Crossing the Pacific in a dilapidated boat, 10-year-old Bich Vu had a face-off with God. "If you save me and my family," he promised nearly three decades ago, "my life will be yours."
The miracle happened, and Vu, now 39, kept his word by becoming a priest.
"My experience on the ocean," he says, "made my faith grow stronger. It taught me that I was weak. I couldn't save myself; I had to depend on God."
Vu, known to parishioners at Anaheim's St. Boniface Catholic Church as Father Augustine, is part of a wave of immigrant Vietnamese priests helping ease a critical cleric shortage and changing the face of the Roman Catholic Church.
"Vietnamese priests are filling the gap," said Ryan Lilyengren, a spokesman for the Diocese of Orange. "People are calling them the new Irish."
Though Asians are only 1% of the estimated 77 million U.S. Catholics, they account for 12% of Catholic seminary students, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. In places such as Orange County, home to the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam, that has translated into major change: Of 181 diocesan priests, Lilyengren said, almost 28% are Asian, predominantly Vietnamese.
The influx of Vietnamese clergy comes as the number of priests nationwide has dropped nearly 30% in three decades, from 58,900 in 1975 to about 41,700 last year.
Vietnamese immigrants are stepping in, experts say, for a number of reasons. They come from a culture steeped in religious values that bestows high status on the clergy. They also grew up in a poor country where entering the priesthood was an economic step up. And many lived through political and religious repression when they weren't allowed to practice their faith, let alone become priests.
"Under the Communists we couldn't go to seminary," Vu said, "[so] we have a desire to become priests."
Experts attribute the U.S. priest shortage to several factors, most notably a change in the culture of affluent Western nations that devalues profitless service while affording young men lucrative career opportunities.
"We live in the most affluent nation in history, and a young man between 20 and 30 has many more options here," said Dean R. Hoge, a sociology professor at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and co-author of a 2006 book, "International Priests in America."
The result, according to Hoge, is that the ratio of priests to parishioners in the United States has plunged from one in 936 around 1985 to one in about 1,450 today.
The recent church sex scandals may also exacerbate the trend, experts said.
For a long time, Ireland, which had a surplus of priests, filled the gap by exporting many of them to the U.S. "In Ireland years ago," Hoge explained, "a man had a choice of becoming a priest or a coal miner. Being a priest was easier and carried a lot more esteem."
The trend became so pronounced that by the 1940s and '50s, according to some estimates, 80% of the priests in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles were Irish-born.
Eventually that pool dried up, and the Irish were replaced by priests from countries where economic or political turmoil put a premium on escape. Chief among them, according to Hoge, were Mexico, Colombia, Nigeria, India, the Philippines, Poland and, most recently, Vietnam. Catholicism has deep roots in the Southeast Asian country. Traditionally Buddhist, Vietnam began receiving Catholics in the 16th century when Western missionaries started arriving by ship.
Over the years the religion spread, but always with unique twists. In 1798, during a period of great persecution, Vietnamese Catholics hiding in the forest had a vision of Mary, now referred to as Our Lady of La Vang. The site was later made into a national shrine. Today, of the six religions officially recognized in the country, Catholicism, with 5 million to 7 million followers, ranks behind only Buddhism.
"Within the culture there is a very high regard for religion, the Catholic Church and the priesthood," said Msgr. Helmut Hefner, rector at St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, where 25 of the 94 seminarians are Vietnamese American. "You have the family support and environment for serving the church in that capacity."
Auxiliary Bishop Dominic Luong of the Orange Diocese, the highest-ranking Vietnamese Catholic cleric in the U.S., agrees. For a family to have a son become a priest, Luong said, "is very noble and enriching. Vietnamese value the priesthood as a very high position."
That certainly was true in Vu's world as he grew up during the Vietnam War. The son of devoutly Catholic parents in Saigon, Vu attended Mass daily at 4 a.m. In 1975, when the city fell to the Communists, who arrested the priests and closed the churches, his family kept praying secretly at home. Three years later, tired of being oppressed, they joined about 100 other refugees in a 25-foot boat illegally bound for freedom.
Because the vessel got caught in a storm and lost its engine, however, the roughly three-day passage to the Philippines lasted three weeks. "We had no food, no water, no hope," Vu recalls. "I thought I was dying. My mother told me the only hope I had was to pray. I prayed harder than I ever had before."
That's when he struck his bargain with God, and a few hours later the clouds seemed to miraculously lift. A Japanese ship rescued them and made for Japan, and from there Vu's family eventually immigrated to the United States. Last year he kept his promise, becoming the family's only priest.
"If you ask Vietnamese parents whether they would prefer their son to be a movie star, president or a priest, most would choose a priest," he said.
Vu believes that stories like his, shared by virtually an entire generation of Vietnamese Catholics, are a factor fueling the priest boom. Though many anti-Catholic restrictions have been relaxed in his native country, Vu said, their memory drives many men toward the priesthood.
His odyssey also informs his ministry by providing a rich trove of experiences to share with parishioners, many of them also immigrants. "I understand their suffering and pain," Vu says. "I talk to them about that." To people born in America, the priest says, "I talk about all the blessings they have in this country."
One of his main responsibilities is serving the area's large Vietnamese American community, which he does, among other things, with a weekly Vietnamese Mass. "It's like any other Mass," the priest says, "except in Vietnamese."
Not necessarily so, say some parishioners. On a typical Saturday, the Mass, attended by about 1,200 people and featuring Vietnamese music and songs, is preceded by 20 minutes of Buddhist-style chanting by several colorfully clad women near the front of the sanctuary.
"They remind me of my grandmother," said May Bui, 23, who was born in Vietnam, lives in Anaheim and speaks English fluently. "I love being in this Vietnamese Mass. When I listen to the sermon, I feel it just like when I was a child. I confess in Vietnamese."
The ethnic nature of the service is even more pronounced during the Tet Mass celebrating the Lunar New Year observed by Vietnamese each February. In Orange County, the service, with Bishop Luong presiding at Santa Ana's Vietnamese Catholic Center, includes priests, nuns and parishioners in embroidered silk robes of shimmering red, blue, green and gold. In addition to chanting and singing in Vietnamese, they perform traditional dragon dances, set off firecrackers, display flowers and hang red and gold ornaments on a cone-shaped tree bearing bright yellow blossoms.
Not everyone is thrilled with foreign-born priests embodying a solution to a major church problem. While their presence is important to immigrant groups such as Vietnamese Americans who "need priests who speak their language," Hoge said, there are widespread criticisms from non-immigrants that the priests don't speak English well enough or that they speak it with a strong accent.
In addition, the sociologist said, the priests sometimes suffer from cultural misunderstandings. "There are all kinds of those," Hoge said, "and they're not to be dismissed lightly, because people get very angry. In my judgment, if we want to continue [importing priests], we have to do it better than we're doing now."
Yet many are impressed with the qualities Vietnamese priests bring to the U.S. church.
"Their presence is very strong," said Father Anthony McGuire. Until recently director of pastoral care for migrants and refugees at the American Bishops Conference in Washington, he is now head pastor at St. Matthew Church in San Mateo. "The Vietnamese priests I know," he said, "are hard-working, committed and generally well-received.
"They bring a vitality -- a joyful spirit -- to the church."
He would get little argument from the pastor of Laguna Beach's St. Catherine of Siena Church. At 63, Father Eamon O'Gorman is the youngest Irish-born priest in the Diocese of Orange and, he says, one of the last participants in the ecclesiastical immigrant wave from that country that ended in the 1970s.
He also is nearing retirement.
"I am inspired by the Vietnamese priests with whom I serve," O'Gorman said in a thick Irish brogue. "There's a level of devotion, an enthusiasm for what they do and a desire to keep their culture intact."
He is energized by witnessing the parallels between his own immigrant experience and theirs.
"I look at the Vietnamese and can very much see them as the new Irish," he said. "I don't think their experience will be that different."