Everyone has turning points in their life.
Some turning points happen without us realizing they are there. Others stick out in our minds.
Father Albert Bahhuth will reach a turning point when, on Sunday, Sept. 12, he is formally installed as pastor at Holy Family Church. He will also celebrate his 25th anniversary as a Roman Catholic priest.
But looking back, Bahhuth recognizes other significant moments in his life.
“These are the moments I remember as if they were yesterday,” he told me in an interview last week.
(I wrote this column after listening to the first few homilies he gave and especially the homily in which he described his background.)
Bahhuth — in giving a shortened “elevator pitch” of his biography to parishioners during a homily — talked about how he was brought up in a Greek Orthodox family in Beirut, which followed the normal traditions of being “hatched, matched and dispatched [dying].” He went to a Catholic school, had first communion and then attended a protestant school.
“My background makes me more empathetic with the immigrant community,” he said. “It gives me perhaps a little more understanding.”
To escape the civil war in Lebanon, he moved to the United States to complete his bachelor’s degree and then earned both a master’s and doctoral degree in chemical engineering.
One day, someone asked him to go to Mass and then out to lunch. He hadn’t been to Mass in 20 years, but he said, “yes.” He recently told parishioners that, at the time, he was “angry” at God because he couldn’t get a job in chemical engineering.
The priest asked the congregation two questions: “Do you believe God loves you?” (Bahhuth remembers replying “yes” to himself.) The other question was, “Do you believe that God has a better plan for you?”
Bahhuth said that he couldn’t give an immediate “yes” to that one.
“The question intrigued me,” he said. “It took me five years to say yes to God and to enter the seminary.”
Meanwhile, as Bahhuth was seeking answers spiritually, he was also seeking work. He was here on an immigration visa where he had to find work. He did find a chemical engineering job, but then the staff was cut and it was a case of “first hired, first fired.”
So he took a job at a Stop and Go convenience market and worked his way up from store clerk to area district manager. Then, he ran two Subway sandwich franchises. Bahhuth said he noticed that while he was taking these jobs, that he was experiencing a transformation in the way he thought about things.
“I started going to Mass more and getting more involved,” he recalled. “I was starting to feel happy — happier than I had ever felt before. Looking back, when I ask, ‘How did I get here? How did this happen?’ I guess it all happened gradually.”
Then, in 1991, he made the decision to become a priest.
“I remember I was driving from Orange County to Los Angeles,” he recalled.
Bahhuth was ordained in 1998 and served as associate pastor and pastor at four churches before serving for five years as vicar general and moderator of the Curia for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Then he began looking forward to a year’s sabbatical doing one of his favorite things — traveling (another one, he admits, is chocolate). But, instead, he used the year as a time of reflection.
“These have been the best 25 years of my life,” Bahhuth told his congregation during his self-introduction. “God wants what is best for us.”
Listening to his homilies, Bahhuth several times told parishioners that it isn’t enough to only ask God to grant what you want. It works both ways.
“It takes two to tango. We need to fall in love with Him,” he said.
“Remember when you were first in love with someone,” Bahhuth explained later. “If you hated Italian food, and that person loved Italian food, you ate Italian food.”
I asked Bahhuth why he had spent so much time exploring each section of the Mass during a series of special Masses so early in his tenure.
“A lot of times we do things and we don’t why we do them,” he explained. “We don’t learn the church on an adult level. We never have the depth of why we do things. This is why people don’t connect and why people are bored.”
Another reason the church is so important this year is because people have become isolated because of the pandemic, and also because so many people have become divided in their beliefs.
“Church is one place that we can sit down and learn from one another,” he said.
In order to learn from his new parishioners, Bahhuth has asked them to invite him into their homes for an informal chat with just soft drinks. He asked the congregation to think about the future and what it will leave for future generations.
“Let’s dream and dream big,” he told the group. “Let’s talk about the great future God has planned for us.”
There are already changes underway at the church. There are now four priests, a new school principal and the elimination of an administrator’s role after the departure of Cambria Tortorelli.
So far, Bahhuth told me that he has been meeting weekly with two or three groups, made up of two to 10 people.
“People told me that they are happy at Holy Family,” he said. “It is really a family for them.”
As he began his introductory talk, he asked how many people had seen the video clips shown in church or read his biography in the church bulletin about him. A few hands went up.
“Either we have a lot of shy people or you haven’t been to church for a while,” he said with the quiet sense of humor he scattered through both his homilies and in his interview with me. “Here I am in person. I’m real.”