Something extraordinary is happening in Rome. Not only do we have the first pope from Latin America, taking the name of Francis, but for the first time in history a woman, Professor Mary Melone of the Franciscan Sisters Angeline, has been appointed rector of the Pontifical University Antonianum. Then there is Fr Dinh Anh Nhue Nguyen, the first Vietnamese to be appointed dean/president of the Pontifical Theological Faculty of St. Bonaventure – Seraphicum.
Signs of the times? Or perhaps under Pope Francis the universal Church is becoming more representative? ZENIT asks Fr Dinh Anh Nhue Nguyen for his thoughts on this matter. At 46, the new dean/president is a professor of biblical theology at the Seraphicum. He has also taught at Catholic Theological College – University of Divinity in Melbourne, Australia, at the Pontifical Gregorian University (from 2008), and from the current year at the Pontifical Urbaniana University. Among several awards received, in 2014 he was honoured with the “Martini International Award” in the “Bible and Culture” section for his research entitled “The Bible and Asian Cultures: Reading the Word of God in Its Cultural Background and in the Vietnamese Context.”
Dear Father Dinh Anh Nhue Nguyen, tell us a bit about yourself. Why did a very talented electronic engineer decide to become a Franciscan friar?
Father Dinh Anh Nhue Nguyen: Well, maybe it’s a bit exaggerated to say “very talented.” Regarding my choice to become a Franciscan friar, the Lord led me among the various vicissitudes of life. In short, I wanted to dedicate my life to the Lord in the early teens, dreaming of becoming a priest after the example of a Redemptorist priest who took care of us children and young people in the parish. However, it was not possible for me at that time to chase that dream because of various difficulties. My parents then advised me to keep studying and progress as far as possible in my studies. They said, “then you will see: what you learn now will be useful even if you become a priest.” The Lord then guided me in my academic journey. After high school, I passed the exams to enter university and I had the opportunity to study abroad in Russia. While at university, the Lord introduced me to the Franciscan friars and afterwards, remembering my “dream” as a child, and inspired by their example of fraternity and missionary spirit, I made application to start the journey of priestly formation in the Order of Friars Minor Conventual.
Even your itinerary is unique: from Vietnam to Russia to Poland and then Italy. Why this pilgrimage?
Father Dinh Anh Nhue Nguyen: In all, there was the mighty hand of the Lord. I can say this now. As a matter of fact, I never thought of such a path. From Russia, the friars sent me to Poland for the initial religious formation: the postulancy, novitiate and three years of seminary. Then I was transferred to Rome to complete my theological studies. So, after the Bachelor, I obtained a Licentiate and Doctorate in Sacred Theology. I had then a teaching post at the Faculty. And here I am.
You are from Vietnam, a beautiful country, but where Catholics have faced hostility for decades. Were you born Catholic or did you encounter Christianity in the course of your life?
Father Dinh Anh Nhue Nguyen: I was born into a Catholic family, at least third generation Christians. I was baptized when I was one month and three days old. And I hold within me the Christianity lived in Vietnam, enriched by personal contact with Christianity in Poland and in various regions of Italy. I always thank God for all these experiences of faith. In the words of St. Paul, I give thanks to God and to his mercy, that I am now what I am.
You are the first Vietnamese to guide a Roman Pontifical Faculty. It is a great novelty. How do you explain it?
Father Dinh Anh Nhue Nguyen: Maybe you can see in this choice the desire for continuity by our superiors, because before I held the position of vice-president of the Faculty. But, actually, it is perhaps a mystery like the rest of our lives.
Is this a sign of the times? A new reality?Of Asian Christians who come to Rome? Of the great quality and goodness of the new generation of Asian priests?
Father Dinh Anh Nhue Nguyen: Whether it is a sign of the times, I don’t know for sure. The point that I see clearly and that I want to emphasize is this: in every age, in every place and in every nation, God always calls and prepares men and women for his service, giving them the necessary graces to carry out their assigned task.
How are Christians in Vietnam today? And the Franciscans in Asia? And what are the contributions that the Dean/President of the Seraphicum can bring to Vietnam, to Asia and to the universal Church?
Father Dinh Anh Nhue Nguyen: The situation of Christians in Vietnam is getting better, although there are still many things to be improved. The Franciscans, too, are doing quite well. Thank God, there are vocations and therefore, like the whole Church in Vietnam, we are a dynamic reality in the society. As for the possible contribution of the Seraphicum as a Pontifical Theological Faculty, we can do many things in the areas of religious formation and the new evangelization, starting from our two academic specializations: Christology and contemporary Franciscanism. In particular, an in-depth discourse on Christ is strongly needed in Asia, where, due to various non-Christian religious traditions, there still exists a lot of confusion and misunderstanding on the figure of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the only Saviour of the world. One particular challenge is how we can update, acculturate, and inculturate the proclamation of Christ and the Christian message in new contexts. It is exactly for this purpose that here, at the Seraphicum, we have founded the FIATS – Franciscan Theological Institute for Asian Studies. I think all this is relevant not only in Asia, but also in the whole world, because we live now in a global village.
One can imagine that there will be many more Asians attending the Seraphicum. Is that correct?
Father Dinh Anh Nhue Nguyen: Well, that depends on many factors. Studying in Rome is not so easy for a friar from Asia, let alone for a layman, even though many would like to do it. And the economic factor is significant: staying in Rome to study is expensive. Therefore, our Faculty is seeking funds and donors to help young Asian people, and non-Europeans in general, who wish to pursue their studies here but who have no means, to deepen their knowledge of Christological and Franciscan values, and transmit them in their country of origin.
What is your dream?
Father Dinh Anh Nhue Nguyen: We want to give to all a qualified theological, Christological and Franciscan formation, for the Church and for the world. In recent months following my appointment, I have been able to talk with many professors of our Faculty and have seen a widespread and ardent desire to offer here, at the Seraphicum, not only academic intellectual formation, but also an integral formation of future priests and theologians, experts in Christology: a formation founded on the rock which is Christ. With a new style of doing theology together in the community, we try to promote with more enthusiasm and courage studies in Christology and contemporary Franciscanism, which are the two fields of specialization entrusted to us by the Church.
But, beyond the specifically academic development, I dream of a Faculty in which every member, regardless of whether a professor or student, regardless of the activities they are carrying out, commit themselves to Christ, live by Christ, in order to pass on to others not some abstract idea but the living Christ, with the love and the zeal that St. Francis had for Christ.
Facing the world today, more than ever we can and must cry out again with St. Francis: Love is not loved. Yes, the Love of God incarnate, Jesus Christ, remains paradoxically still little known and so little loved. To say it with a Franciscan bishop: announcing Christ, making him known and loved to all through every activity of life, including the academic, this is the vocation of Franciscans of every age. It is therefore the vocation of our Faculty, the vocation of each of us today. And with Saint John Paul II and the whole Church we want to shout again to the world: “Open wide the doors to Christ.”
How do you see your projects from the perspective of the great revolution that Pope Francis is working in the Church of Rome?
Father Dinh Anh Nhue Nguyen: We are in tune with the Pope and learn to operate in all things with his spirit. Here let me mention three fundamental points. First of all, the special attention to the poor and the marginalized, to which the Church seeks to offer, together with the necessary material aid, the bread of life which is Christ. Second, the Pope always stresses the positive role of the peripheries or suburbs in the vision of faith and theological reflection. Well, we’re right in the peripheries of Rome, as we stand in the EUR district, close to the Abbey of the Three Fountains. Also the size of our Faculty is, so to speak, “peripheral” or “marginal” in relation to major academic centers of Rome. But all this is to our advantage: being on the peripheries of the center! We are therefore, on the one hand, in strict communion with the center, but on the other hand, thanks to the positioning and the “peripheral” dimension we can reflect more calmly and focus better on the fundamental themes of the Christian faith as well as of our society. Finally, the importance of the integral education/formation of the religious and Christian vocation. We do not form here a club of self-indulging, self-referencing intellectuals, but we try to reflect on and explore together the pearl of the Christian faith as the base of real life and at the service of a living faith that always requires greater understanding.
Another academic year is behind you. How do you look towards the next year? What are the challenges that the Faculty will face?
Father Dinh Anh Nhue Nguyen: Yes, we have closed an intense academic year for which we thank the Lord. I also thank the outgoing dean/president Fr Domenico Paoletti, professors, students, and our supporters and benefactors whom we remember in our prayer. Now, as St. Paul says, forgetting the past, we are reaching out to the future with steadfast trust that the Lord will guide us again. There will be many challenges, but I would like to mention only one, the biggest perhaps and most fascinating one: the journey towards unification of Franciscan academic centers to establish the only Franciscan University in Rome. In this process, many details are yet to be reflected on and determined, but one thing is certain: we will enrich each other and join forces to better serve the Church and the world. I would like also to take this opportunity to thank the ZENIT staff and readers for your fraternal support, and I humbly ask a Hail Mary for this “peripheral” faculty, so that we may faithfully fulfill our vocation and the service entrusted to us.