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Joyful, reverent priest takes bishop’s seat

By Agnieszka Krawczynski
The B. C. Catholic


Bishop Joseph Phuong Nguyen of Kamloops celebrates mass right after he is ordained a bishop. The solemn ceremony was held at a large arena inside the Sandman Centre Aug. 25 and attracted more than 2,000 people. (Photo by B.C. Catholic/A. Krawczynski)

KAMLOOPS, B.C. (CCN) — A Vietnamese priest stood before an altar in a dimly lit arena, head bowed, as he prayed during the solemn ceremony that would make him a bishop.

A sea of more than 2,000 people watched as Rev. Joseph Phuong Nguyen was ordained and accepted signs of his new role as a bishop: a ring, a crozier, a book of the Gospels.

When the sacred rite was over, Nguyen stepped up to the podium and broke into a smile.

“I wish to be taller a few inches,” he characteristically joked as he adjusted a microphone in the Sandman Centre arena in Kamloops Aug. 25.

He then read aloud one of many congratulatory letters, cards, and text messages he’d received in the last few months. “Dear Father Joseph,” he said, citing a letter from a boy in Grade 3.

“I am so happy that the pope has named you Bishop of Kamloops. I always thought that only big men are chosen to be bishop. You give me hope that as little as I am, I can be a bishop, too.”

Thousands, including 130 priests, 17 bishops, and several deacons, were at least smiling then, too.

“I humbly acknowledge my shortness in everything,” Nguyen continued.

“I believe that I am called, I am appointed, not because I am capable or worthy. It is not about my qualities. It is about God’s mercy. Merciful God has given me the Diocese of Kamloops as a gift, a great and precious gift. I hope and pray that my life, my sacrifice, my service here, may become a gift for this diocese.”

Rev. Fred Weisbeck, the chancellor of the Diocese of Kamloops, toasted his new bishop during a celebratory banquet later that evening.

“The first gift we receive from our bishop is the gift of his smile,” he said.

This reverent and joyful bishop has travelled a long way and through much hardship to get to the episcopal seat.

He fled Vietnam, his home country, in 1987 after being thrown in prison and labelled a “henchman of the Vatican” by communists. His first attempt to escape the country by boat failed, and he was forced ashore, imprisoned, and tortured.

He succeeded on his second attempt and ended up in a refugee camp in the Philippines, where he suffered a serious car accident and was hospitalized for three months. Then he moved to Canada, seeking to become a priest while navigating a completely foreign country and language.

“Today I begin a whole new part of my ministry,” he said after his ordination.

Nguyen is stepping in as the head of the Kamloops diocese after Bishop David Monroe, its shepherd since 2002, retired at age 75 this year.

“He has lived his vocation in extraordinary service as a servant leader. I am very deeply grateful,” Nguyen said, thanking his predecessor.

The ordination ceremony recalled Nguyen’s Vietnamese roots: choirs from St. Joseph’s Parish in Vancouver and St. Matthew’s Parish in Surrey sang hymns in his native language.

Young children dressed in traditional outfits, with candles and wreaths in their hands, also did a short, simple dance during the ceremony.

“Today our hearts are filled with gratitude as we welcome our brother, Joseph Phuong Nguyen, a Christian man from a faraway land whose life has shown a willingness to follow the call of Christ with a heart of faith,” said Archbishop Richard Gagnon of Winnipeg during the homily.

Gagnon had been a priest in the Archdiocese of Vancouver for nine years when Nguyen was ordained a priest in 1992 and began serving in a parish alongside him.

“Our brother has proved himself to be a man of dedication and service,” testified the spiritual head of Winnipeg.

“I’ve known this first-hand myself, when we served together in St. Jude’s Parish in Vancouver. I saw our brother as a man of tremendous dedication and hard work, but also with a great sense of humour.”

He urged the new bishop to pray for and collaborate with fellow priests, religious, lay faithful, First Nations people, other Christians, and people of other faiths.

“Now he is called to leave his boat, once again, and go to a new place, a new shore, with a new ministry, new responsibilities and communities.”

While the people of Kamloops warmly welcomed their new bishop, those who had travelled from Vancouver to witness the event said they were sad to see him go.

“We were so blessed to have him,” said Theresa Lorenzana, a member of St. Andrew’s Parish, where the new bishop once served as pastor.

“He’s funny, and he’s really good with his parishioners,” added her sister, Kris Lorenzana. “He was a really good parish priest. He was encouraging all the young kids to join the church.”

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