Friday, October 06, 2017

In Orange, Tet +Nguyen – Finally, US’ Asian Fold Nabs New Bishop

(Updated 4pm ET with presser video.)

“Are all of your sons here?”

Time and time again, that’s been the Pope’s question to his aides when addressing the appointment of bishops. Citing the Old Testament story of the calling of David, from Francis the line is less an innocent query than a marching order to "go and fetch" those who, like the boy shepherd-turned-king, are off working far afield.

In this, for nearly a decade and a half, one group has been glaringly conspicuous by its absence: the sons and pastors of the roughly 4 million Asian faithful in the US, a community whose constant growth – and ever more prominent sense of commitment – has arguably made them Stateside Catholicism’s most vibrant, and visibly dedicated, bloc….

Yet absent from the "center," that is, until now.

Breaking a 14-year drought for the Stateside church’s Pacific influx, at Roman Noon this Friday, the Pope named Fr Thanh Thai Nguyen (left), 64 – a Vietnamese "boat person" (refugee) serving until now as pastor of St Joseph’s parish in Jacksonville, Florida – as a second auxiliary bishop of Orange: the 1.3 million-member Southern California fold which claims the nation’s largest Vietnamese contingent.

With the nod, the bishop-elect – just the latest of the ongoing "Auxnado" that'll add some 30 new assistant hats to the US bench – becomes only the fourth Asian ever to be called into the American hierarchy, and among them, the second from his homeland. In 2002, Orange received Bishop Dominic Luong as a deputy, likewise plucked from across the country – in his case, after years in New Orleans, itself another major center of the diaspora. (Ordained a priest in Buffalo after being sent from Vietnam at the very start of the war, Luong retired in late 2015 upon turning 75.)

All around, the last time a trans-Pacific priest joined the nation’s hierarchy came in late 2003, when the Filipino-born Oscar Solis was appointed an auxiliary of Los Angeles, the nation’s largest local church. Early this year, Solis came into an even bigger watershed upon his promotion to Salt Lake City, thus becoming the first Asian cleric ever to lead one of the US' 179 dioceses.

As reflected in those earlier instances and again today, potential bishops from non-Anglo ethnic groups tend to be drawn from a national list given their usually small numbers among a local presbyterate. That’s especially been true in this case – with a Vietnamese auxiliary long known to be the explicit wish of Orange’s Bishop Kevin Vann, it is understood that the long dearth of Asian picks required the wider pool of potential nominees to be constituted from scratch, the task daunting and then some due to the intense vetting for any single cleric to be “cleared” for an appointment, and at least three of those needed to fill a terna.

Indeed, such was the extent of the search behind today’s move that, while an ordinary request for twin auxiliaries would normally see both choices unveiled and ordained together, it’s already been more than 10 months since the first half of the petitioned Orange duo – the home-grown veteran pastor and clergy chief, now Bishop Tim Freyer, 53 – was appointed.

Process aside, while Asian-Americans merely make up some four percent of the nation’s 75 million Catholics, the community’s sense of devotion has, in recent years, seen them provide a full quarter of the US’ priestly and religious vocations – in other words, pulling roughly six times their weight. That disparity is even more overpowering out West; among other examples, Orange’s own priesthood class this year was comprised of one Anglo, one Korean, and four Vietnamese ordinands, the latter community long dubbed the “new Irish” in the California church and beyond.

Elsewhere in the country, meanwhile, Nguyen’s fellow emigres have been packing and building their own churches at a striking clip. Last month, a Vietnamese parish in Atlanta which outgrew a makeshift 700-seat site within years broke ground for a new, $15 million church doubled in size, and just before departing the North Texas Metroplex five years ago, Vann himself dedicated Vietnamese Martyrs (above) – a 2,000-seat mecca in Arlington thought to be the nation’s largest “ethnic parish” of any kind.

Most of all, Stateside Catholicism’s second-largest regular gathering takes place every year on a field in rural southwestern Missouri, as tens of thousands of the faithful trek hundreds of miles to take part in “Marian Days” – the long August weekend started by an exiled Vietnamese order in gratitude for finding a home, and freedom, on these shores.

In a normal year, the festival of prayer, music and food sees a crowd of about 75,000 pitch tents in Carthage (usual pop. 14,300). Yet this summer, to mark the event’s 40th anniversary (below), over 100,000 showed up.

Per usual, the only low figure in this mix is the level of interest and/or support the broader (read: Anglo-dominant) "Catholic conversation" has shown toward any of this....

Namely, 0.

And if that’s not just another sign of a people in decline, with its priorities out of whack – because a historic exodus of souls isn’t already enough? – as ever, the remedy seems to lie less in explanations than it does in conversion.

* * *
Impressive as the context is – well, the Asian-American one – the Pope’s pick brings a story that’s nothing short of moving.

While that'd be the case in any circumstance, as the US bishops have mobilized to an extraordinary degree over recent months on behalf of migrants and refugees – and against the backdrop of a planned Federal slashing of receptions for asylum-seekers to their lowest level since 1980 – today's nod sends an even more potent message.

One of 11 children who entered a Vietnamese minor seminary as a teenager, by the mid-1970s Nguyen (pron. "Noo-WIN") and his confreres came under the close scrutiny of the Communist government, culminating in a stint under house arrest.

Fleeing his homeland by boat with 26 of his relatives, their 28-foot vessel was caught in a tropical storm at sea, after which the family was left without food or water for ten of the 18 days it took for them to reach the Philippines, where they would spend nearly a year in a refugee camp.

Able to come to the US thanks to family already living in Texas, the future bishop was taken in by a friend in Connecticut, where – still to be ordained and knowing little English – Nguyen got his start as a janitor at a Catholic Charities facility in Hartford, picking up the language by taking night classes. After several years teaching in inner-city public schools, he returned to discernment with the La Salette Missionaries, who urged him to consider the priesthood after initially applying to be a brother.

Following studies at the Jesuits’ Weston School of Theology (since merged into Boston College), he was ordained in 1991, at the age of 38. Three years later – having been invited to minister to a rapidly-growing Vietnamese presence in northeast Florida – Nguyen incardinated into the diocese of St Augustine, taking the reins of his first assignment there after his then-pastor, Fr Robert Baker, was named bishop of Charleston in 1999. (He of "No more Whispers!" fame, Baker marked his 10th anniversary as bishop of Birmingham earlier this week.)

In the 4,000-family pastorate he's held until today – the largest outpost in Florida's founding diocese; its ample church (above) opened in 1999 – the bishop-elect has overseen a sprawling community spread across a combined nine weekend Masses in English, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese and the "Extraordinary Form" of the Roman Missal, plus a school of 550 students, and everything else that comes with both.

Given the vast scope, energy and diversity of the Orange church – whose larger parishes top 8,500 families of every background – suffice it to say, it's preparation well had.

As Nguyen only touched down at Disneyland late yesterday, and with plans for his move West still unclear, the ordination date remains to be determined.

SVILUPPO: Even if the legendary plot's "Crystal" centerpiece won't be dedicated for Catholic worship until mid-2019, with its 40-acre campus already serving as the diocesan hub, Nguyen turned in a memorable debut at the Cultural Center next to the future Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove... beginning with his own "warning" to the SoCal crowd about his "Vietnamese Boston accent":