Vietnam welcomes first Jesuit bishop

BAC NINH, Vietnam
Church leaders and Catholics from a northern diocese vacant for two years hope the country's first Jesuit bishop will promote love and life, in keeping with his episcopal motto.

Bishop Cosme Hoang Van Dat was ordained and installed as bishop of Bac Ninh diocese on Oct. 7 by Bishop Pierre Nguyen Van Nhon of Da Lat, president of the Vietnam Bishops' Conference.

Nineteen other archbishops and bishops throughout the country concelebrated the ordination Mass, joined by 300 priests at the square in front of the bishop's house in Bac Ninh city, 30 kilometers north of Ha Noi.

The ceremony took place on a stage with a flat, hat-shaped roof decorated with balloons, flags and cloth strips, to the accompaniment of traditional Vietnamese hymns. Around 10,000 Religious, seminarians and laypeople attended.

Bishop Nhon began the Mass by thanking God for giving the local Church another shepherd. "We happily welcome the new bishop and believe he will heed his episcopal motto 'Love and life,' so that his lambs can live a full life in abundance," the Church leader noted.

Following Pope Benedict XVI's appointment on Aug. 4, the native of Bac Ninh diocese's Noi Bai parish became the first Vietnamese Jesuit bishop since foreign Jesuits started evangelizing in the country 393 years ago.

Bishop Dat was born on July 20, 1947. He and his family fled to the south in 1954, following the defeat of French troops by communists in the north, and he joined the Jesuits in 1968.

After being ordained a priest in June 1976, he worked with Jesuit candidates and novices, provided pastoral care for patients with leprosy and served at two parishes in Ho Chi Minh City until 2002. He went on for spirituality studies in France, which he finished in 2005, and then served as spiritual director at St. Joseph Major Seminary in Ha Noi until his new appointment.

"We are really happy to have a new bishop after two years without one. We hope the prelate will bring love and abundant life to God's people in this large diocese, where religious activities are limited, parishes and subparishes lack personnel and churches have been destroyed by wars," Father Joseph Nguyen Huy Tao told UCA News.

The priest, an organizer of the ceremony, said the 24,600-square-kilometer diocese covers the five provinces of Bac Kan, Bac Giang, Bac Ninh, Thai Nguyen and Vinh Phuc, along with parts of Ha Noi and the provinces of Ha Giang, Hai Duong, Hung Yen, Lang Son, Phu Tho and Tuyen Quang. It has 43 priests -- including three priests studying abroad -- to serve 125,000 Catholics among a population of 9 million. Many ethnic minority groups live in the diocese's territory, he noted.

The 125-year-old diocese was vacant for two years following the death of Bishop Joseph Nguyen Van Tuyen on Sept. 24, 2006.

Pham Ngoc Hai, 71, a leprosy patient, told UCA News: "I am very pleased the new bishop had special greetings for us, leprosy patients, after the Mass. He is the father of all people, regardless of their faith."

Hai, who is not a Catholic, has lived at the state-run Phu Binh leprosy center in Thai Nguyen province since 1965. Bishop Dat often visited his center, he said, expressing hope that the bishop will continue to bringing love to the patients. He noted that 100 leprosy patients from the country's 13 leprosariums attended the ceremony.

During the Mass, people applauded loudly when they saw a halo of colorful light around the sun that lasted 10 minutes.

After the ordination, three teenagers who were baptized 18 years ago by then Father Dat when he returned to visit his home diocese for the first time, offered him flowers.

The night before, 3,000 Catholics had attended a cultural performance that Jesuits staged at the Bac Ninh bishop's house. Young Catholics in colorful costumes danced and sang love duets, which are part of the local musical tradition.

Two Vietnamese dioceses -- Ban Me Thuot and Phat Diem -- remain vacant following their former bishops' resignations. Thai Binh and Vinh dioceses have bishops over the retirement age.

Bishop Dat's ordination was the first episcopal ordination since a Vatican team made a working visit to Vietnam in June.

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