For God to make Msgr. Albert Bahhuth a priest, let alone a bishop, there have been many miracles. Those miracles have spanned from Lebanon to Missouri to Mississippi, and finally to Los Angeles. There has even been a Subway sandwich franchise involved.
But for Bahhuth, it has all been part of God’s plan and a journey that has been at times frustrating and disappointing, but ultimately incredibly rewarding and full of love.
That journey took another turn recently when Bahhuth was doing, of all things, laundry. He was packing for a trip when his phone rang. It was a number he did not recognize, so thinking it was probably a telemarketer, he was at first not going to answer. But something told him to pick up the phone.
It was the apostolic nuncio to the United States, calling to tell Bahhuth that Pope Francis had appointed him an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
“Are you ready for another transition?” the nuncio asked.
“I believe this is the Holy Spirit calling me to do this,” said Bahhuth, 66. “That’s what being a disciple is all about, saying yes, doing God’s will, not our will.”
“He has an extraordinary combination of skills and talents that a bishop needs,” said Father Joe Shea, pastor at St. Rose of Lima Church in Simi Valley, who helped Bahhuth discern his vocation. “He has a heart of compassion. He is visionary and creative. He is an excellent administrator and organizer. He is kind, but not a pushover. He is unflappable when it comes to addressing problems.”
With that phone call, Bahhuth was a far cry from where he began this journey, the youngest of seven children born in Beirut, Lebanon. He was baptized Catholic and did his first Communion, but after second grade, his parents sent him to a school run by Baptist missionaries because they wanted him to learn English. It was the last time he’d be in a Catholic church for about 20 years.
After starting college, war broke out in Lebanon and it was decided that Bahhuth should continue his studies in the United States. He received his bachelor’s degree at the University of Missouri-Rolla and then enrolled at the University of Mississippi to become a chemical engineer.
It was at Ole Miss that Bahhuth and his friends decided to do something they’d never done before. They’d get dressed up, go to church, then go out for a nice brunch. They ended up at a Catholic Mass, the first time Bahhuth had been inside a Catholic church since his first Communion.
He felt God there and it sparked a movement for him to learn more about his faith.
“A simple invitation just opened the door a little bit for me to let Christ in and then he did the rest of the work,” he said.
But after moving to Southern California, his frustration boiled over. He had spent his life studying to become a chemical engineer and here he was with no job, no purpose, no direction. As he sat in Mass in his home parish of St. John Vianney in Hacienda Heights, anger burning in his heart, these words came to his mind: Do you believe that God loves you?
Answering yes, his heart changed to now having a sense of anticipation of what God might have prepared for him.
“My whole kind of attitude changed and that feedback was a major turning point in my life,” Bahhuth said.
From there, he got really active in ministries at St. John Vianney, so much so that people started to ask whether he had considered being a priest.
“In a way, I was a new Catholic because although I was baptized, I did not grow up in the Church,” Bahhuth said. “So the whole idea of becoming a priest wasn’t something I was thinking about.”
What he did know is he wanted to be involved in his church, especially with helping the poor. He decided to buy two Subway sandwich franchises so that he could make his own hours and devote more time to the church.
But eventually he realized that wasn’t enough. Helping the poor was noble, but saving souls was transcendent.
“I wanted to help the poor one day to break that poverty cycle,” Bahhuth said. “But when we die, we don’t take anything with us. If I can bring one person to Jesus Christ, then that person will receive eternal life.”
After months of meeting with his spiritual director and intense prayer to make sure this was God’s plan, Bahhuth entered St. John’s seminary in 1991 and was ordained in 1996.
As he’s set to become an auxiliary bishop, Bahhuth wants his story to be a model for people to realize the transformative power of Christ, and how God can take us to places we could’ve never dreamed. But it starts with surrendering to Christ.
“A lot of times people look at the teachings of the Church and say, ‘Well, I don't agree with the Church’s stance on LGBTQ issues,’ or ‘I don’t agree with the Church’s stance on abortion,’ or whatever,” Bahhuth said. “If you don’t have a relationship with Christ, that’s besides the point. The Church is not about these things. The Church is about Jesus Christ and helping you get to know Jesus and walk with him and reach out to take his hand so he can walk with you.
“And then all of these things will come according to the plan of God and the timing of the Holy Spirit. But a lot of times, I think we can change our priorities and put things ahead of what’s really the focus or that need of our faith, and that’s Jesus Christ.”