New Bishop Kevin Vann surprised everyone in the crowd at the Marywood Pastoral Center in Orange by speaking to them in Spanish.
He even made a few jokes, taking off one of his very Texan black cowboy boots and showing them to the cameras. They’re embroidered with his initials and an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Bishop Vann — who has been a priest for 30 years — said he has no specific plans yet for the Diocese of Orange. But he expressed his desire to work with the local Catholic community, including departing Bishop Tod Brown, to learn the ropes.
“One of the many blessings I have learned from Hispanic people in my years of Forth Worth is that ‘Somos la familia de Dios’, ‘We are the family of God’," he said. "And that I believe with all my heart is who we are, truly. That is what I’ve learned from my years in Fort Worth, and what I’ve learned from all of you, and what I’ve learned from Bishop Brown.”
Sister Berta Rafael, a local nun who hails from Guadalajara, Mexico, approached the new bishop after his speech and kissed his hands.
“To be honest, we only knew we’d be getting a new bishop, but we didn’t know his name," says Rafael. "So it was a total surprise to get a bishop who speaks two languages, who is already so familiarized with Latino culture—that’s a blessing for us, and a reason for calm, because we know he’s with us.”
The Diocese of Orange County has nearly 1.3 million Catholics, many of them immigrants from Vietnam, the Philippines and Mexico, as well as other Latin American countries.
It’s twice as big as the Diocese of Fort Worth, which the 61-year-old Vann led for seven years. Like all Catholic bishops, Vann is firmly opposed to abortion. When he led a parish in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois eight years ago, Vann told a newspaper that he would be “reticent” to give Holy Communion to US Senator Dick Durbin – a parishioner and a pro-choice Catholic.
Sitting at a local Starbucks as he prepared his Sunday confirmation class, Andrew Tran said he didn’t know anything about the new bishop. Tran is a 25-year-old Vietnamese-American youth minister, who works with teenagers from Orange County’s growing diverse communities.
Careful not to be too explicit, Tran said the choice of a conservative new local Catholic leadership is reflective of the direction the Vatican has been going in over the last few years.
“In some way, sometimes the bishops issue statements that are addressed at Mass, or some of the program directors will tell you, ‘This is what the bishop is saying’," explained Tran. "I think the day-to-day impact of that isn’t quite as apparent, but for the most part, you play nice and things don’t become too much of an issue.”
Tran said the clergy sex abuse scandals in the Diocese of Orange did become an issue for him. He wished that departing Bishop Tod Brown had done more to show he cared for the victims. Seven years ago, Brown apologized to 87 victims of clergy abuse as part of a $100 million settlement. Bishop Vann also dealt with clergy abuse in Fort Worth. Last month, the diocese there settled an case involving allegations against a priest who died a few years ago; the settlement terms weren’t announced, but Bishop Vann apologized to the victim on behalf of the diocese.
Bishop Kevin Vann will be formally installed as the new Bishop of the Diocese of Orange in early December.