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Milestone for Catholics

Vietnamese American Bishop Ordained in O.C.

June 12, 2003|William Lobdell and Mai Tran | Times Staff Writers

Echoing the apostle Paul's words that "we are strangers and aliens no longer," Dominic Luong was ordained Wednesday in Garden Grove as the first Vietnamese-born Roman Catholic bishop in the United States.

The ordination of the Diocese of Orange's newest auxiliary bishop drew a capacity crowd of 1,500 to St. Columban Church, including 34 bishops from across the country and Vietnam. The event was carried on Vietnamese-language television and radio.

At the end of the 2 1/2-hour ceremony, which ended with a Mass, Luong told the crowd, "We have together recorded a historic moment" in life of the Catholic Church in the U.S.

Luong's appointment is a source of pride for the Vietnamese community nationwide, which views his ordination as a reflection of the rapid, one-generation rise of Vietnamese immigrants in U.S. society.

"I'm surprised at all the people here for me," said Luong, who spent 28 years as the pastor of Vietnamese Catholics in New Orleans, ministering to immigrants since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. He is so popular there that a street has been named after him. "But it's not just for me, but for the Vietnamese people and the impression they've made on the church and community."

Ordination planners were told that 1,000 people from New Orleans, including hundreds of Vietnamese immigrants, asked to travel to St. Columban. But limited church seating allowed for a New Orleans contingent of only 266 -- 40 of them priests.

Luong, 62, is expected to be a unifying force in Orange County's often fractious Little Saigon -- with 141,000 residents, it is home to the largest number of Vietnamese outside Vietnam. Though only about 30% of them are Catholic, religious leaders of any faith are revered in the culture.

"This is a very joyful moment for all Vietnamese," said Sakya Bodhi, a Vietnamese-born monk from the International Buddhist Meditation Center in Garden Grove, who sat with several other Buddhist leaders.

As one of two auxiliary bishops to Bishop of Orange Tod D. Brown, Luong will officially serve all the county's estimated 1 million Catholics. But much of his value will be in the relationships he develops with its 32,500 Vietnamese Catholics, much as the other auxiliary bishop, Jaime Soto, has cultivated a leadership role among the county's Latino Catholics.

"This is one more indicator of the Asian-Pacific Catholic community coming of age," said Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. "The Vietnamese have had difficult journeys and enormous burdens and suffering, yet their personal faith remains so vibrant. They are an inspiration to us all."

Vietnamese Americans represent fewer than 1% of the estimated 64 million U.S. Catholics. Since 1975, however, about 350 Vietnamese American priests have been ordained, the largest contribution to the vocation of any ethnic group.

Luong, born near Hanoi in 1940, is one of nine children. He came to the United States to attend seminary in upstate New York. He ended up staying, developing skills as a liaison between Vietnamese immigrants and the U.S. government and other institutions.

Luong is the second Asian American named as a bishop. Last year, the pope appointed Ignatius C. Wang, of Chinese descent, as an auxiliary bishop in San Francisco.

The ceremony opened with a procession of 180 priests that lasted seven minutes. Among the crowd of onlookers was Luong's older brother, a priest in Vietnam.

The ordination included hymns, prayers and Scripture readings in English, Vietnamese, Spanish and Latin, and ended with Luong receiving his bishop's ring, shepherd's staff and miter from Brown. He and the two bishops who traveled from Vietnam for the ordination hugged one another tightly in front of the altar, bringing tears to many in the crowd, who were mostly of Vietnamese descent.

Soto said the ordination is another example of how the Catholic Church has been a leader in Orange County in diversity and integration.

"What we have become, Orange County can be," he said.

As the Mass ended, Luong walked down the aisle of the church, bestowing his first blessings as bishop. The faithful scrambled to the ends of the pews to kiss his new ring and shake his hand. At 5 feet, 3 inches, he is a head shorter than the two bishops flanking him during the procession.

Outside the church, the new bishop sat in a brown leather chair to pose for pictures. The long line of people waiting to be photographed with him -- including women dressed in ao dais, or traditional silk tunics and pants -- soon snaked through the church campus. Many admirers brought gifts and cards.

Hue Tran came from San Jose on a bus full of Vietnamese Americans wanting to see Luong's ordination. They didn't realize until they arrived that they needed tickets. They settled for watching the ceremony on a television screen in the rectory.

"We're very proud," Hue said. "It's never happened before."

Tran's 42-year-old daughter, Hoa Vuong, visiting from Vietnam, also made the trip. She said that if everyone from Vietnam could go to the ordination, they would.

Robert Nguyen, 50, of Burbank gave Luong an envelope stuffed with $200, overdue payback for a $150 loan made nearly 40 years ago. Luong, a college chaplain in Buffalo, had given Nguyen tuition money in the 1960s when he had financial problems.

"We were under his wings," Nguyen said. "He took care of us."

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