In a year that is becoming quite memorable for all the wrong reasons, it’s easy to forget that the rest of life simply continues around us – another season of spring is upon us, babies continue to be born, schools have continued with online learning and, it seems, not even a global pandemic can stop finals footy from being played (albeit in a slightly warmer climate).
This year has undoubtedly delivered some heavy punches. However, it’s also provided opportunities for us to reimagine the way we live, work and interact with one another.
For Fr Trac Nguyen, who recently celebrated his one-year anniversary as a priest for the Archdiocese, it’s certainly been a year to remember.
‘It has been a year since my ordination. This limited time of ministry is nothing compared to many priests in the Archdiocese, but it has been a fruitful, wonderful and blessed time.’
Fr Trac was born in Vietnam, the youngest of four children. His father passed away when he was only two years old and by the age of twelve, Trac left his mother and siblings to study in the city of Saigon.
‘After some time, I felt called to dedicate my life to the Lord, dreaming of becoming a priest,’ he says. ‘The diocesan spirituality was quietly planted into my heart. However, it was not possible for me at that time to follow my dream. My family advised me to keep progressing in my studies.’ In 2010, Trac was given the opportunity to do further studies in IT in Melbourne.
‘A few years later, the Lord, who had never given up on me, introduced me again to diocesan spirituality. I was involved in my local parish [St Patrick’s Cathedral, East Melbourne], and served at Mass, and was surrounded by many fine and dedicated diocesan priests in the Archdiocese of Melbourne.’
Following his ordination in 2019, Trac was appointed as Assistant Priest of Camberwell, Balwyn and Deepdene Parishes [otherwise known as the ‘CBD Parishes’], where he had also spent his time as a Deacon.
‘Immediately after my ordination, I was appointed as an Assistant Priest of CBD Parishes: a community of over 10,000 Catholics across two parishes, three churches, a parish primary school and a retirement village. There are also eight aged care facilities and a hospital in the boundary of the Parish.
‘My first challenge coming to these parishes was that the three communities are quite unique and different in living their faith,’ said Fr Trac.
‘It includes the weekend congregations across three churches. They are quite educated parishioners including many successful businessmen and women, lawyers, judges, doctors, priests, senior lecturers at CTC and YTU who join the various communities as parishioners each weekend.
‘It puts enormous pressure on my weekend homilies and the way that I relate to them. Fortunately, they are very supportive and began with positive feedback and unceasing encouragement from the very first day.’
Within the first few months of his new role, the COVID-19 global pandemic hit, forcing the parish leadership team to adopt a new approach to ministering to the community. The parish team, including a senior pastoral associate, sacraments coordinator, stewardship coordinator, director of music and administrative assistant embraced the challenge, and Fr Trac says regular communication has proven vital throughout this time.
'Similar to all parishes of the Archdiocese, our staff, Fr Brendan and I went through the tough time of finding ways to keep a spiritual and pastoral connection with the parishioners. Fr Brendan encouraged the parish to “stay connected while socially distancing”.
‘We soon realised that social media, including websites, weekend newsletters, video messages, and Mass online were the key elements in keeping connected with all parishioners.’
Fr Trac took it in his stride, using the skills he gained as an IT professional prior to joining the seminary in 2013.
‘At a personal level, not having very much experience in pastoral skills, but having some limited skills with IT, especially in websites and software prior to training for the priesthood, I was able to offer assistance as much as I could.’
Fr Trac says the first experience of lockdown was especially busy, as during this time he began working on numerous website projects for the Parish and updating their social media presence. One of his projects included the recently launched Clergy Life and Ministry website, which he worked on with Fr Brendan and the Archdiocesan Council of Priests. The website offers diocesan priests a central platform where they can explore ongoing professional and pastoral formation.
The Pandemic wasn’t the only surprise in store for Fr Trac.
Just as the first lockdown was coming to a conclusion, it was announced that Fr Mark Reynolds, Parish Priest of the neighbouring Parish of Surrey Hills Wattle Park, would be moving to St Jude’s Parish in Scoresby.
Surrey Hills Wattle Park Parish was then partnered with the CBD Parishes, resulting in Fr Trac’s second appointment as Assistant Priest to a further two churches and two schools.
Ordinarily, being assigned to a new parish begins with meeting the new parishioners and visiting the church – neither of which has been possible with metropolitan Melbourne still in Stage 4 lockdown. ‘Learning from our earlier experience, we took the same technique, same spirit and the same mindset that communication is key during this time of crisis,’ Fr Trac says.
‘We began the process of building up the communication channels with Surrey Hills Wattle Park Parish. We have had no chance to see the parishioners and to introduce ourselves so we introduced ourselves with a video message.’
Despite the restrictions due to the pandemic, Fr Trac says COVID-19 has simply forced the parish leadership team to find new ways to connect with the local community.
‘I took the initiative of calling parishioners to assure them that while the church doors may be closed, their parishes are still open for them.’
The Pandemic has also presented some bittersweet moments for Fr Trac, including a recent experience of giving Last Rites to a COVID-19 patient at the Austin Hospital in Heidelberg.
‘It was quite a unique experience as I entered into the quarantine ward where no visitors or family have been allowed since March. Entering into the COVID-19 area, I kept reminding myself, despite the extreme emphasis on protection and personal hygiene, that I was giving the Sacrament of Anointing to a person, a human being; not treating a patient as a dangerous virus.
‘According to the nurses and doctor, 10 minutes after the anointing and my departure, the patient died peacefully. The family was quite touched that in the last moments of their father’s life, he was able to be visited by a priest on behalf of the whole family who could not be there because of the restrictions.’
Like many others, Fr Trac now spends most of his time on video calls with various groups within the parish – regular meetings with the social justice group, a parish virtual choir, video calls with the residents at the local aged care facilities and meeting students who are preparing to receive the sacraments. Just recently, he spent some time with the Grade 6 students of Our Lady of Good Counsel, Deepdene.
‘After a few minutes of getting to know one another, there were some absolutely brilliant questions from the students such as, “What can I do when I am angry? Can the Holy Spirit help?” Also, there were some questions to me about my priesthood. It was quite fascinating to hear how the young group of students wonder about the priesthood and religious life.
‘I pray that the Holy Spirit will continue to stir in the hearts of the young people with wonderings and positive thoughts about religious life.’
‘This is an extraordinary year with many external challenges for everyone, myself included,’ Fr Trac says, ‘but it is a great chance to reflect on how I live my ministry as a newly ordained priest.’