By Jerry Duggan
In his senior year of undergraduate studies at the University of the South (Sewanee), Sylvester Tan was awarded a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, which granted him the opportunity to travel around the world. He sees the timing as providential and a force that ultimately led him to enter the Society of Jesus.
Growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta with a Vietnamese-American father and a French-American mother, Tan’s faith was tested from the outset.
“My family was a strong Catholic family, but I was not surrounded by many Catholics in my childhood,” Tan said. “I think this made my faith stronger and more intentional.”
His most significant hobby as a young man was the Boy Scouts. This provided him with exposure to the natural world and a certain adaptability that he thinks proved formative in his vocational discernment and overall approach to life.
“Spending time in nature camping, backpacking and hiking, I experienced a sense of God’s grandeur – something bigger than myself,” he recalled. “Later, through my religious vocation, I would come to a deeper understanding of what I had felt moving in my heart.”
His experiences in scouting also instilled in him an ability to live in, and deep desire for, community – another lesson that he has been able to apply in his Jesuit vocation.
“I can often tell when I meet another Jesuit who has been involved in scouting,” he said. “Being able to overcome adversity, to acquire life skills, perseverance and a basic trust that things will turn out okay; these are all things my time in scouting taught me.”
He stayed active in scouting into his young adult years, getting deeply involved in its Exploring (now Venturing) program and ascending to the role of national vice president in the National Exploring Cabinet.
He continued to be involved in scouting during his studies at Sewanee, where he kept his faith but lived what he characterizes as a “typical college lifestyle.”
He performed well academically but felt stuck in a rut.
“I knew I wanted to change my life, and I felt called to something deeper, I just didn’t know exactly what,” he recalled.
After being awarded a Watson Fellowship, he embarked on years outside the United States, travelling through Africa and Asia before studying philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
While in Rome, he met regularly with a Jesuit spiritual director, fell in love with St. Ignatius’ writings and, in time, decided to enter the Society of Jesus.
Already possessing a philosophy degree, as a Jesuit in first studies he pursued degrees in French literature and medieval studies in Toronto. Next came a regency assignment at Loyola University New Orleans and a return to Toronto for theology studies.
Following his priestly ordination in 2017, Tan was assigned to Immaculate Conception Parish in New Orleans before returning to Canada to serve in a unique way.
“Being fluent in French, English and Italian, I joined the novitiate community of the Canadian province and helped to promote bilingualism there,” he explained.
After tertianship in Albuquerque and Portland, in fall 2021 he began a doctoral program in theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He hopes that this program will continue his theological formation in a distinct way.
“I’m excited to study spirituality and theology in an ecumenical context,” he said.
Father Tan believes his experiences have prepared him well for whatever his future ministry has in store.
“Because of my formative experiences (both official and unofficial), I hope to be able to serve in whatever way the Society needs.”