Thịnh, who was born and raised in California, attended Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa, and did work-study in the Vocation Office for three years. He graduated in 2013, and the following year, he professed vows with the Society of the Divine Word. Now as a priest, he has begun his first assignment with the Chicago Province as a vocation director.
“Being a vocation director is something that I have always been interested in, but I was surprised that they assigned me to that job so early,” he said with a smile.
The COVID-19 pandemic also was unexpected. His final semester of studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago switched from in-person to online. Graduation, ordination and his first Mass were put on hold. “It’s not how we imagined it,” he said.
But he found a silver lining in the postponements: Ordination was rescheduled for Aug. 15. Not only does the day mark the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, it also is the ordination anniversary of St. Arnold Janssen, founder of the Society of the Divine Word, and Father Thịnh’s grandfather’s birthday.
“He had a huge impact on my vocation,” he said. “His death was hard for me. That day [his birthday] has a lot of meaning for me. He is looking over us. I get the feeling that someone is guiding me along the way.”
As part of his formation, Father Thịnh was sent to Chile for his Cross-Cultural Training Program (CTP). First, he lived and studied the Spanish language in Santiago for six months. For the remaining 18 months, he served at two ministry sites: Colegio de Germania del Verbo Divino, a school run by the Divine Word Missionaries in Puerto Varas, and Parroquia Nuestra Señora de Lourdes in Osorno.
“My whole overseas experience affirmed my vocation. It gave me a clear understanding of missionary life—the good and the bad—and an appreciation of cultures, languages and foods,” explained this self-described foodie. “Food makes me more open. It gives me an openness to embrace and appreciate different cultures.”
He expressed gratitude for the people who have been a part of his life.
“There’s so much support in religious community life,” he said. “You need a lot of support and encouragement on every step of the journey. I experienced the grace of God through people I encountered. God guides me. Even though there were challenges along the way, at various points, there are so many more graces along the way.”
Before COVID-19, Father Thịnh served as a transitional deacon at Queenship of Mary, a predominantly Vietnamese parish in Glen Ellyn, Ill. He graduated from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.
Due to the unusual circumstances of the pandemic, the one-time Vocation Office student intern has already begun his new job as a vocation director.
“I would never have imagined that I would go back to the college,” he said. “Things are coming full circle.”
What words of encouragement will he share with young people who find the pandemic distressing?
“Hope in the future and be patient,” he said. “One of my hopes and dreams is to encourage the youth to follow this call. I want to accompany them and give them another perspective of religious life.”
If you or someone you know is interested in learning more about religious life, contact the Vocation Office at firstname.lastname@example.org.