SAN DIEGO — Of the two men recently appointed auxiliary bishops of San Diego, one — Father Felipe Pulido of the Diocese of Yakima, Wash. — is a stranger to the diocese.
But the other, Father Michael Pham, is a familiar face.
Bishop-elect Pham was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of San Diego in 1999 and, over his years of ministry, has been entrusted with positions of increasing responsibility — from pastor, to episcopal vicar for ethnic and intercultural communities, to vicar general. The latter gave him authority to act as the bishop’s representative in matters of diocesan administration.
For a priest who has acquitted himself well in each of those roles, an appointment as auxiliary bishop was a logical next step.
On June 6, Pope Francis announced the appointment of Bishops-elect Pham and Pulido. Later that day, Cardinal Robert W. McElroy presented the two men to the staff of the diocesan Pastoral Center, allowing each to briefly share his story.
Bishop-elect Pham, 56, expressed his joy at being named an auxiliary bishop, describing it as “a very wonderful day that the Lord has made.”
“I’m so grateful and thankful for the blessings that God has bestowed upon me,” he said, “and I’m looking forward to sharing whatever I have (with) the diocese and to serve God’s people.”
Born in 1967 in Da Nang, Vietnam, Bishop-elect Pham and his family experienced many challenges and hardships during the Vietnam War and, subsequently, as refugees.
In 1975, when he was 8 years old, his family boarded an empty rice cargo barge to flee the advancing North Vietnamese Army. They spent several days at sea, with neither food nor drinking water. He experienced terrible seasickness and saw many bodies on the floor of the barge as he left the scene.
“I thought they were sleeping,” he said, “but I came to realize that they were dead.”
Bishop-elect Pham considers it “a moment of grace” that his entire family made it safely.
The day after they docked, the family learned that the North Vietnamese Army was on the cusp of taking over the city. So, almost immediately, they headed even farther south.
They lived in a small town called Lam Son, where farming and fishing enabled them to survive with a large family. Since his father was able to fish, he helped the family to leave Vietnam.
In 1980, with his older sister and a younger brother, he fled to Malaysia aboard a small boat packed with 119 passengers. At sea for four nights and three days, he said the boat was pursued by authorities of the Communist government, pummeled by massive waves that he likened to something out of the film “The Perfect Storm,” and even boarded by pirates. A collision with the pirate ship damaged the refugees’ boat, splitting the bow almost in half.
Miraculously, the family survived.
He, his older sister and younger brother lived in a refugee camp in Malaysia for about seven months before they were sponsored by an American family and relocated to Blue Earth, Minn., in 1981. They were joined there a few months later by another sister. In 1983, his remaining four siblings and his parents arrived.
The family moved to San Diego in 1985, attracted by the warmer weather they had experienced during a visit to relatives there.
He graduated from San Diego High School and San Diego State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Engineering. He began working on a master’s in Engineering, but did not finish before entering the seminary.
While in his junior year of college, he took a philosophy class that inspired him to think more deeply about the purpose of life and what was most important. After graduating and beginning a career as an aerospace engineer, he felt “some sort of emptiness,” like “something was missing” in his life. But he experienced joy and peace as a volunteer catechist at his parish, Good Shepherd Church in Mira Mesa.
Though he began to feel called to the priesthood, he delayed entering the seminary because his parents weren’t initially supportive of the idea. Eventually, however, he knew that he had to explore his vocation or that he would regret it.
He began his priestly formation at St. Francis Center, located on the campus of the University of San Diego, and completed his theological studies at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, Calif., earning a Baccalaureate degree in Systematic Theology and a Master of Divinity. He was ordained to the priesthood on June 25, 1999. He completed a Master of Science in Psychology at the University of Phoenix in 2009. In 2020, he completed his Licentiate degree in Systematic Theology from the University of St. Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome through his studies at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.
Bishop-elect Pham has served as associate pastor of St. Mary Star of the Sea Parish in Oceanside, diocesan vocations director, and pastor of Holy Family Parish in Linda Vista, St. Therese Parish in Del Cerro and, from 2016 through the present, Good Shepherd Parish.
When he was appointed vicar for ethnic and intercultural communities in 2017, Bishop-elect Pham said “the first thing that came to my mind” was the idea of bringing “people of all cultures together to celebrate Pentecost.”
The result was the Pentecost Mass for All Peoples, which drew about 1,500 people in 2018 for a multilingual Mass and festival of ethnic foods. The event has become an annual tradition, held virtually in 2020 and outdoors in 2021 in compliance with COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. This year, about 2,300 people attended the event, which was held at San Diego Miramar College.
The bishop-elect described the Pentecost Mass for All Peoples as “a foretaste of the banquet in Heaven, where all people of all cultures gather together at the altar … united in Christ.”
Appropriately enough, it was on the day of this year’s event that the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, phoned to inform him that Pope Francis had appointed him auxiliary bishop of San Diego.
“If this new opportunity is to serve the Church, then I’d be happy to take it,” he told the nuncio.
“I’ve known Father Michael since I came to San Diego eight years ago,” Cardinal McElroy said in a statement announcing the priest’s appointment. “His efforts at Good Shepherd have made a good parish great and his tireless ministry highlighting the rich cultural diversity of our diocese and our Church are powerful and moving.”
Narciso Guzmán said he was not surprised by the appointment. Shortly after beginning to work with him as a leader at the diocese’s Hispanic commission, he could see great things in his future.
“I told him, ‘You’re going to be a bishop,’” he said. “And here we are waiting for the big day.”
He said that Bishop-elect Pham has had a great impact on the Hispanic community.
“He put (in) a lot of effort to learn Spanish,” he said. “And he motivated us to continue to work in our mission to unite the Hispanic parish community groups to the greater Church.”
Since late 2019, Bishop-elect Pham has served as vicar general of the diocese, initially sharing that role with Auxiliary Bishop John P. Dolan until the latter’s appointment as bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix in 2022.
Bishop-elect Pham said becoming vicar for ethnic and intercultural communities offered him the opportunity “to expand my horizon,” after having been primarily focused on a single parish community as a pastor. Then, becoming vicar general provided an even wider perspective, enabling him “to see the inner working of the front office of the Church.”
Following his consecration as a bishop on Sept. 28, it is expected that Bishop-elect Pham will step down as pastor of Good Shepherd Parish and take up residence at another parish.
“It’s been a great experience (working with Cardinal McElroy),” said Bishop-elect Pham, “and I like and continue to work with him … along with Bishop Bejarano and (Bishop-elect) Pulido, to make our diocese become more and more vibrant.”