The Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv said his experiences as a refugee fleeing his country Vietnam in 1979 to escape the war, shaped and enabled him to connect with the Catholic community of today on a deeper level and in a more empathetic way.
The visiting Bishop of Parramatta spoke about his experiences during a special live-interview organised by the West Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office (WACMRO) on Thursday 3 October at 10am.
The interview served as a lead-up to the fifth biennial Australian National Association of Deacons (NAD) Conference from 3 to 6 October, held at the University of Notre Dame Fremantle Campus.
The two hour interview with MercyCare Corporate Partnership Manager Geraldine Mellet, was attended by representatives from the agencies and organisations of the Archdiocese of Perth, as well as visiting Deacons and teachers and school representatives.
Bishop Long was born on 3 December 1961 in Gia-Kiem, Vietnam, and grew up in a family of seven siblings.
In 1972, he joined the diocesan minor seminary which was later disbanded by the Communist government.
In 1979, he left Vietnam to begin a new life in Australia. In 1983, Bishop Long became a Conventual Franciscan friar.
Bishop Long described his childhood and teenage years living in the war and how his family decided to take the risk of fleeing the country.
“My childhood was dotted with memories of the war and great violence in Vietnam, I have memories of spending most of my time being in fear not knowing what the day would bring,” he stated.
“Until today, there are times when I recall and am affected by the war and my experiences from younger years. It was definitely a defining feature of my childhood.
“I remember when my parents got the opportunity and decided we would flee the Communist Regime, to travel towards the South that was ruled by the Democratic government and eventually escaped the country to end up in a refugee camp in Malaysia,” he added.
Bishop Long recalled how his family escaped on a 17-metre boat jam-packed with 147 refugees.
“As Catholics we could not bear to live under the Communist Regime so around 2 million of us ended up escaping by boat because that was the best option at the time.
“When you sit in a comfortable environment you tend to make an assessment but when you are faced with an extreme situation such as what we were faced with – your reaction tends to be not on a calculated assessment, rather you are somewhat in survival mode and it then becomes about just getting out of the situation the fastest way possible,” he added.
That boat journey would lead Bishop Long to a refugee camp in Malaysia, packed with 15 thousand others, where he spent the next 16 months working in a Bakery and teaching himself English in order to survive.
He arrived in Springvale Melbourne, as a 19 year old teenager, still hopeful to find a brighter future and carry out his vocation.
“My faith in God and that solidarity with the people around me is the reason I kept my faith and hope alive,” Bishop Long cited.
“Going from Vietnam to Malaysia to Australia, then having time to reflect on what I had been through – I began to consider seriously my vocation to the priesthood.
“As a priest, I managed to use my experience of being in great hopelessness as a refugee to put myself in the shoes of those in need to develop a sense of compassion and unity with the community.
“Being a Franciscan is also foundational to the way I strive to live life – to embrace simplicity, poverty and humility,” he added.
At the age of 36, Bishop Long became the first Vietnamese Parish Priest in Australia. In 2011, he was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne in which role he served for nearly five years before accepting duty as the fourth Bishop of Parramatta in succession to Bishop Anthony Fisher OP in 2016.
“I loved every moment of it. Of course there are skills and things that you learn or develop along the way, but the fundamental vocation of the priest in walking with the people and being in service to the people is something that I took very seriously and whole-heartedly,” he said.
Referring to the recently installed migrant sculpture in St Peter’s Square unveiled by Pope Francis in conjunction with the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Bishop Long said that the image that paid homage to the displaced is a great example of how the Church is challenged to ‘go into the deep’ to help refugees and migrants.
“Another example is the image of the Pope washing the feet of inmates in prisoners or Muslims or women. It is such a stark contrast from the traditional way of washing feet of men who are highly ranked,” he cited.
“The previous image used to communicate power, privilege and status but now the image communicated is of humility, service and inclusion.
“This creates conversations for the Church on how we can reach out to migrants and refugees who need a place to go.
“It is a mission which is deeply rooted in our Christian calling,” he concluded.
By Amanda Murthy. Republished with permission from The Record, the online publication of the Archdiocese of Perth.