Bishop Tran: A humble servant ordained for Atlanta
By Peter Finney Jr.
ATLANTA, Ga. – The spotlight created by Bishop John-Nhan Tran’s Jan. 23 ordination as the new auxiliary bishop of Atlanta had to feel somewhat strange to a priest whose ministry in the Archdiocese of New Orleans for the previous 30 years had been marked by his insistence on quietly looking beyond himself to serve others.
But the priest whom parishioners acclaimed as a humble shepherd accepted the call of Pope Francis and was ordained as an auxiliary bishop by Atlanta Archbishop Gregory Hartmayer in a two-hour liturgy at St. Peter Chanel Church in Roswell, Georgia.
New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond and Archbishop-emeritus Alfred Hughes were Bishop Tran’s co-consecrators. Bishop Tran is the second Vietnamese bishop in the U.S., the first being the late Bishop Dominic Luong, the former pastor of Mary Queen of Vietnam Parish in New Orleans. He joins Auxiliary Bishops Joel Konzen and Bernard Shlesinger in serving Atlanta’s burgeoning Catholic population of 1.2 million.
“My heart is filled with profound gratitude, gratitude to God, not only for giving me life, but also for calling me to serve his church as a priest and now as a bishop,” Bishop Tran said at the conclusion of the Mass, just after being escorted throughout the 918-seat church by Archbishops Aymond and Hughes to offer his first episcopal blessing to the congregation.
Seated in the front section of the church were 60 parishioners from Mary Queen of Peace Parish in Mandeville and more than a dozen from St. Joan of Arc Parish in LaPlace, the two parishes where Bishop Tran, 56, most recently had served as pastor.
Gwen Smith, a St. Joan of Arc parishioner, said she would not have missed the ordination for the world. Smith is a grandmother, and she witnessed then-Father Tran bringing her grandson, Mason Pusey, into the church as a 5-year-old when he begged Father Tran to baptize him as a Catholic. Pusey died in a car accident two days before his 18th birthday in 2020, but not before living what his grandmother called a spirit-filled life.
“It gave me so much comfort to see how Father John had worked with Mason over the years and how much his faith meant to him,” Smith said.
Seated next to Smith was Helena Cupit, who served as director of religious education at St. Joan of Arc when Father Tran was pastor.
“He was always about the ‘other,’” Cupit said. “He would always tell me that before he went to bed, he would examine his day to see how he could have done better for others.”
Before conferring the Rite of Ordination, Archbishop Hartmayer touched on the theme of Bishop Tran living out the Gospel virtues of humility and care for others. The archbishop said on Holy Thursday – the night on which Jesus instituted the priesthood and the Eucharist – the disciples were jockeying to see who would get the most esteemed positions in the kingdom of heaven.
“They were concerned with determining who was the greatest,” Archbishop Hartmayer said. “Ambition has no place in the life of any follower of Christ, but especially in the lives of our bishops. Jesus reminds the Apostles, and others as well, that the one who is greatest is the one who serves. Jesus washes the feet of the disciples and reminds them that what he has done is the example that they must follow. Humility is at the very core of his action, and in you, John, I see that same virtue.”
Archbishop Hartmayer compared the flight of Jesus, Mary and Joseph into Egypt to Bishop Tran’s family’s ordeal in escaping Vietnam in 1975. Bishop Tran’s mother died when he was 2; his father was shot and imprisoned by the communist government; and his older brother was killed after stepping on a landmine. Bishop Tran was just 9 when he escaped Vietnam by boat with his family.
“You escaped from a tyrannical oppressor, not knowing what would become of you and your family,” Archbishop Hartmayer said. “When you finally escaped Vietnam, while on the South China Sea, your boat ran out of water, which would have meant death had you not been rescued by an American ship. Your extended family of aunts and uncles as well as cousins would later be accepted as refugees in Louisiana.
“Father John, what you experienced in your first years of life, most people would not experience in the course of a lifetime. Yet, it was these experiences that formed you into the priest that you are today and the bishop you are about to become. You have the heart of the Good Shepherd. Your faith in the midst of such great suffering will bring hope to our people.”
Archbishop Hartmayer also related the selfless decision Bishop Tran made in 2015 to donate a kidney to an Oklahoma City priest, Father Thanh Van Nguyen, who was on dialysis and in urgent need of a transplant.
“You have chosen as your physical motto, ‘God Will Provide,’” Archbishop Hartmayer said. “These words are a testimony to your faith in and dependence upon God's providence.”
Bishop Tran’s sister, My Tran of Slidell, said the ordination of her younger brother as a bishop was a longtime family dream.
“I wish that both of my parents were still alive so they could witness this,” she said. “This is what my parents really wanted all their life. Actually, they wanted me to become a nun, too, but, unfortunately, I'm hotheaded, so I just needed to become a regular person. Hopefully, God understands. I've tried to pray for my brother, Father John. I hope that God will give him good health so he can continue to do the job that God has called him to do.”
Bishop Tran was presented to Archbishop Hartmayer for ordination by Father Robert Cooper, pastor of Divine Mercy Church in Kenner and a member of the archdiocesan Presbyteral Council. Father Bac Hai Viet Tran, pastor of St. Agnes Church in Jefferson and a close personal friend, also accompanied Bishop Tran into the church.
“I’m just thinking of the many times, even in the small ways, when I needed advice or I needed someone to talk to, whether it was big or small, he was always there, and he was always a humble servant,” Father Cooper said. “He was never one to take the spotlight.”
Father Bac Hai said Bishop Tran’s middle name of “Nhan” means “relaxing” in Vietnamese.
“It means relax, easy, slow, slow down,” Father Bac Hai said. “But, actually, John was just the opposite. He is intense in reaching out to help people in silence. He never, never makes any noise. Even when he donated his kidney, nobody knew. His family didn’t know either until after it happened.
“Sometimes I have to tell him, ‘Slow down, slow down.’ Even on his day off, he’s reaching out to fix people’s cars, to fix people’s houses. I said, ‘God forbid, you are not Superman. You are a man with one kidney.'”
"(Bishop) Tran is a successor of the apostles," Archbishop Aymond said. "Much is entrusted to you, my brother, and you can fulfill the ministry that will be given to you as you stay close to Jesus, who is the Good Shepherd, who calls you to be a shepherd for others as you follow him.
"We gather together to be able to thank you, John, for being a very dedicated priest, for being a humble priest. We in the Archdiocese of New Orleans have been blessed by your ministry for three decades, and for this we are grateful to God and grateful to you. My friends, we share him with you – a humble man, a good priest, a dedicated leader. And you can be assured that in a very loving way, he will use his gifts and be a good shepherd. John, we will miss you, but we know that your ministry here will be a blessing to many.”
At the end of the Ordination Mass, Bishop Tran thanked the parishioners of the Archdiocese of New Orleans that he said he had the privilege to serve.
“I miss them,” he said. “To the priests, deacons, religious and the people of God here in the Archdiocese of (Atlanta), your days of penance are at hand. Seriously, I will do my best to serve you. I look forward to the opportunity to meet you. Please pray for me that what I lack, God will indeed provide. I am humbled and deeply grateful to every one of you for your prayers and support today. May God bless each of you as you have blessed me today.”