A 62-year-old priest born in Vietnam and schooled in the United States was appointed auxiliary bishop of Orange on Friday, placing the nation's first Vietnamese American Roman Catholic bishop at the center of the country's largest Vietnamese population.
The appointment of Dominic Dinh Mai Luong by Pope John Paul II reflects the rapid, one-generation maturation of the Vietnamese American community within the Catholic Church since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
"It has a symbolic punch," said Dr. Michael P. Horan, associate professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. "It signals that the Vietnamese Catholic community has come of age, especially in Southern California."
The announcement was greeted with celebrations by many Vietnamese Catholics.
"This news is like a miracle," said Sister Francesca at the Vietnamese Catholic Center in Santa Ana, who added that she had hugged her assistant after hearing the announcement. "We have someone who can relate to us, our experiences as refugees, our language, culture, history and religious beliefs. I feel so proud."
At a news conference to announce the appointment, Luong said that he had written the pope to thank him for "recognizing our presence here in the U.S. In just 28 years, we have contributed so much to the church."
"I don't know if it's overdue," he added, referring to the appointment of a Vietnamese American bishop. "On every issue, the church isn't very quick. That's wisdom."
Vietnamese Americans represent less than 1% of the estimated 64 million U.S. Catholic church members. Since 1975, however, about 350 Vietnamese American priests have been ordained, the largest contribution to the vocation of any ethnic group.
Luong's appointment also marks another step in efforts by Roman Catholic officials to diversify the church's hierarchy in the United States to make the ranks of bishops more closely reflect the growing number of Asians and Latinos among the faithful. In Orange County, Vietnamese Americans make up 11% of the people attending Catholic Masses, according to church figures. The diocese's parishes hold 27 Masses in Vietnamese each weekend.
Luong, who will formally be ordained June 11 at St. Columban Church in Garden Grove, is the second Asian American named as a bishop. Last year, the pope appointed Ignatius C. Wang, a Chinese American, as an auxiliary bishop in San Francisco.
Auxiliary bishops perform the same liturgical rites -- ordinations, confirmation, the blessing of sacramental oils -- as other prelates but don't head dioceses. Luong will join Bishop Jaime Soto as one of two lieutenants to Tod D. Brown, the bishop of Orange.
"I think this shows that the Holy Father is attuned to the particular pastoral needs of the ethnic community in the United States," said David Early, a spokesman with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Luong's appointment ended a two-year process, begun when Bishop Brown asked the Vatican for another auxiliary bishop to help shepherd Orange County's growing flock of Catholics, which now numbers 1.2 million. About the same time, U.S. bishops began working to identify a Vietnamese American priest who would perform well in a bishop's role.
"It all came together perfectly," Brown said, adding that when he called the archbishop of New Orleans, where Luong currently serves, he was told: "You're taking our best."
News of Luong's promotion spread quickly through Vietnamese American communities by phone calls, e-mails and special bulletins on Vietnamese-language broadcasts such as Little Saigon Radio.
"Everyone was jumping up and down" when the news was announced on the radio, said Joe Dinh, a reporter for Little Saigon Radio, which has stations in Orange County, San Jose and Houston. "It's very, very surprising, and it's very incredible to us."
Over the last three decades, the Vietnamese community in the U.S. has coalesced in several areas, including San Jose, along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana, and in the Washington, D.C., area. But the largest -- and some say most influential -- population has emerged in Orange County, where about 5% of the population is of Vietnamese ancestry. The county is home to 141,000 people of Vietnamese ancestry, nearly as many as the entire state of Texas, with 143,000.
The high-profile role that Orange County plays for Vietnamese Americans led some to predict that Luong, in his new post, will have influence beyond the diocese.
"I hope he will bring unity not only to the Vietnamese community, but share the spirit of our people across other cultures and faiths," said Father Minh Bui of St. Bonaventure Church in Huntington Beach. "I think he can raise his voice for the freedom of religion to our brothers and sisters in Vietnam."
Cardinal Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, who was exiled from Vietnam in 1991 and died in Rome last year at age 74, played that role as a voice for Vietnamese exiles, Bui said. "It was such a big loss to the Vietnamese community when the cardinal died. We lost a strong voice of representation, but now we have a new shepherd and voice, especially at the local level," he said.
Luong will be "a bridge between our community here, our homeland in Vietnam, other overseas Vietnamese and other cultures," Bui said.
Catholics make up about 8% of the population of Vietnam, which is predominantly Buddhist. But among Vietnamese in the United States, about one-third are Catholic, reflecting the larger concentration of Catholics in the former South Vietnam than in North Vietnam. During the Vietnam War and in its aftermath, the Communist government imposed tight restrictions on the Catholic Church, but in recent years, those have begun to loosen, according to U.S. government reports.
Luong, one of 11 children, was born in Bui Chu, a town 45 miles southeast of Hanoi. He came to the U.S. in 1958, when he was 18, to attend seminary in Rochester, N.Y. Ordained in 1966 by the Diocese of Da Nang, he worked for a decade in Buffalo, N.Y., before moving to the Archdiocese of New Orleans. He is currently pastor of Mary, Queen of Vietnam in east New Orleans and director of the National Center for the Vietnamese Apostolate.
The appointment was bittersweet for Nga Nguyen, the bishop-elect's personal secretary at Mary, Queen of Vietnam Church for the last six years.
"I'm happy, but it's such a big loss for us," Nguyen said. "He's so down to earth, so intelligent and so generous."
Nguyen said she never saw her boss turn anyone away who knocked on the church door asking for food, bus fare or advice. He often rented buses on election day so older people could get to the polls.
"He pushed everyone to vote," Nguyen said. "A lot of times, he'd call people at home, reminding them it was election day. He wanted to educate people to get involved in their own community. He told everyone their vote is very important."
He could be a tireless worker, Nguyen said, but he also knew how and when to play. On any nice day or after a rough day at the church, Luong often took out his clubs and played a round of golf at a private country club.
By Albert H. Lee