Phoenix priest in Rome named ‘Chaplain to His Holiness,’ monsignor

Msgr. Peter Bui, pictured here with Pope Francis and Cardinal Robert Sarah in May 2014, serves at the Vatican as an official with Cor Unum, the pope’s humanitarian arm. His family came to the U.S. in the 1970s alongside thousands of “boat people” who escaped the religious persecution of Vietnam. (courtesy photo)
Msgr. Peter Bui, pictured here with Pope Francis and Cardinal Robert Sarah in May 2014, serves at the Vatican as an official with Cor Unum, the pope’s humanitarian arm. His family came to the U.S. in the 1970s alongside thousands of “boat people” who escaped the religious persecution of Vietnam. (courtesy photo)

Msgr. Peter Bui had no idea he was about to get the surprise of his life.

“When I was officially told about this, you could say that my jaw dropped,” he said, recalling the moment he found out he’d been named Chaplain to His Holiness. The honorary title means the 42-year old priest is now called Monsignor.

Ordained to the priesthood in 2003, he’s lived and worked in Rome as an official of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum since 2011. The organization, part of the Holy See, is the charitable arm of the Holy Father and assists coordinating the Church’s humanitarian work around the globe.

For Msgr. Bui, it was a natural extension of his priestly life. For years he’d been a missionary priest with the Legionaries of Christ. Fluent in Spanish, German, Italian, English and Vietnamese, he’s lived in places like Caracas, Venezuela, where he organized mission trips into the Amazon jungle, and Medellín, Colombia, where guerillas routinely kidnapped civilians and held them for ransom.

He also knows firsthand what it is like to endure extreme hardship. Along with his parents and nine siblings, he fled religious and political oppression in Vietnam in 1977 as one of thousands of “boat people.”

“I was six years old and when we left, it was on my dad’s fishing boat,” Msgr. Bui said. There were 49 relatives and neighbors aboard the tiny vessel.

He remembers being off the coast of Thailand, where they were confronted by machine-gun-toting pirates who demanded they turn over their valuables. A picture of the Msgr. Bui’s family was one of those the U.S. Congress considered when it decided to admit 200,000 Vietnamese refugees to the United States.

“My call is to remind people that Jesus is everything and to never be distracted from Him,” Msgr. Bui said. Noting that his father was a fisherman, he’s keenly aware of the fact that he has been called to be a “fisher of men” in his priestly vocation.

Sacrificial love

“Chaplain to His Holiness” is an honorary title bestowed on priests in recognition of exemplary service to the Church. The designation means that Msgr. Bui is enrolled in the papal household and that he has a reserved place at public papal liturgies. Cardinal Robert Sarah, the former president of Cor Unum, recommended the title be given to Msgr. Bui.

In 2014, Pope Francis abolished the conferral of the title ‘Monsignor’ on secular priests under the age of 65 unless they serve in the Roman Curia or the Vatican’s diplomatic service. Even then, it’s only after five years that the title is ordinarily bestowed. Msgr. Bui has been with Cor Unum three and a half years.

“That’s one of the reasons I was a little bewildered,” Msgr. Bui said. “When the prophet Jeremiah received his calling he said to the Lord, ‘I don’t know about this. I am too young.’ I felt more or less the same thing.”

In the proclamation that Msgr. Bui received, his name is written in Latin, but the certificate also names the Diocese of Phoenix. To him, it’s proof that Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted and the diocese are also being recognized for the sacrifice of giving up a priest for the service of the universal Church.

“That helped me a little bit to accept this. It’s not just about me — the Holy Father is recognizing the diocese for its sacrifice too,” Msgr. Bui said.

Although he misses parish life — especially greeting parishioners after Sunday Mass and sitting in the confessional — he knows he is serving God in a different way.

“No matter what God’s will for us may be, in what is being asked of us, it may seem insignificant, hidden, or small,” Msgr. Bui said, “but if we offer it to the Lord with love, then that loving offering becomes an act of love for Him.”

Bishop Olmsted, who spent nine years serving at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, said he is delighted a priest from the Phoenix Diocese has been named a Chaplain to His Holiness.

“It is a recognition of the very significant contribution Msgr. Bui has made to the mission of the Church, in Rome, in Phoenix and beyond,” Bishop Olmsted said. “It also pays tribute to the strong faith of our Vietnamese Catholics who, like Msgr. Bui, have in some of the most challenging situations remained firm in their love and dedication to Jesus Christ.”