On the wall of Fr Trac Nguyen’s office at All Hallows Church in Balwyn is a special poster. It features an image of a man casting out his fishing net and reads, Here I am among you who serves. It is the motto of his ordination to the priesthood, which took place almost two years ago, and a reminder of his mission to be of service. As we celebrate National Vocations Awareness Week (1-8 August), Fr Trac shares his story of joyful mission.

Fr Trac Nguyen is a young and vibrant priest, who currently assists Fr Brendan Reed in the Catholic communities of Camberwell, Balwyn and Deepdene in Melbourne’s east. Together they serve the five parishes of Basilica of Our Lady of Victories, Camberwell; All Hallows Church, Balwyn; Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, Deepdene; Our Holy Redeemer Church, Surrey Hills and Our Lady of Perpetual Succour Church, Surrey Hills.

At 30-years-of age, Fr Trac is an energetic and passionate young man who enjoys the riches that ‘diocesan spirituality’ brings to his life, and to those he serves. On the weekend you’ll find him in the Church sacristy 45 minutes before Mass is due to start. He sets up the books, the chalice and paten, and generally gets things organised. Then he puts on his alb and stole and waits out front to greet people as they arrive. It’s not unusual to hear laughter in his parish, he explained, as people enjoy spending time together.

‘The people around me, the parishioners, are always encouraging me and always give meaning to my priestly vocation,’ he said. ‘The diocesan spirituality is the spirituality where you are nourished in your vocation with the people of God, within the local community of the parish. I really enjoy parish life.’

He also enjoys celebrating the sacraments of marriage and baptism with families, and holds a special place for the celebration of a Funeral Mass.

‘For a funeral in particular, I really put myself into that moment,’ he said. ‘I know a lot of people who come to funerals are not practising Catholics, but this is the moment when you can touch them with your vocation because they’re in a very vulnerable moment of their family life – someone has just passed away.

‘I ask, “how can I make them feel at home?” and I think at that moment they need a priest who will listen to them and be with them at the level of who they are in this very heartbroken moment. It’s also an opportunity to celebrate the life of the person, and the funeral is a beautiful way to do this. That’s why I love doing funerals.’

Whether it’s a Funeral Mass or the ordinary Sunday Mass, Fr Trac said he gives 100 per cent of himself. ‘I can put myself totally into the celebration and a lot of people after Mass usually say, “It’s wonderful! It’s great to see a young and happy priest”. Why am I like this? Because it’s really in my heart’.

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Fr Trac explained that becoming a priest wasn’t a dramatic or big decision, but rather, a natural progression due to his earlier life experience. Born in Vietnam, he moved from the family home in the countryside, aged 12, to live in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) to gain ‘a better education’.

He lived with a priest and four other young men for eight years. They were considering the priesthood, but for Fr Trac at the time, he was ‘too young, happy and joyful’ to think about this. Rather, he focussed on his education, and enjoyed living with these men and ‘seeing the priests in their natural environment’. He also helped serve at Mass.

In 2010 he moved to Melbourne to join his two older sisters who had already moved to Australia, and who owned a Vietnamese restaurant in Richmond. When he wasn’t studying, he was a waiter at the restaurant. Here, he regularly met diocesan priests who ate at the restaurant, and again witnessed priests in their ‘natural and human nature’. He befriended a number of the priests, including then Director of Vocations, Fr Binh Le, and was soon attending Catholic men’s gatherings and retreats. In 2011 he was employed as a sacristan at St Patrick’s Cathedral and was further nurtured in this environment.

‘When I came my English was terrible,’ said Fr Trac. ‘I didn’t know many words in English, so Fr Binh just slowly guided me through things. Fr John Salvano helped me with English and Archbishop [Emeritus] Denis Hart, of course, was wonderful. My English was very bad, but they didn’t give up on me.’

When Archbishop Hart asked about his plans after university – he’d been studying Information Technology and Software Engineering – Fr Trac mentioned that he was thinking about the priesthood, but for Vietnam. Upon the Archbishop’s suggestion to consider Melbourne, Fr Trac agreed. He left his studies to join Corpus Christi Seminary in Carlton in 2013 and was ordained to the priesthood on 7 September 2019 at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne.

‘I enjoyed my time at the seminary; it all felt very natural,’ he said. ‘The nature of the priesthood was in me because I had lived with the parish priest for eight years and when I came to Melbourne, I met many priests at the restaurant and got to know their nature and this became my nature. I thought, “I would love to live that life”, so that inspired me to become a priest.’

‘I think I’ve been lucky. I’ve been around so many good priests. I enjoy their company – [then] Archbishop Denis Hart, Fr John Salvano, Fr Binh Le, Fr Brendan Reed, Fr Joe Caddy and a lot of other very good priests inspire me with their lives.’

‘I can see the human nature in their priestly life, which inspires me a lot. Along with their human nature, they have done a marvellous job for the people of God in Melbourne and overseas.’

When not serving at Mass, you can also find Fr Trac serving at his sisters’ Vietnamese restaurant, now located in Frankston. He enjoys spending time with his family, but he particularly enjoys serving the food and being among the people in this way. ‘I go to the restaurant and help them with the meals, bringing food to the table, and I meet the parishioners there. They get a shock to see their parish priest serving at the restaurant, but this is good for them to see.

‘I enjoy bringing the dishes which are cooked by my sister, my brother-in-law, to the table. They know I am a priest and when I help to bring out the food at the restaurant, they really think about what is happening. I just do it, serving is in my nature.’

Fr Trac is also Chaplain at Genazzano FCJ College and one of eight vocations promoters in the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne. As a vocations promoter, Fr Trac hopes to visit parishes and secondary schools in the eastern region, to help build relationships with parish priests and parishioners, and to share his story.

‘I think the more we talk about vocations in local parishes, the better. Perhaps it will kick off the thinking of the young people. As a vocation promoter, I would love to share my story with young people – how I left home, what I did and how I came to realise this vocation. I would share with them the joy of serving and being available to others – serving the Eucharist, serving the sacraments and also serving at a dinner table, whether at home or at my sisters’ restaurant.

‘But we can’t rush it,’ he said. ‘We have to take time to listen and of course to allow the Holy Spirit to do the job too. We do what we can at our human level, but we also need to allow God and the Holy Spirit to invite that person to take on the journey.

‘We’re not sure what the future will hold for us, but my philosophy is that I live every single day of my life as my last day, so I just put full energy into everything. I hope my story inspires young people in many ways.’

If you’re interested in exploring a call to follow Christ more deeply, please contact Fr Jerome Santamaria, Vocations Director for the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, or visit the Vocations website.