WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Diocese of Orange, California, received an early Christmas present in the form of a new bishop Dec. 19, when a man who entered the country as a young refugee from Vietnam in 1973 became its new auxiliary bishop.
Bishop Thanh Thai Nguyen, 64, became the second priest born in Vietnam to become a bishop in the United States. The first, Bishop Dominic M. Luong — an auxiliary bishop of the Orange Diocese from 2003 until his retirement in 2015 — died days before, on Dec. 6, at age 77.
Some saw the two events — the ordination of Nguyen and the death of his predecessor — as a providential passing of the torch. A Dec. 14 article from The Orange County Register, about Bishop Luong’s funeral, quotes Bishop Kevin W. Vann of Orange saying the events are “part of God’s plan for our diocese.”
Vann told the new bishop during the ordination ceremony: “You, in another way, daily, will be a bearer of light to those in need of guidance and hope, who are surrounded by darkness at times, who are trying to find their way back to God,” according to a Dec. 26 article from the Daily Pilot, a community publication of the Los Angeles Times.
As a young man, Nguyen had part of his religious journey interrupted when he was forced to flee his native country as a seminarian, spending 18 days at sea without food or water in a boat with others trying to flee the violence of the war. He and his family became part of a statistic of 3 million Vietnamese refugees who survived but were displaced from their native land, and were among the two million refugees from Vietnam resettled in the United States. In his adopted home, he continued his education, which included religious formation.
Though he worked for a short period as a math and science teacher in Connecticut, in 1984 he joined the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette, studying at Merrimack College and the Weston School of Theology in Massachusetts. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1991.
Family, friends and former fellow seminarians who were with him along that journey and the years that followed — as a priest in Georgia and Florida — attended his mid-December ordination as bishop at St. Columban Church in Garden Grove, California. The event included news coverage by media from Vietnam, The Orange County Register reported.
“You will minister to many people who have all kinds of hands dealt to them, some joyful, others not,” Vann told him during the ordination ceremony, according to news reports.
Some of those he will serve arrived in the U.S. as he did, as refugees from Vietnam but also as migrants with a variety of immigration journeys and include Catholics from Latin America, the Philippines, as well as Korea and their U.S.-born descendants. Of the multicultural Diocese of Orange’s 1.3 million estimated members, some 70,000 to 100,000 include Vietnamese American Catholics and may well be the largest such congregation in the U.S.
Nguyen’s appointment comes at a time when anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment in the U.S. seems to be on the upswing and as President Donald Trump’s administration seeks to limit the entrance of various migrant and refugee groups and expedite the deportations of many who are in the country without legal documentation.
Nguyen, who was in refugee camps in the Philippines for 10 months before arriving in the U.S., said politicians should “put listening to the story of a human being into their decision-making,” in an interview with the International Catholic Migration Commission.
In the interview, he encouraged others to “listen to refugees’ stories with open hearts and open minds,” to consider what they go through while learning another language and trying to adapt to a new culture.
“Refugees’ lives are filled with a lot of courage and heroic acts,” he said.
He also encouraged policies to “help refugees and migrants to have the opportunity to live as human beings, as was the case for me.”
Nguyen also begins his time of service when the diocese has embarked on a journey to build a shrine to Our Lady of La Vang, believed to have appeared in La Vang, Vietnam, in 1798 to console persecuted Vietnamese Catholics. The proposed $25 million shrine is said to have been a dream and longing of Luong.