He’s affectionately known as “cha”- Vietnamese for “dad” – and for years he’s served as the Catholic chaplain at the University California, Irvine.
True to his nickname, Fr. John Francis Vu, a Jesuit priest first ordained in 1997, considers his congregation a large, close-knit family.
“I am their confessor, spiritual director, priest and parent,” he said on a recent Tuesday evening inside his office at St. Ann Elizabeth Seton, the Irvine church that serves as a home for the university’s more than 400 Catholic students. “We worship together, work together and learn to grow together on our spiritual journey.”
The UC Irvine Catholic community is part of the Diocese of Orange’s university campus ministries, which are aimed at helping students at secular universities find a spiritual home during an important leg of their spiritual journey, while connecting them to other students who share their faith. The university is home to three student ministries and a flourishing RCIA program.
Students said they are attracted to the university’s Catholic student groups for a variety reasons – some are looking for a new place to worship and celebrate their faith after being away from home for the first time, others are looking to join strong communities of like-minded students.
“It’s a place where we can grow in faith,” said Rio Arias, a 2nd-year student from San Diego studying biomedical engineering. Rios said the youth ministry empowers students to remain connected to Catholicism at a time when many of their peers fall away from religion.
‘We’re a diverse family of students helping each other form a great foundation of faith,” he said.
Young adults encounter a variety of new challenges in college and are often faced with important decisions that could direct their spiritual journey for the rest of their lives. Spiritual and faith communities can provide support.
Fr. Vu said he works to make sure students know they are not alone – both in their challenges and in their joys.
“We see all types of students faced with all types of issues,” he said. “It’s important for all young people to know that God has a place for them in this world and in His heart.”
“Together, we understand the importance of mercy and compassion,” Fr. Vu added. “The students learn together to see that within their own strengths and weaknesses there’s a call to rise.”
Through his work as UC Irvine’s Catholic chaplain, Vu has seen countless young adults who were once faced with daunting challenges persevere to find success: those who once struggled with school that went on to graduate, lonely students who went on to find lifelong friends and get married, the students who contemplated their greater calling who went on to join the U.S. Armed Forces or the priesthood.
Regardless of their path, many students stay in touch with Vu long after they’ve left the university, providing updates on their lives and thanking him for his guidance.
“The students are the ones who nurture me and teach me my faith,” he said.
The Catholic student community at UC Irvine is the largest of its type in Orange County. About 400 students attend Mass at Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Church on Sunday, and additional Masses are held five nights each week. In their free time, students often organize fundraisers to help charities and volunteer for local nonprofit organizations that provide support and care to the afflicted, including a local convalescent home.
Many often find a higher spiritual calling through their experience. Six of the Diocese of Orange’s current seminarians were once members of the university’s Catholic community.
On a recent evening, students in the Liwanag-Filipino Catholic Community ministry celebrated Mass in the parish hall at Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. Backpacks and shoes were left at the door. One student sat at the piano, another played the guitar as the students sang together. Then they sat crossed legged on the floor, listening as Vu spoke of the importance of love and forgiveness.
“You have a right not to like some people,” Fr. Vu said, citing Jesus’ teachings on mercy. “But you don’t have the right not to love them.”
Student Judith Ramon was introduced to the university’s Catholic community by her roommates. Now she attends daily Mass and is a member of HOPE – Hearts Openly Praying Everywhere, a Catholic student ministry devoted to fellowship and prayer.
“We are college students living out our faith,” said Ramon, who grew up in a low-income community in south Los Angeles and wants to enter the health care field after graduating. “Most of who I am is because of my faith. I find a joy here that I can’t find anywhere else.”