As I remember my 25th high school reunion this year, I celebrate my 20th anniversary as a member of the Society of Jesus. In the next year, I will celebrate my 10th year as a priest in the Catholic Church. The journey as a refugee from Saigon, Vietnam to serving as a Jesuit priest in the Theology Department at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska has its roots in a devout Roman Catholic family. My parents gave me the gift of faith, and they deepened that faith when they sent me to Loyola Academy, where I was introduced to the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola and the richness of the liberal arts. As the liberal arts tradition enters a period of decline due to external pressures and self-inflicted wounds, I consistently draw upon the Jesuit Catholic heritage to encourage students, that what remains of the liberal arts is worth studying and embracing. Jesuit education prepares students for the ever-changing world by rooting them in a learned tradition, helping them know themselves, and fostering creativity in them.
The teachers who bestowed on me the gifts of remembering the past, managing the present, and creating the future are Mr. Michael Bliss, Mr. Jack Rosenberger, and Dr. James Lalley. Toward the end of my freshman year at Loyola Academy, I found myself enjoying the discipline of history was encouraged to take Mr. Bliss’ A.P. European History course. His course introduced me to renown figures, such as Peter the Great, and lesser known but still remarkable figures, such as the young members of the White Rose. I grew fascinated with biographies of persons who shaped history or resisted becoming a casualty of history. Most importantly, Mr. Bliss sowed the seeds of the love for the history of ideas within me. Mr. Jack Rosenberger in his Juniors Ethics class instilled in me a love for philosophical thinking and reliance on primary sources. His warnings against the pitfalls of moral relativism and social Darwinism remain with me every single time I walk into my classroom. Of course, I am now confronted with the gaping danger of nihilism at the dawn of Generation Z. By the force of his nature, Mr. Rosenberg encouraged students toward a daily discernment of the meaning and purpose of one’s existence. To this day, I like to think that his passionate Socratic call to an examined life is alive in well in my classrooms. Dr. Lalley gave me a sacramental imagination in his British Literature course. He taught me how writers, such as Graham Greene, envisioned grace in a fallen world, allowing me to realize the intimate connection between beauty and hope. He instilled in me the belief that grace is never a prisoner of human stubbornness and spiritual paralysis, but continually liberates persons, stirring in hearts the desire to be men and women for others. As God opens up a future for us, we, in turn, create a future for other people, a returning love for love.
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These three teachers from my awkward, introverted adolescent years at Loyola Academy helped to form me as a theologian priest, whose interests lie within the fields of martyrdom, theological aesthetics, and nihilism. Who would have thought that a Vietnamese refugee born in 1974 would be researching ideas pervading the societal crisis before the ascent of National Socialism and introducing Edith Stein, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rupert Mayer, and Alfred Delp to Millennials and Generation Z? I know my students come to Creighton because it is a good school that will help them get a job or get into professional school. However, I hope that they see the goal of a Jesuit education is not just to produce goods but to build a culture of life. Forming men and women for others is an idealistic task but St. Ignatius had the fire of the Spirit burning within his soul. This dynamism was passed on to me by Mr. Michael Bliss, Mr. Jack Rosenberger, and Dr. James Lalley. For that, I am grateful. AMDG.
Fr. Peter Nguyen, SJ, is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Creighton University. (Full Bio Here) He is a member of the Board of Trustees at the College of the Holy Cross and will be a Research Fellow at Boston College this upcoming spring. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto in 2016. From 2002 – 2005, he taught theology at the rival Jesuit high school in the Near West Side of Chicago – St. Ignatius College Prep.