Coat of Arms for Bishop Thanh Thai Nguyen
SYMBOLISM IN THE ACHIEVEMENT OF THE MOST REVEREND THANH THAI NGUYEN
Bishop Nguyen selected Blue Celeste as the main color of his coat of arms. Blue in Catholic heraldry is always symbolic of the Blessed Virgin, and it is so in this coat of arms design, as well, but this hue also is representative of water in Catholic heraldry.
First and foremost as one studies the bishop’s coat of arms design is the presence of the Catholic heraldic emblem known as the Pelican in Her Pride. This is one of the earliest Christological and Eucharistic emblems of the Catholic Church. Evidence of its use as such has been found in the oldest catacomb churches. The Pelican in Her Pride is a purely Eucharistic theme. It represents the Church feeding the faithful through the Precious Blood of Christ Crucified, as symbolized in the mother pelican striking her breast to feed her children with her own blood.
In Bishop Nguyen’s coat of arms we find above the Pelican an arch of twelve (12) gold five (5) pointed stars known in heraldry as mullets. These are the stars that appear on the chapeau of Our Lady of La Vang, the apparition of the BVM most important to Bishop Nguyen. They are worked in gold, which represents the wisdom of God who created all persons, including the BVM; the gold also represents the graces that flow through Mary to Her children in the church.
The chief of the coat of arms design, or the bar or space that crosses the top of the shield, is intentionally worked in wavy lines alternating bleu celeste and gold. This was the intention of the designer since wavy lines in this design are intended to symbolically represent five important water references in Bishop Nguyen’s life:
One: The Atlantic Ocean that serves as a border of the bishop’s sending Diocese of Saint Augustine. This inclusion pays homage to both the Diocese of Saint Augustine and the saint himself.
Two: The Pacific Ocean that serves as a border of Bishop Nguyen’s new Diocese of Orange; thus including a special tribute to his new home church.
Three: This second representation of the Pacific is symbolic of the historic trek to safety made by the bishop and his family when they fled war and persecution in Vietnam. In this instance the water could best be described as Freedom Waters and serve as an homage to the bishop’s family’s strength and the challenges that faced them so long ago.
Four: Water here is also symbolic of the Waters of Baptism, a symbolic reference to the sacramental role of the Office of Bishop.
Five: Finally, the bishop’s strong attachment to Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters, He restores my soul….” This reference was uppermost in the bishop’s request for the design of his new coat of arms as auxiliary bishop of the Latin Rite.
Item five’s ‘still waters’ required the heraldic designer to alter the norm in heraldic usage by softening the lines employed to suggest a softer style of line drawing which would immediately suggest the ‘still waters’ spoken about in the Book of Palms. Normally, wavy lines in heraldry, especially those suggesting water, are more fluid or rough looking. To accomplish ‘still waters’ a softer format had to be included for this design.
And so, upon this chief of wavy lines suggesting still waters appear three charges or emblems. Two of these are reclining lambs which complete the Psalm reference. Between them is a lily — not a Fleur de lys, which is more symbolic of Our Lady, but a lily which is the main heraldic emblem for Saint Joseph, earthly father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. How appropriate it is as Saint Joseph could be called the first of the faithful that the Good Shepherd led.
Thus comprises the shield of Bishop Thanh Thai Nguyen. However, there are external elements to every coat of arms design that must also be explained, especially under Catholic heraldic law. Surmounting the episcopal shield is the pilgrim’s hat, the heraldic emblem for all prelates and priests of the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church. For the rank of bishop, both residential and titular, the pilgrim’s hat is always worked in deep green, the true color of the Office of Bishop. For this rank and office there are six tassels suspended on either side of the hat in a pyramidal style. The interior of the hat is worked in scarlet to represent the martyrdom, real or symbolic, which all bishops, not only cardinals, are called to at the time of consecration to the episcopal dignity. The hat is properly known in the Church as the galero and the tassels take the name fiocchi. These, too, are worked in green for the rank of bishop. Bishop Thanh Thai Nguyen desired homage to the religious order that he had originally been ordained to serve, the La Salette Fathers. This order’s insignia includes a large, wooden pectoral cross worn by each priest of the order. From it are suspended two emblems of the crucifixion, the pinchers or plyers and the hammer. As heraldic law makes it difficult to suspend these emblems from the Cross to be found above and behind the bishop’s shield, the designers have found a home for them within a silver medallion at the Cross’ center. This medallion takes the place of the traditional gemstone – both methods are correct under heraldic law.
For bishops, this cross above and behind the shield has only one transverse arm. The cross may be jeweled or stylized and might also be depicted as plain and most resembles the processional cross used at Mass. In this design homage falls to the La Salette Fathers as this cross takes its inspiration from that worn by the order’s members.
Beneath the shield, just as it would appear if worn at the neck of an actual honoree, is the insignia of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, a papal order of knighthood awarded to the bishop by the Holy Father.
Overall, Bishop Nguyen’s episcopal coat of arms has remained faithful to the style of heraldry originally developed by the Church in the Middle Ages. In this the Church continues to demand a quality in the seals of office of each diocesan bishop, the co-adjutore and the titular bishops as well, whose seals traditionally derive from the design of the personal coat of arms.
In heraldry, a motto has been both a personal philosophy of life and a family dictum, and sometimes even a cry for battle. But in Church heraldry, a prelate’s personal motto has always been intended to represent his personal spirituality and theologically based philosophy of life and is most frequently grounded in Sacred Scripture and spiritual reflection.
Bishop Nguyen has selected “HE LEADS ME” for his motto, words of profound importance to him both spiritually and familiarly and which come down from the Book of Psalms… “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing that I shall want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters; he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake…”
The bishop’s entire coat of arms is grounded in the spirituality of this beautiful psalm and so it is most appropriate that the motto that he has chosen likewise finds its origins in this psalm.
And so, with this motto as his guide, Bishop Nguyen undertakes his new episcopal ministry for the Church in Orange, California. May God be praised…
From © James Charles Noonan, Jr. to © Thomas Thanh T. Nguyen