L.A. auxiliary bishop’s road to Priesthood wove through Rolla

Bishop Albert Bahhuth studied chemical engineering at what is now the Missouri University of Science and Technology


Albert knelt down before the Blessed Sacrament and emptied his heart.

“Why would you do this to me? What are you thinking? I’ve worked so hard, and I’m finally getting close to you. And here I am, not able to find a job in my field.”

A clear thought, not his own, broke through the silence.

“Do you believe that I love you?”

“Yes!” Albert answered right away.

“Do you believe that I have a better future for you?”

The young man could not respond. Not yet.

“I was feeling low, angry at God and hopeless,” he recently recalled in an interview with The Catholic Missourian. “I thought ‘What kind of future can God have for me that would be better than being a chemical engineer?’”

Years later, Bishop Albert M. Bahhuth, an immigrant from Lebanon and graduate of what is now the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, was appointed auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

“I couldn’t see God’s plan back then,” said Bishop Bahhuth. “Nonetheless, he always makes crooked lines straight.”

Mysterious journey

Bishop Bahhuth had little faith to speak of when he arrived in the United States to study chemical engineering at what was then the University of Missouri-Rolla in 1976.

Baptized into the Melkite Rite of the Catholic Church, he had grown up in Beirut, Lebanon, and attended a Catholic school until receiving his First Holy Communion in second grade.

“My family wasn’t really practicing their faith,” he noted. “They were more kind of cultural Catholics — make all your Sacraments and get married in the Church.”

He spoke Arabic at home. Catholic elementary schools in Lebanon mostly taught French at that time. Their Protestant counterparts taught English.

Bishop Bahhuth’s parents thought it would be better for him to learn English, so they enrolled him in a Protestant school.

“After that, I didn’t go to Mass for 20 years,” he said.

He developed an interest in science and chose to focus on math in high school.

“I always liked math and science but not physics, so I didn’t want to be a structural engineer,” he stated.

“I enjoyed chemistry, but I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor,” he said. “The other option was to be a chemical engineer.”

The universities in Lebanon didn’t offer degrees in chemical engineering at that time, so Bishop Bahhuth majored in chemistry while looking to complete his studies overseas.

Then, his homeland erupted into a civil war. The capital city was divided into two zones. Bishop Bahhuth’s family lived in East Beirut, the American University was in West Beirut.

“It was not easy to cross over from one side to the other,” he said. “And sometimes, the university had to close altogether.”

He resolved to complete his studies in the United States.

International mail out of Lebanon was erratic due to the war, and the future bishop’s applications weren’t reaching their destinations.

A neighbor had a friend who taught at the university in Rolla and wound up personally delivering the future bishop’s application when she went to visit him.

“That’s how I ended up going to Rolla,” Bishop Bahhuth recalled.

Having never traveled out of his homeland before, he flew to New York, then to St. Louis, then by a very small aircraft to Rolla.

Life in the United States was different from what he imagined, having grown up in a city of about a million people.

“When you hear about the United States overseas, you hear about places like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago,” he said. “Rolla was a small town, especially back then. It was a shock!

“But as it turned out, it made it easier for me to adjust and acclimate,” he said.

He wasn’t practicing his faith but did turn to God in prayer, mostly in times of difficulty.

He felt welcome and comfortable and made some great friends.

Chemistry was never difficult for him, and he enjoyed it.

“People were friendly and I did well in school,” he recalled. “I think all of that helped prepare me later on to say ‘yes’ to God when he called me to be a priest.

“That’s how I see God working in mysterious ways,” he said. “I think all of that made a big difference.”

Right at home

After Bishop Bahhuth finished his undergraduate degree at Rolla, one of his professors offered him a fellowship to pursue a master’s degree and doctorate there.

That professor wound up becoming the dean of the chemical engineering department at the University of Mississippi and invited the future bishop to continue his studies there.

“So, it was like pieces of a puzzle, how one thing connects to another,” said Bishop Bahhuth.

He enjoyed his nearly five years at “Old Miss.”

One of his friends came up with a plan that changed his life.

“She said, ‘Here’s what we’re gonna’ do on Sunday: Why don’t we dress up, go to church and go to brunch?’”

There was a Catholic church nearby, so that’s where they went.

“God is always working through events,” said Bishop Bahhuth. “We don’t always recognize it, but looking back, you can see how God has been leading you one step at a time.”

The novelty of the Sunday outings wore off for his friends in a few weeks, but Bishop Bahhuth continued occasionally going to Mass by himself.

“I was baptized in the Melkite Rite, where the Mass is very similar to the Orthodox Liturgy,” he recalled. “The Catholic church in Oxford, Mississippi, did not have a lot in common with that.

“But somehow, I felt at home — like I’d been going to church every Sunday,” he said. “Maybe it was just God’s grace preparing the soil for later.”

By then, most of his family had moved from Lebanon to California to get away from the civil war.

He was visiting some of them in the San Francisco Bay area when a traveling missionary came and began disparaging Catholic doctrine.

“I remember being frustrated to hear people saying that my Church was all wrong, and I didn’t have the first idea how to respond,” he said. “I resolved never to be put in that situation again.”

Back in Mississippi, he set out to learn everything he could about Church teaching and history, so he’d be able to give a good defense in the future.

“That also led to my going back to Mass every Sunday and even getting involved in some ministries,” he said.

To the margins

Bishop Bahhuth completed his doctorate and obtained a student work visa to gain experience in his field.

He taught for a year as a visiting assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Wyoming, then found to his chagrin that no one was hiring.

He moved out to California where his parents were living. That’s when he poured out his heart to God in St. John Vianney Church in Hacienda Heights.

Not yet ready to accept the better future God had in mind for him, the aspiring chemical engineer got hired at a local convenience store and worked his way up to manager, then area sales manager.

“All the time, I was also learning more and more about the Church,” he said. “I had this hunger to learn about my faith, and to serve.”

Seeking more flexibility at work, he bought two sandwich-store franchises and became his own boss.

People at church began asking him if he’d thought about being a priest.

No, but he had thought about helping people in desperate need.

“I figured that if God is calling me to do anything, it’s to be a missionary and work with the poor,” he recalled.

He joined a Catholic lay missionary group and was assigned to a parish in a predominantly poor neighborhood in Los Angeles.

“I wanted to do what God wanted me to do,” Bishop Bahhuth recalled. “But how do you figure out what God wants you to do?”

His spiritual director told him, “You have to know your real self. God made you a certain way to help you fulfill his plan.”

“The plan is not going to come from the outside but from the inside,” the spiritual director continued. “So, what do you want to do with your life? What gives meaning to your life?”

Bishop Bahhuth grappled with those questions over the next several months.

Finally, his spiritual director let him off the hook, saying: “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say that you have a Priestly vocation. All I hear you say is that people tell you that you ought to be (a priest).’”

“If you don’t want to be a priest, that’s a good sign that God doesn’t want you to be one,” the spiritual director told him.

Bishop Bahhuth was surprised to feel sad, rather than relieved.

“I did still want to help people break the cycle of poverty,” he recalled. “But when we die, we don’t get to take anything with us.”

“However, if I could lead one person to Christ, they would receive life for all eternity,” he said.

In the time it took him to drive home, about an hour, “all the pieces came together and I got my answer.”

“I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want to do with my life!’”

Without a doubt

The future bishop applied for admission to St. John Seminary in Camarillo, California, as a seminarian for the Los Angeles archdiocese.

He went in completely open to whatever the Lord had in mind for him, “but there was never a time when I seriously doubted that this was what God was calling me to do,” he said.

“And he kept affirming me.”

Having studied science and religion in great depth, he is convinced that there’s no conflict between them.

“They only complement each other,” he said.

He was delighted to discover in the seminary how philosophical analysis mirrors the mathematical method of proving something to be correct or incorrect.

“You start with a theorem and work back from there,” he noted. “I enjoyed it — the analysis and critical thinking and how it related to scientific thinking and analysis.”

Have no fear

Bishop Bahhuth was ordained to the Holy Priesthood on June 1, 1996.

“The main thing about Ordination that stays in my mind is the part where we lay prostrate on the floor,” he said.

“To me, that’s the most moving part of the Ordination Rite. I always go back to that — reminding myself to surrender completely to God.”

The prayer card for his Ordination included the words: “Fear is useless. Have faith in God.”

“God is always faithful,” Bishop Bahhuth insisted. “Once you say the ‘yes,’ God will make it work as long as we stay faithful.”

He ministered in parishes for 20 years before serving for five years in the Chancery as vicar general and moderator of the curia.

Named a monsignor in 2017, he returned to parish ministry in 2021.

Last Summer, he received a call from Cardinal Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States.

The cardinal inquired how the transition back to parish life was going.

Then, he asked, “Are you ready for another transition?”

Namely, would he accept Pope Francis’s appointment to serve as one of four new auxiliary bishops of Los Angeles?

“It wasn’t something I wanted or was working for, but I had to believe it was the work of the Holy Spirit,” said Bishop Bahhuth. “How can you say ‘no’ to God’s will?”

Later, while praying in the chapel of his rectory, the bishop-elect was overcome with the responsibility that lay before him.

“Suddenly, it hit me that I was going to be a successor to the Apostles,” he recalled. “The weight of that responsibility tied my stomach in knots.”

His spiritual director reassured him, as did Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez.

“The more I prayed and talked to my spiritual director, the more I realized that if God calls us to something, he will give us what we need to help him fulfill his plan for salvation,” said Bishop Bahhuth.

“All I need to do is surrender my will and say ‘yes’ to him,” he stated.

So, on Sept. 26, 2023, in the massive Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, Archbishop Gomez consecrated him and the other three new auxiliaries as bishops.

Again, Bishop Bahhuth lay prostrate before the altar.

In the Ordination Rite for bishops, the newly ordained are commanded “to be a loving father, a simple shepherd and a wise teacher.”

“I pray for each of those things every day, along with being ‘a humble servant,’” he said.

He chose as his episcopal motto: “Go Make Disciples,” from the instructions Jesus gave his closest followers before ascending into heaven (Mathew 28:19).

“Good things happening”

In his new role, Bishop Bahhuth oversees the administration and spiritual care of a four-deanery region of the nation’s largest archdiocese.

The region includes about 1 million Catholics.

He gathers monthly with the priests of the region, visits parishes regularly, helps them deal with problems with such things as finances or human resources, and administers the Sacrament of Confirmation in parishes throughout the region.

“Every day is different,” he said. “And I’ve been so blessed.”

One of his main priorities is helping the priests of his region find ways to collaborate on administrative tasks in order to free up more time and energy for celebrating the Sacraments, engaging in pastoral ministry and leading people to God.

He’s also committed to promoting evangelization and helping Catholics grow in their relationship with Christ.

“We want people to come to Mass and take part in the Sacraments not because of some obligation or out of habit or fear but in order to fall in love with Jesus,” he said.

“And in order for you to have that, Christ has to be part of your daily life.”

Bishop Bahhuth asks for prayers “that God will give me the wisdom to know his will and the courage to do it.”

He believes that the Church’s continued existence — despite everything — for the past 2,000 years is testament to God’s strength and glory.

“The Church is still here, and the Gospel is still being proclaimed, and God is still calling people to follow him as priests and religious,” he said.

“It seems that all we see or hear or remember are the bad things in the world,” he stated. “But there are a lot of good things happening and a lot of people who are Catholic doing great things out of faith.”

People still ask him if he wishes he could have realized his priestly calling sooner.

“I say no!” he stated. “The man I am now and the priest I am now was formed by all of those experiences.”