For ten years, Fr. Jay Jung welcomed Catholic parishioners and visitors to Tuba City and Kayenta, AZ. A priest of the Vincentians, Fr. Jung first came to the diocese in 2012, and quickly had to adjust to a climate and a way of life very different from his native Chicago.
In the fall of 2022, Fr. Jung’s superiors reassigned him to Perryville, Illinois, bringing his time in the diocese to a close. But the people and the rural Navajo parishes to which he gave a decade of his life will always be close to his heart, as he expressed in an interview with The Voice of the Southwest.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell us about the Vincentians?
Our founder, St. Vincent de Paul, devoted himself primarily to those people not served, the outcast, those overlooked. And in his day, they were poor country people [in France]. When given a large former monastery, that’s where he really started our community functioning. But his desire was always to send our men to where the people were not being served.
When we came to the United States in the early 1800s, we came as missionaries. And although we were sent as missionaries, to help and work with the poor, the greatest need the bishops were calling for when dioceses were formed was priests. Not only to bring them in from Europe, but to start having seminaries and train men to become priests. And that’s what the Vincentians were also doing in France, and in Europe. In helping the poor, in helping those overlooked, you need a strong clergy for the welfare and strength of the church, so Vincent began training men to be priests, which developed into a seminary system.
Now, we’re less and less in seminary education because dioceses can take care of that themselves, so we’re seeking to still be in our parishes and to be in places like the rez. The difficulty is, our vocations are also down, so we just don’t have the men to keep that up. And so, many dioceses we were in for many years, we’ve just had to leave and not be there because we couldn’t commit ourselves. And you need younger men, in many ways. Especially on the [reservation], all the driving – you’re really on your own.
It’s just never-ending, as far as getting things done that maybe have nothing to do with religion or anything. You know, your boiler, your water, your telephone, your internet – all that kind of stuff that you rely on to keep functioning.
We want to be there, but we just didn’t have the men. I mean, I’m in my 70’s. The majority of our men are in the 55-80 age group. So you can only do so much. Where we’d like to be, we can only do very limited, because we just don’t have the manpower anymore.
Our commitment is working with the poor, and evangelizing, and living in community and prayer and togetherness, and I just never had that [in the diocese]. My provincial said “you need to be part of a community.”
Having been there ten years, I did what I could, and would have continued there, but there were no other Vincentians he could send.
Is that a big part of it, the community?
Oh yes, yes. Vincent de Paul believed that to spread the message, you can’t just do it as a lone ranger. I was lucky in Tuba City to have the Daughters of Charity, because they’re the female side of the Vincentians – St. Vincent de Paul founded our priests and brothers, and St. Louise de Marillac founded the Daughters of Charity. And you can’t substitute community unless you have men to live with. And as much as I would talk to guys on the phone, or do the online meetings, it’s certainly not the same.
How did you discover your vocation as a Vincentian?
Well, to be quite honest, I went to high school seminary at age 14. And when I was in eighth grade in Chicago, there were a good number of high school seminaries. It was very common. You had all the nuns in grade schools. They were helpful in recruiting boys, giving info to the pastor or the other priest of the parish [about students with potential vocations].
I would like to think, by God’s providence, it was a good fit for me – the Vincentians, what they did, just how they approached life. I just felt comfortable, I fit in. After high school I wanted to continue, I continued the novitiate, then I went to college and our college seminary was here in Perryville, Missouri, the first place we landed in the United States. So I spent four years of college here, and coming from Chicago, it was my first experience of rural America and the rural Church.
My first 20 years of ordination, I was in Chicago – mostly at DePaul University. But when given the opportunity to serve in a parish it ended up being in rural Colorado and I enjoyed that experience
So the works of the community – with the poor, parish, education – fit me. The community life fit me.
Any projects that you accomplished there that you’re proud of?
In Tuba City, we were given a very generous grant from a family, and with that money I was able to organize the parishioners of St. Jude to give input on where we should spend the money. I wanted input that would give ownership to the parish and have them understand what we’re up against and what needs to be done.
And with that money we ended up fixing and putting a new roof on the gym, which is our parish hall in Tuba City. We were able to do a lot of work in the church – a new furnace system, which eventually resulted in heating and air conditioning, not just a swamp cooler.
Through that, we had a family visit from Texas and they were impressed with the work we had done in the church. They volunteered to pay for new pews, and so we actually got beautiful hardwood pews in the church at St. Jude.
I knew we could never take care of all that just on what we were able to make. I think certainly the parishioners appreciated it and felt a part of it.
Is there anything in particular about the Diocese, your parishes and people that you’ll miss?
There’s something to be said for these small parishes where you really know the people. You really know the people’s stories. So when you celebrate the sacraments – whether it’s reconciliation, Eucharist, First Communion, baptisms – you really know the people.
They’re good, good people on the rez.
It’s just such a unique part of the country. And the culture, I felt after ten years I was familiar with their stories and who they were. I certainly couldn’t consider myself an expert. But I knew a lot and it was fascinating and it’s a history [most people] have no idea about.
Have you taken any spiritual lessons from your time in the diocese?
Very much so. When I got out to Gallup and the rez, it was even more distance [than Colorado] and fewer priests. And I talked to the men in rural ministry, they said “All the books you’ve been putting aside, that you never had time to read, now you’ll be able to read them. All the time you wanted to have more prayer life, you’ll have the time for that.”
The whole ethos of Native Americans, their connection with the land and ecology, how that changed my prayer life. I really slowed down. You live in Chicago, you go fast everywhere. But once I got on the rez, and after years and years, I realized “this is a good way to live”. Slow down, get your breath in, have time to do things.
[Seeing how the Navajo people have] a great devotion to Mary, Mother of God, and how women play such a prominent role in Navajo culture – it’s matrilineal. And then when you blend that with our faith, and how they are really attracted to Mary and Marian devotion – it’s really beautiful.
There was never a rush [at Mass], a sense of “let’s get this over”. I can’t tell you how many times tourists would come and say “Oh Father, it’s a beautiful Mass”. Well yeah, because [the Navajo] really understand the depths of prayer, the Creator. And there was really a sense of hospitality, for newcomers. Our people took that seriously and relished it.
You don’t have the things you think you’ll need, and you make do without it. And the faith of the people makes up for some of it.
Anything final words you’d like to leave us with?
My best to everyone – prayers to everyone, prayers for the bishop, and the leadership and the pastors. I think all the priests on the [reservation] are being stretched, like priests throughout the country.
Just know that people here are praying for them.