February 20, 2018
One of Paulist Fr. Dat Tran’s most significant early memories was as a six-year-old fleeing Vietnam on a boat that was disguised as a fishing vessel.
“It was definitely a seminal faith experience, feeling God’s protective care,” Fr. Dat says of his family’s journey. “Even though I may not have seen it at the time.”
Fr. Dat’s parents and five older siblings became refugees to escape political and religious oppression after the Vietnam War. Under the cover of darkness, stowed in the cramped hold of a boat, the family crossed the border into Cambodia. They spent several months in a refugee camp in Thailand and then in the Philippines before settling in California.
And while Fr. Dat points out that many people met worse fates than his family, losing their lives to pirates or bad weather on the journey, he says, “It was still a traumatic experience for a young kid.”
Yet Fr. Dat grew up a fun-loving youngster, a fan of sports and playing with friends. He was not as religious as some of his family members. He was the only one of his brothers who did not become an altar server. And, he complained about weekend religious education classes so much that his mom eventually let him stay home.
As Fr. Dat entered his college years, he wanted to work toward what he saw as the American dream.
“I wanted to become a lawyer, make the money, have a good salary, meet someone, have a family,” he remembers.
Fr. Dat enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley. While attending the school that’s become a flashpoint of ideological clashes, he took a hard look at his own views.
“There was this Berkeley bias, anti-institution, and I was like, ‘I belong to one of the biggest institutions in the world,’” he recalled. The questioning led him to get involved in campus ministry. The Paulist Fathers have tended the Newman Center on Berkeley’s campus since 1907.
“I began to see the Church as a faith community,” Fr. Dat said. “My faith life became more personal. I was able to find a community to journey with.”
At the same time, his vision of the American dream was crumbling. He knew older friends who, he says, “had the job and money but didn’t seem too fulfilled.”
At this school where protests are a fixture, the Paulists’ demeanor struck him.
“There’s a lot of conflicts, polarization, people just yelling at each other,” Fr. Dat said. “I think that’s where the Paulists come in, trying to promote the idea of dialogue and listening.”
Fr. Dat’s most significant dialogue now is with men considering entering the priesthood. He’s the community’s vocation director, or, as he says “God’s talent scout.”
“I really believe in the ministry,” he said, citing the tight community bond among his brother priests. “If you are called to the Paulist Fathers, it’s a true gift, it’s a true joy.”
Though Fr. Dat embraces Jesus’ instruction to be a “fisher of men,” he’s learned that the harvest may not come overnight and to trust in the work of the Holy Spirit.
“The reel is very long,” he says. “You’re in conversation for months if not years. So it’s a lot of planting seeds. Hopefully later on they’re ready to say, ‘Yes.’”
In this era of fewer U.S. vocations, Fr. Dat says he could use a hand on the fishing mission. “I encourage everybody to do the invitation.”
Just like you’d ask a tall person if they play basketball, he says, it makes sense to ask a service-oriented man if he’s considered the priesthood.
Fr. Dat says it’s like the TSA tagline.
“If you see something, say something,” he says. “Everybody has this notion of what they’d like to see in a priest. Everybody needs to pitch in.”