Former boat-person and refugee, Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFMConv is a man used to frontiers; God keeps sending them his way, and the newly appointed fourth bishop of Parramatta says he is happy to embrace them.
The now 54-year-old faced one of his gravest challenges at the tender age of 18, boarding a 17-metre boat with 146 others in an attempt to escape Vietnam’s cruel, communist regime and conscription into its armed forces.
Terror enveloped the seven-day journey and the excess number of people who had boarded at the last minute meant that eventually they had to dispose of all of their supplies – even their water – simply to stay afloat.
“But we count ourselves fortunate,” Bishop Vincent told The Catholic Weekly in 2011, “certainly more fortunate than thousands of other Vietnamese boat people who were robbed, raped, killed by pirates or simply perished at sea.”
He arrived alone in Melbourne after 16 months in a refugee camp in Malaysia.
His parents and a brother and a sister also eventually settled in Melbourne; his two other brothers in Holland, with another sister staying in Vietnam.
It was at the Conventual Franciscan parish of Springvale, Melbourne, that his journey to the priesthood was rekindled, culminating in his ordination as a Conventual Franciscan priest on 30 December, 1989.
(As a young teen he had spent three years at a minor seminary in the diocese of Xuan Loc, 60km north of Saigon, until the seminary was quashed by the ‘Liberation Army’ and turned it into a barracks.)
His new role will not be his first in NSW, having previously ministered as a priest at Our Lady of the Rosary, Kellyville, from 1998-2002, a role followed by stints leading his congregation, here and in Rome, and roles in education and most conspicuously, as the current chairman of the Australia Catholic Social Justice Council.
In that latter role, he has been a not-infrequent commentator and critic of Australia’s current treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.
Why has God put you here?
Well that’s a question I am asking from time to time, too.
I do think that God has a hand in my vocation and specifically in this latest appointment. My life has been a series of challenges going from Vietnam to Australia via the Pacific Ocean. Progressively, God has led me to new frontiers.
I certainly think my being a refugee and a migrant will hold me in good stead in terms of engaging the diverse people of Parramatta.
You are going into one of the youngest dioceses in Australia – a diocese that is actually growing. What does that feel like?
It’s a sign of hope for the Church. For me, it’s not just about the numerical growth; that’s one side of the story.
We need to be the Church for those who are alienated. It’s not about the numbers. It’s more about being the oasis, or in Pope Francis’s phrase, ‘the field hospital’, because the fact is there are so many Catholics who are alienated from the Church in one way or another. And if the parable of the lost sheep is any guide, we have to go out and search and engage with those who have lost their trust, their faith, in the Church.
You’re entering not just an ethnically diverse area, but an ecclesially diverse area; also in terms of religious diversity. (Catholics 29.7 per cent, Muslim 7.5 and Hinduism 3.6 in Greater Western Sydney, according to the 2011 census).
Yes, even within Catholicism – the Chaldeans, the Maronites, the Melkites (and so on).
Have you had much to do with those churches before?
I have had something to do with them – not a lot – especially the Melkites. I have come to know more of them in recent times because of my role as bishops’ delegate for migrants and refugees.
Australia has accepted a number of Syrian refugees and a lot of them are Melkites. I’ve been in contact with the Melkite Church and their stories.
In February, at the annual Red Mass in Melbourne, you spoke stridently about the child sexual abuse crisis in the Church, describing it as “a systemic betrayal of the Gospel”. What does a Church that is systemically faithful to the Gospel look like to you?
First of all, it has to be a Church for the marginalised, for those who are victims of injustice. And that’s an area that we can improve on. Namely, the way that we have responded to the victims of the greatest injustice – the people who have been sexually abused – and the people who in the vast (number of) instances have been ruined, psychologically, spiritually and otherwise.
And we need to restore their dignity. We need to restore the justice that we owe to them. And for me, it’s not just about a bad apple or individual perpetrators, it’s about the way the Church has responded to the crisis; that is the problem, not just the crimes themselves. It is the way we handled, or mishandled, the sexual abuse crisis that has given rise to so many tragic stories of lost and damaged lives.
Is that what people are likely to get in Parramatta, a very active and straight-talking bishop?
Well, I don’t know about ‘straight-talking’ but I call a spade a spade and for me, it’s the integrity of the Church which is at stake. We need to work our hardest to regain lost ground in terms of the lost face on the part of many, many Catholics.
How does your religious charism, as a Conventual Franciscan, impact things?
Franciscan spirituality is about joy, about hope, about poverty, simplicity, proximity to the people, so I hope that these characteristics of my religious heritage will bear on the way that I minister to the people in Parramatta.
The bonds between the Church and Muslim groups are developing. Do you hope to forge stronger relationships there?
Well, the pope has provided a great lead in this area. Recently he went to Lesbos in Greece and brought back 12 Muslim refugees.
The fact (is) is that there is a great suspicion against Muslim refugees. When people are in need our response should be the needs of the people, not what religion they follow or what language they speak or the colour of skin that they have.
So, I hope that we can break down the barrier of separation and isolation and suspicion and marginalisation that many of our Muslim brothers and sisters experience, even here in Australia, and especially in Greater Western Sydney.
Your appointment came on the same day as news that the anti-discrimination complaint against Archbishop Julian Porteous of Hobart had been withdrawn. In your new diocese, I imagine there might be more support for traditional marriage than in other parts of Australia, particularly among Muslims and Hindus. Are there new possibilities there for working together when it comes to support for traditional marriage?
We have some shared values among different faiths and religious – Muslims, Orthodox, perhaps even Hindus have some of those shared values. I hope that we can use that as a springboard, perhaps, in working for the common good.