A District Attorney Becomes a Priest

by Fr. Quan Tran - Priest of the Diocese of Orange, California

I was a lawyer for almost twelve years and ten of those as a Deputy District Attorney for the County of Orange in California. I never thought that I would become a priest. Yet God knew me before I was born and fashioned me to be a priest. I had to experience life, dating, and work before I was ready to hear and answer his call. 

Divine providence was at work in my vocation before I was born. When my grandfather was twelve, something happened that changed everything. My great-grandmother was very ill and the doctors did not give her much hope. One day, as my great-grandfather was waking home after visiting her in the hospital, he passed by St. Joseph Catholic Church. Although he was not Catholic, he was desperate and he walked up to the statue of St. Joseph, knelt down and started to pray.  He asked St. Joseph to help his wife get better. He promised that if she recovered, the entire family would convert to Catholicism. 

That night, both my great-grandparents had the same dream. They dreamt that a man who looked like St. Joseph came into my great-grandmother’s hospital room, removed her stomach – the area of her illness - and replaced it with a new one. In the morning my great-grand mother was completely cured and the doctors were baffled. My great-grandparents shared the dream they had the night before and knew that it was through St. Joseph that my great-grandmother had been miraculously cured. Shortly thereafter, my great-grandparents and my grandfather were baptized into the Catholic faith. Had it not been for this miracle, my family and I might not be Catholic today.

Growing up, my grandmother was the religious one in the family. Although she converted to Catholicism when she married my grandfather, it was she who kept the practice of the faith alive in the family.  I was close to my grandmother while growing up and learned from her the Sign of the Cross and standard Catholic prayers such as the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be and the Act of Contrition.  She taught me how to go to confession and receive the Eucharist. My grandmother was instrumental in my faith formation. 

My mother also converted to the faith when she married my father.  Growing up, we were “lukewarm” Catholics.  We went to Sunday Mass and received all the sacraments of initiation – mostly because of my grandmother’s insistence.  There was never any talk about a possible vocation to the priesthood or religious life. Instead, the emphasis was on higher education and getting a well-paying job with status. 

While in college I stopped going to Mass. Secular things such as having fun and getting good grades became my focus; faith was not a priority. This continued through law school and as a lawyer.  I decided to go to law school by process of elimination.  I had graduated with a Bachelor in Business Administration in Finance but had no interest in working in that field. So the logical next step was to get an MBA or go to law school. I decided on law because I thought it would give me more options. 

My first job out of law school was as a deputy public defender in Bakersfield. It was a good experience but I knew that I did not want to live in Bakersfield for the rest of my life. So I applied to the Public Defender and District Attorney’s Office in Orange County, where I had grown up.  The D.A.’s office gave me an interview and then a job offer, which I accepted.  In 1997, I moved back to Orange County and started my career as a prosecutor; I was still not practicing my faith.  I purchased a house, bought a BMW and was dated. I was looking to find that special person, get married and start a family. But God had other plans.  

It was not until around 2001 that I started going back to Mass regularly.  I was dating a good Catholic woman who wanted me to go to Mass with her on Sundays and so I did.  This was the start of my journey back to God.  Little did I know where it would ultimately lead me.  

We dated for several months but things did not work out and we parted ways. But I kept going to Mass every Sunday.  I continued dating in the hope of meeting “the one.”  Meanwhile God was using the people around me to direct me to himself and to my true vocation.  It was only later that I came to understand who was really “the one” for me.  In early 2005, I met a woman at my parish and we started going out.  She was also a good Catholic and introduced me to the Rosary, daily Mass and Eucharistic Adoration.  She encouraged me to become an extraordinary Eucharistic Minister and then a lector.  I was growing in my faith and truly practicing it.   

At the same time, I was going through some difficulties at work.  This caused me to start thinking about other options.  I thought about getting another job or even changing careers, and started soul-searching.  I came to acknowledge that I really did not enjoy being a prosecutor (or a lawyer for that matter).   I started brainstorming to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life.  I wanted to do something that I enjoyed and was passionate about, but nothing felt right.

Out of desperation I turned to prayer (like my great-grandfather).  With my newfound faith, I approached the Lord and asked him to reveal to me what it was that I was supposed to do.  For the first time in my life, there was no fallback option; the process of elimination had led me to a dead end.

Shortly after my prayer, things started to change.  The Catholic woman I was dating asked me out of the blue if I had ever thought about becoming a permanent deacon.  I told her I had never honestly thought about becoming a deacon.  I didn’t even know what it took to become a deacon, but it probably required more school and at that point in my life I had no desire to go back to school.  But the seed was planted. 

Soon after, three other people asked me if I had ever thought about becoming a priest or deacon.  Up until this point in my life, no one had ever asked me such questions.  I found it curious that within a one-month period, after I had asked God to reveal his plans for me, four different people asked me if I had ever considered the priesthood or the diaconate.  I had never thought about either vocation and had no idea what it took to become a deacon or a priest.  So I started to search the Internet to find out more information and found myself drawn to the priesthood.  I could not really explain why.  There was this feeling that the priesthood was what I had been searching for and that this was what I was supposed to do.  The more I thought about the priesthood the more it gave me a sense of peace, joy and purpose.  I had the sense, that this was the answer to my prayer. 

I was excited and scared at the same time.  It was something new, something I had never thought about before.  But the commitment and change in life was enormous.  It was one thing to give up a career in law; it was quite another to give up the possibility of ever having a wife and family.  I always thought that I would find the right person, get married and have a family.  Celibacy was not part of the equation.  But what about the diaconate?  It would allow me to be married and have a family and be a clergyman at the same time.  But the permanent diaconate was never a consideration.  I was going to give my life to the Lord completely and totally as a priest or get married; there was no other viable option.

I continued to pray and discern God’s will for me.  One day while kneeling after communion and looking at the crucifix, I could hear Jesus speaking to my mind and heart and calling me give up everything and follow him.  Part of me wanted to say, “Yes Jesus, I will give up everything to follow you.”  But another part was not ready.  And so I prayed, “Jesus, if you want me to follow you, you have to help me give up everything because I cannot do it on my own.  If you want it, you have to make it happen.” 

The next morning I woke up with this song in my head: Everything I Own by Bread.  I went on the Internet, printed the lyrics, and read them.  The song was about losing one’s father and wishing he were still alive.  But to me, the lyrics were God’s way of telling me that I could give up everything for him, and that if I did not, the window of opportunity would close and I would regret it:

You sheltered me from harm
Kept me warm, kept me warm
You gave my life to me
Set me free, set me free
The finest years I ever knew
Were all the years I had with you

And I would give anything I own
Give up my life, my heart, my home
I would give everything I own
Just to have you back again

You taught me how to love
What it’s of, what it’s of
You never said too much
But still you showed the way
And I knew from watching you
Nobody else could ever know
The part of me that can't let go

And I would give anything I own
Give up my life, my heart, my home
I would give everything I own
Just to have you back again

Is there someone you know
You're loving them so
But taking them all for granted
You may lose them one day
Someone takes them away
And they don't hear the words you long to say

I would give anything I own
Give up my life, my heart, my home
I would give everything I own
Just to have you back again
Just to touch you once again

This was just one of many incidents in which the Lord revealed to me my vocation. 

In the fall of 2005, I made my Cursillo retreat at Marywood Pastoral Center in Orange and it was a very powerful.  Throughout the weekend, I felt a strong sense of love and grace, especially Mary’s maternal love.  I was drawn to Mary like never before.  I could not stop looking at images of our Lady.  Mary’s fiat stuck with me: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be it done to me according to your word.”  No doubt, Mary played a huge role in my vocation discernment. 

At the retreat, someone told me about a parish that was run by the Oblates of the Virgin Mary.  I started attending the parish and was impressed with one of the priests.  His preaching was clear and powerful in ways I had never experienced before.  That priest became my spiritual director.

As I was discerning, I met another woman.  I told her right away that I was discerning the priesthood in order to be upfront with her.  She was Catholic, talented, and attractive.  In fact, I thought she had all the qualities I desired in a wife.  She also developed feelings for me.  I didn’t understand why she had come into my life at that point.  Had I met her six months earlier, I could have seen spending the rest of my life with her.  But now was not a good time.  Through prayer, however, I sensed God giving me a conscious choice.  Here is this woman with whom I can settle down, or I can choose him.  If I choose her, God would bless my marriage but he was calling me to choose him.  With God’s grace I was able to choose him.  God gave me this opportunity to make a conscious decision because he did not want me to think later, “What if I had met the right person?”  God wanted me to be certain of my vocation. 

In the summer of 2006, I asked for and received a one-year leave of absence from work to try out my new vocation by entering the seminary.  My coworkers were very surprised.  Many thought I was going through a “phase” and that I would be back in less than a year. 

My family was also very surprised.  My dad, who lived in Denver, flew out to Orange County the next day to talk to me and see if I was going through any problems.  He, along with many others in my family, thought I was making a big mistake; they could not understand why I was discerning the priesthood and thought I was throwing my life away. 

Making the transition from attorney to seminarian was not easy.  I sold my house and car and gave away most of my possessions.  Getting rid of these things was not difficult.  The hardest thing was giving up my dogs.  I had four dogs and I had to find homes for them.  It was heartbreaking but the Lord gave me the grace to give them up to good homes. The new owners were very nice, emailed me pictures and updates and I was able to visit them at any time.

In 2006, I joined the Oblates of the Virgin Mary as a postulant at their seminary in Boston and began studying philosophy.  It was a new and challenging experience for me.  I had been an attorney with my own house and car who could come and go as he pleased.  Now I was living with a small religious community and had to do almost everything together with the other five seminarians: eat, pray, study, clean, recreate, etc.  It was difficult.  But with God’s help, I stuck it out for one year.  By the end of the year I discerned that the religious life or at least the Oblates of the Virgin Mary were probably not for me.  I returned to Orange County not knowing what I would do next.  But one thing was certain I did not want to be a D.A. anymore.  I tendered my resignation and turned in my badge and I.D.  I was at peace with that decision. 

But now what?  I sought the advice of a new spiritual director, a Norbertine.  He suggested that I try the Diocese of Orange before giving up on discerning the priesthood and going back into the “real world.”  And so I joined the Diocese of Orange and was sent to study theology at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California.  Right away I noticed a big difference from religious life in Boston.  There were many more seminarians and I had more freedom to pick and choose how and with whom to spend my free time.   More and more I felt that I had found my vocation.  Towards the end of my first year of theology, the Bishop of Orange gave me a choice: stay at St. Patrick’s or go to the North American College in Rome. I chose Rome.

Rome was also challenging because it was a different country with a different culture and language, and far from the familiarity and comfort of home.  But it was also a wonderful experience that allowed me to interact with many gifted seminarians and priests from all over the United States (and the world for that matter).  I also had the opportunity to experience the wonders of Rome and different parts of Europe.  Most importantly, as I continued my studies and formation it became clearer and clearer that the priesthood was my vocation. 

On July 10, 2010, by the grace of God, I was ordained a transitional deacon of the Diocese of Orange.  Many family and friends were present and I preached my first Mass as a deacon on Pentecost Sunday.  That weekend was filled with grace.  It was hard to believe that four years earlier, I had been a lawyer trying to give up everything and follow Christ.  My family and friends were proud of me.  The following summer, on June 11, 2011, I was ordained a priest.  I went back to Rome to finish my Licentiate in Sacred Theology before coming back home for good in the summer of 2012.  My first assignment has been at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Newport Beach, and my first year as a parish priest has been a rewarding and learning experience. 

I am not sure exactly what plans God has for me.  But whatever it is, I know that they are better than any plans I can make for myself.  I have entrusted by vocation to Mary, trusting in her maternal care and striving to conform myself to her.  I know that there will be challenges ahead and I try to accept and do God’s will each day.  I keep the following words from Mother Teresa close to me to remind me to trust in the Lord at all times: 

Total surrender to God must come in small details as it comes in big details.  It's nothing but that single word, “Yes, I accept whatever you give, and I give whatever you take.” And this is just a simple way for us to be holy.  We must not create difficulties in our own minds. To be holy doesn't mean to do extraordinary things, to understand big things, but it is a simple acceptance, because I have given myself to God, because I belong to him – my total surrender.