By Jerry Duggan
Over their nearly 500-year history, Jesuits have searched for a new “frontier” or sacred space to encounter the Divine. A believer in the power of personal connection and student of Ignatian Spirituality, Fr. Hung Pham, SJ, provincial assistant for formation for the Jesuits USA Central and Southern (UCS) Province, normally traveled across the province, country and globe to encounter people in his ministry. As the world became engulfed by COVID-19 and travel became more restricted, the old ways of encounter ceased. In their place, the Internet has become a new sacred space of encounter.
“We Jesuits usually joke among ourselves when competing requests come in from various locations, ‘they forgot to teach us to bi-locate in school.’ However, with the current online technology available, different places can come to us,” Fr. Pham commented. He strives to respond to the various needs of people literally throughout the world. His office has become an intersection of Asia, Europe and North America.
His innovations began this spring when he led 420 people on a virtual Camino, or pilgrimage, in the spirit of St. Ignatius Loyola’s journey. Instead of traveling to Singapore to lead this event, as planned, he conducted it virtually with a do-it-yourself component. The group met online and then did some form of walk by themselves. This enabled people from all over southeast Asia to participate.
“I think this was very Ignatian,” Fr. Pham said. “Participants were able to do the walk component wherever they were, and find God in any place – home, work or even a hospital room.”
Father Pham usually returns to his native Vietnam every year to teach Jesuit scholastics, but that, too, moved online. While Fr. Pham initially lamented the
switch, he found it to have surprising benefits. His course usually has 10-11 students, but enrollment doubled with other religious and lay people able to join the virtual course. What seemed like a handicap to learning ended up a blessing.
“I’m glad we were able to have more students as a result of being virtual,” Fr. Pham said. “These online platforms have been an asset to my teaching.” His students represented all the provinces in Asia.
He also leads an online Mass in Vietnamese from his office. People from across the world – the U.S., Vietnam and all over Europe – join, and all are encouraged to
participate in the Mass as readers, cantors or another role. This recreates some of the sense of parish community lost in the transition to virtual Mass, and, according to Fr. Pham, is what is most rewarding.
“Everyone does their part to make Mass happen,” he said. “We’re all in different places but still working together to make this possible.”
Father Pham has found himself saying “yes” throughout the lockdown. He led a virtual vow renewal for 16
married couples and gave a talk to young people on adolescence and sexuality – and the requests
just keep coming.
“Once you start getting involved with this stuff, people see what you’re doing and ask you to do more,” he said. “That’s part of what I am called to do as a Jesuit priest, to be of service and help out wherever I can.”
Something that Fr. Pham once saw as an alternative at best has provided him with more ways to serve than he had in pre-pandemic times.
“I’m really grateful for all of these opportunities to serve,” he reflected. “Doing things virtually takes a little more work – you have to take extra steps to engage your participants so they still feel connected to what you’re doing. In the end, though, it’s worth it.”
This type of work is Ignatian by nature.
“Ignatius calls us to meet people where they are,” he said. “Even if people are scattered across the world in their homes, we’re still called to meet them there – and that’s what we’re doing.”