"Here I Am, Lord"
A Troubled Priesthood Celebrates Three Ordinations for the Grand Rapids Diocese

Grand Rapid Press (Michigan)
June 2, 2002

If Dung Anton Tran had climbed in his car a few seconds earlier on that Good Friday in 1992, he might not be a priest today.

He was leaving a local music club that night when he encountered a Vietnamese priest in the parking lot. The priest asked Tran why he wasn't honoring the Catholic Good Friday tradition of fasting.

That chance meeting prompted Tran to make changes in a rebellious life that had led him to the gangs of New York City. It pointed him instead toward the seminary.

On Saturday he became a Roman Catholic priest, ordained at the age of 36.

It is more than chance to Tran. "I think that's God's work," he said.

Standing in the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Grand Rapids on Saturday, Tran vowed to serve God and received ancient blessings dating back to Christ's earliest ministers.

Beside him stood two other men making the same solemn promises, and each with his own circuitous route to the priesthood: Michael Walsh, 65, a former Air Force sergeant, and Mike Alber, 34, a onetime electrician.

For the Grand Rapids diocese, the ordination of three priests -- the largest class in six years -- is a welcome affirmation that the Holy Spirit continues to call new servants despite the church's recent troubles.

"People are still willing to take that courageous step forward and say, 'Here I am, Lord,' " said the Rev. William Duncan, vicar general of the 154,000-member, 11-county diocese. "It's a cause for great joy and great hope."

Joy and hope are in great demand in the Catholic Church. Its bishops will meet June 13-15 in Dallas to consider proposals aimed at stemming sexual abuse by priests and widespread dissatisfaction with how church leaders have handled the cases. Among them will be Grand Rapids Bishop Robert Rose, who in this week's diocesan newsletter said he expects to help revise the diocese's abuse policy following the conference.

The new priests also bring needed services to a diocese that already was strapped for pastors. No new priests were ordained last year, and only one in 2000.

In the past six weeks, three West Michigan priests were removed because they were found to have abused minors. Rose stripped one priest of his collar and asked another to resign from two parishes. A third priest was forced to resign from two parishes by his superiors in the Dominican order.

Rose touched on those issues Saturday, when more than 1,000 people gathered at St. Andrew's Cathedral to hear him tell Alber, Tran and Walsh that in the priesthood "what is to be expected is the unexpected."

And the unexpected can be extremely trying, Rose said, noting the difficulties of the ongoing scandal.

The three new priests, along with a priest returning from a religious community, will offset the loss of the resigned priests, a retirement and a sabbatical, Duncan said.

The newcomers say they are undeterred by the scandal.

Walsh, who grew up in a poor Boston parish, said he is "horribly hurt" by the crisis, adding, "Evil exists, and the church is not immune from that."

But he is hopeful and grateful to be a priest.

"I've known priests all my life," he said. "They've been a blessing in my life."

Alber, a Grand Rapids native, says he feels saddened but doesn't fear for the church's future.

"I think we're going to grow as a result. We'll be a stronger people."

Tran says he has no second thoughts about becoming a priest.

"No matter what happens, I believe firmly what Jesus said: 'Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,' " Tran said. "I do believe the Holy Spirit's guiding the church."

When new parish assignments take effect next month, the diocese should have 87 diocesan priests, the same number that served its 102 parishes and missions last year, Duncan said.

Alber, who will be the administrator of Brunswick and Hesperia Catholic churches, called Saturday's service "awesome, very grace-filled," before he proceeded to bless his nephew's crucifix.

Tran, who will serve Our Lady of Consolation in Rockford, said the process was "good but scary."

Walsh will serve St. Michael Catholic Church in Remus. "It's been a long journey, but this makes it all worthwhile," he said. "I look forward to serving God the rest of my life -- be it long or short."

The new priests signify more than numbers, however.

Their life experiences will serve them well as priests, said Duncan, noting that more men are entering the priesthood at later ages. He attributes the trend to "people wanting to get a better sense of themselves and how they really can find that fulfillment according to God's plan."

Tran found it only after rebelling against his family's strong Catholic faith, which his mother brought with her and her 10 children after fleeing from Saigon in 1975.

A Franciscan priest turned him away from New York street life. But no one took Tran's interest in the priesthood seriously until he ran into the Rev. Phong Pham on that Good Friday back in 1992.

Late that night, Tran confided he wanted to be a priest. Pham was skeptical. But a few days later, he invited Tran to lunch and found he was dead serious. He put Tran in touch with the diocese's director of vocations, then guided him for the next few years through seminary studies.

Pham says Tran was called to ministry precisely because of his years as a street tough.

"God has a wonderful way of turning brokenness into an instrument of compassion and healing, and he indeed is one of them," Pham said.


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