Fr. Anthony Cong Nguyen, SVD
Fr. Anthony Nguyen, SVD is a Vietnamese-American priest. Anthony graduated from Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa, in 2002, professed his first vows at Techny, Illinois, in 2003 and was ordained in 2008. He has realized his dream of ministering in Mozambique. Anthony is originally from Vietnam. His family presently lives in New Orleans.
Anthony Nguyen faced personal doubts when he enrolled in Divine Word College in 1994. He came to discern his call to religious life, but deep inside, he doubted his ability. Besides the challenge of learning English, the academic requirements for the priesthood just seemed beyond his capabilities.
“I had very low self esteem,” he said. “I didn’t think about studying philosophy or theology so that someday I would be a priest.”
The difference maker was Fr. Ken Anich, SVD, who encouraged, challenged and supported Anthony as he discovered, step-by-step, what he was truly capable of accomplishing.
Today, Fr. Anthony Cong Nguyen, SVD is on mission in Maputo, Mozambique with two other SVD priests, working among the 6000 members of Santo António da Malhangalene parish. It is meaningful work. The population is impoverished. He estimates that 80-percent of his parishioners are unemployed. Yet the people are warm, welcoming, and always willing to give what they can.
“We do our pastoral duties in the parish and outside the parish. We have 21 outstations,” he said.
But this reality today is not what he saw for himself in 1994. Thinking back to those early years at DWC, he not only suffered from a lack of confidence, but born and raised in Vietnam, his English was limited.
“At first, it was very scary and painful in the ESL program,” he said. Being a shy person, he pulled back from people, afraid to embarrass himself if they couldn’t understand what he was trying to say. “People may make a judgment of me that I was stupid. I tried to hide my stupidity. So I didn’t talk to a lot of people.”
All those challengers created a wall, preventing him from realizing his true capabilities. That was until he met Fr. Ken who says that sometimes students come to Divine Word underestimating their ability to learn. The college is well geared to address that mindset by emphasizing a basic truth: The way you are today is not the way you will be tomorrow.
When challenged properly, students very often discover abilities they never knew they had.
“This is a growth process. What I try to do with students is to ask them to stretch themselves,” Fr. Ken said. “Stretch them but also be there to support them when they struggle. Tell them, ‘You can do it.’ And then after they succeed, point that fact out to them.”
Step by step, a student’s confidence is built up. Part of it happens in the classroom. In Anthony’s case, it began with success in ESL classes. Then the challenges spread out into other areas when they are asked to take on leadership roles and accept responsibility.
But the steps can’t be too big. It’s all about setting realistic goals.
“There’s a thing in psychology that those who set goals too far beyond what they can do at one time, fail,” Fr. Ken said. “Instead,set realistic goals, but stretch them.”
Reflecting on his time at Divine Word, Fr. Anthony has some good advice to students. There were 32 in his first-year class and many of them dropped out, some after failing their first major test to move from the ESL program to a degree track.
Lesson one: Keep trying, whatever you are doing. If you don’t make it this time, you will make it next time.
“They should be patient with themselves and the people around them and they should open their minds and their hearts to learn and to ask questions,” he said. “I made a mistake for the first two years, I was afraid to ask. Later I realized that it was a stupid mistake.”
Lesson two: Trust others, especially teachers and friends, who are available to help. Underscoring that point, Fr. Ken said that working with students is an important part of formation. It’s mentoring and a long-term commitment.
“Even when a student is off my formation group, I let them know that I’m still available to them,” he said. “Even when they are overseas, I email them. Let them know that they weren’t just ‘a job.’”
Fr. Anthony is living proof of the success that can result from such commitment.
“I didn’t think I as intelligent enough,” Fr. Anthony said of his mindset in 1994, “but then later on, I realized that I was.”