He Escaped Communist Vietnam on a Fishing Boat, and Now He’s a Bishop
Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen became a refugee after the fall of Saigon, and found welcome in Australia.
SYDNEY, Australia — In the 1970s, a teenager boarded a boat to escape the cruelty of war in his homeland of Vietnam. He landed as a refugee in a foreign land.
Now, he has been installed as the fourth Catholic bishop of Australia’s Parramatta diocese.
On June 16, Vietnamese native Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen, a Conventual Franciscan, became the new shepherd of the Parramatta diocese.
“I have taken many leaps of faith before, including the one that launched me literally onto the Pacific Ocean,” Bishop Nguyen said at his installation Mass at Parramatta’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
The bishop explained his episcopal motto “Duc in Altum,” which means “Go into the deep.” He connected it to his own struggle as a refugee.
Born in 1961 in Dong Nai, Nguyen entered St Paul’s Minor Seminary in the Diocese of Xuan Loc, located about 37 miles north of Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam.
With the collapse of South Vietnamese forces and the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong in 1975, the new communist authorities forcefully evicted all the seminarians from the seminary building, which they converted into army barracks. Tumult and persecution caused a major refugee crisis. People abandoned their homes and sought to escape the country on boats, becoming known as “boat people.”
The future bishop, at the age of 18, became separated from most of his family. He boarded a 55-foot-long boat with a few family members and 146 other refugees.
The journey was perilous and the destination was unknown. After time at sea, the closely-packed boat ran out of food, water and fuel.
But the passengers were saved when their boat drifted near an oil rig. The refugees were housed in a refugee camp off the coast of Malaysia.
After a year, Nguyen was moved to Australia. There, he faced language differences, cultural shocks, and even a few incidents of bullying.
He later entered the Order of Friars Minor Conventual, a Franciscan order, and was ordained a priest in December 1989. He went on to secure a licentiate in Christology and Spirituality from the Pontifical University of St. Bonaventure in Rome. He was elected as the Australian superior of the Friar Conventuals in 2005. He served as the order’s assistant general in Rome from 2008-2011, overseeing the Asia-Oceania region.
Pope Benedict XVI named him auxiliary bishop of Melbourne in May 2011. Bishop Nguyen serves as the Australian bishops’ delegate for Migrants and Refugees and also chairs the bishops’ Catholic Social Justice Council.
A Bishop for All Peoples
At his installation Mass, Bishop Nguyen stressed his commitment to being “a bridge builder.”
“We must foster pathways across the political and religious divide to build not only a rich and strong Australia, but also an inclusive and humane society and a responsible world citizen,” he said. He urged the faithful to take heed to Pope Francis’ counsel to be a Church “where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live according to the Gospel.”
He voiced his commitment to Church renewal patterned on Christ: “the Church that dies to worldly power, privilege, clericalism and rises to humility, simplicity, equality and servanthood — the Church that might be smaller, poorer and humbler but hopefully more of a light and a sacrament of God’s love to the world.”
The bishop lamented “the flood of secularization that has washed away much of the Church we’ve known and loved.”
“We have been battered and bruised. We’ve been reduced in numbers and status,” he said. “What is more, we have to admit with the greatest humility that we have not lived up to that fundamental ethos of justice, mercy and care for those who have been hurt by our own actions and inactions.”
Bishop Nguyen noted the sexual abuse crisis, voicing hope it will be “a catalyst for transformation.”
He also encouraged everyone to be part of the Church.
“There can be no future for the living Church without there being space for those who have been hurt, damaged or alienated, be they abuse victims, survivors, divorcees, gays, lesbians or disaffected members,” he said. “I am committed to make the Church in Parramatta the house for all peoples, a Church where there is less an experience of exclusion but more an encounter of radical love, inclusiveness and solidarity.”
The bishop’s mother, godmother and four siblings were present at the installation.
Bishop Nguyen succeeds Archbishop Anthony Fisher, a Dominican, who was appointed Archbishop of Sydney.
The Parramatta diocese is about 14 miles west of Sydney. It is predominantly Catholic, with about 330,000 faithful in 47 parishes and 120 active and retired priests.
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- bishop vincent long van nguyen became a refugee as a young seminarian after the fall of saigon, found welcome in australia, and is now a newly ordained catholic bishop.