From asylum seeker to new Catholic bishop
Barney Zwartz - The Age Australia6/7/2011
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FOR eight terrifying days, wedged upright as one of 147 people in a 17-metre boat, Vincent Long Van Nguyen suspected he might not survive.

''We were dependent on the mercy of the weather. We ran out of food after two days because of the number of people who leapt on the boat at the last moment,'' he said yesterday.

Vietnamese refugee Vincent Long Van Nguyen, has been appointed Catholic
Bishop in the Archdiocese of Melbourne. Photo: Justin McManus
But unlike half the desperate Vietnamese who fled the cruel communist government in the 1970s and '80s and died because of unseaworthy boats, bad weather or pirates, everyone on Long's boat made it to Malaysia.

The 16 months he spent in the refugee camp was nearly as difficult but it set the path for the 18-year-old's life.

That path of service will receive public acknowledgment this month when he is ordained Australia's first Asian Catholic bishop. But he does not see it as just personal recognition, but also for the huge contribution of Vietnamese Catholics to the church.

The Vietnamese are disproportionately represented in Catholic seminaries. ''Because of their hardships, because of their experience they have a particular way of adhering to the Catholic faith. It means much more to them than just a Sunday service. Where they are, there is more vitality and dynamism than the typical Anglo-Catholic parish,'' Bishop Van Nguyen said.

His parents were boat people, too, taking to the seas in 1954 when a million Vietnamese fled south to avoid the communists. Yesterday, though neither speaks English, their pride was palpable. They were dressed in their finest for a photo in front of the family shrine with their son.

In Vietnam, Bishop Van Nguyen's father was a farmer and handyman. ''My childhood was spent in poverty and war. I still vividly remember many nights when our parents would bundle us kids into the bunker that every house in Vietnam would have.''

Then the communists won. They were harsh, especially against Catholics. He joined a seminary near Saigon when he was 14, but the communists dismantled it. ''I expected to be drafted into the military because we were fighting two wars, the Chinese to the north and the Khmer Rouge to the south.''

Two older brothers escaped the year before to Holland. Families did not escape together, he said. ''If you lose, you lose it all, there's nothing to go back to. Families sent the young men first, then later, if they could, the other children, then the parents.''

He taught himself English at the camp, then others. Serving others cemented his desire to dedicate himself as a priest.

From Malaysia, he was sent to Springvale, where he was so impressed by the work of the Franciscan friars he became one himself. He spent four years at a parish in Sydney, and seven years as parish priest at Springvale before heading the order in Australia in 2005, then assistant general for Asia-Australia in 2008.

He will be one of four auxiliary bishops in Melbourne, responsible for the migrant-rich west. ''I don't know how people or clergy of the broader community is going to accept me, but I am who I am, and I'd like to give it my best shot and see where it takes me.''

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