The Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, will visit Vietnam from November 28th to December 6th, upon invitation of the Bishops’ Conference of the Country. During his pastoral visit, Cardinal Sepe will visit the three Ecclesiastical Regions of the Country, he will preside over the opening of a new diocese and celebrate the ordination to priesthood of 57 deacons.
On this occasion, Fides Agency is publishing a dossier that offers a general overview of the Country and of the Vietnamese Church.
Up to some years ago, the name “Vietnam” was immediately associated to memories of the war. In more recent years, however, with a greater opening of the government of Vietnam and the development of tourism, the West was given a different image of the Country. The history of Vietnam is not limited to those years, on the contrary, it begins many centuries before. This Asian Country can indeed boast a remarkable civilization and a learned and civilised people, dwelling in an area well known for the beauty of its landscapes: the delta of the Red River in the north, the delta of the Mekong in the south, and the whole coastline disseminated with green rice-fields.
– Geographical profile
– A Short Historical Account
– Society, Economy and Culture
– Celebrations and National Events
– The Main Cities
– Country Information Table
– The Issue of the “Mountain-People”
– The Catholic Church
– The Church Today – Its Structure
– The Church Today – Statistics
– The Ad Limina Visits of the Vietnamese Bishops
– Visits of the Delegation of the Holy See to Vietnam
– The Life of the Church in Vietnam
– New Ordinations of Priests
– The Growth of Religious Congregations
– A New Diocese
– Evangelisation Today
– The Church in Vietnam, Founded on the Blood of the Martyrs
– Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, a Witness of Our Times
– The Shrine of Lavang: the Virgin Patron of the Catholics in Vietnam
PART I – Geographical Profile
Vietnam borders on Cambodia, Laos and China and it stretches for 1600 km down the eastern coast of the Indochinese peninsula. The main cultivated fields in the Country are the delta of the Red River (15,000 sq km), in the north, and the delta of the Mekong (60,000 sq km), in the south. Three quarters Vietnamese territory is made up of mountains and hills; the highest peak is the Fansipan (3143 m) in the northwest of the Country.
In Vietnam, there are plains, with an equatorial climate, high plateaus, with a temperate climate, and alpine peaks. The forests now cover less than 30% of the territory and this percentage is fated to be further cut down, since agricultural customs favour deforestation and the exploitation of the soil. In Vietnam, there are five national parks: Cat Ba, the Ba Be Lake and Cuc Phuong in the north, Bach Ma in the centre, and Nam Cat Tien in the south. In order to prevent an environmental and hydro-geological catastrophe, the government has decided to protect tens of thousands of square kilometres of forest and established 87 protected areas, including national parks and natural reserves.
Though Vietnam is located within the tropical zone, the climate is still rather diverse.
A Short Historical Account
The first human settlements date back to the Paleolith: the era was characterised by a gradual spread toward south and the hinterland of populations that constitute the majority of the people today, which originally came from southern China. At the same time, the original populations, ethnically connected to other races (such as the Malay), retreated toward the mountains and the forests.
For many centuries, Vietnam was ruled by the Chinese: it was a province of China, whose hegemony came to an end in the tenth century. During the period of Chinese occupation of northern Vietnam, this area was an important centre of political and cultural progress, also influenced by the Indian civilization.
The end of the Chinese domination, however, did not mean the end of the institutions and social structure imported from China, nor of the contradictions, typical for an eastern society, between the need of a centralised and efficient bureaucratic State and the feudal particularism of the great landowners.
Independence led to the establishment of common feelings, which may not be identified as an authentic “national awareness” yet, but were already far from the Chinese Confucian universalism, involving a precise sense of Vietnamese ethnical and territorial identity, as opposed to the people of the mountains and the inhabitants of the south and the huge Chinese Empire.
After several shifts of position, intestine clashes and attempts of invasion even by the Mongolians (in the 13th century), the Vietnamese aristocracy became increasingly powerful.
China also tried to conquer the Country (in the 15th century), but once this attempt also failed due to anti-Chinese resistance, two eminent aristocratic families rose to power (17th century): the Trinh, in the north, and the Nguyen, in the south, which governed the economic and political life of the Country. In the 18th century, Tay Son reunited Vietnam and in 1802 Nguyen Anh rose to power with the name Gialong and proclaimed the “Empire of Vietnam”.
This was the context when the colonising processes of foreign powers moved in (mid 19th century): Holland in the north, France and Portugal in the south, all combined trading and missionary activities. In the meanwhile, other rebellions broke out and a definite national awareness began to rise in the hearts and minds of the people. In the 19th century, in France, modern capitalism began, creating trading and mineral societies to exploit the land and underground riches of Vietnam. Groups, movements and new political forces connected to the working classes were formed in Vietnam, but they were all severely restrained by France.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Communist Party was formed by an intellectual, educated in France, better known as Ho Chi Minh. The anti-colonial riots became increasingly serious, but once again they were repressed.
Besides the left wing anti-French forces, some religious mystical sects, connected to surviving feudal elements and devoted to spiritualist cults (“Caodists”) also began to take shape, with close political ties to the Japanese, increasingly powerful in entire eastern Asia.
Facing the German occupation at the outbreak of World War II, France favoured the foundation of an “Association for Vietnamese Independence”, by Ho Chi Minh, against French colonialism as well as Japanese imperialism. Japan occupied Vietnam in 1940, in 1941 the Vietminh Communist Party was founded, and in 1945 Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the independence of Vietnam.
In 1946, the first Indochinese war broke out: Vietnam was split in two, in the north the pro-Communist Ho Chi Minh ruled, in the south the pro-American Ngo Dinh Diem. In 1954, this situation led to the international acknowledgement of two independent States of Vietnam. In order to consolidate its position, the north turned to Russia for help, the south to the United States.
The government of the north immediately started a guerrilla against the government of the south. The guerrilla soon became all-out warfare and after many years – and the intervention of American troops (1961-1973) – it ended with the complete occupation of the south by the north. In 1975, the north Vietnamese troops entered Saigon and in 1976 elections were held for reunification.
After 1975, and the fall of southern Vietnam in the hands of the North Vietnamese forces, the Country went through a time of painful isolation at an international level.
Nevertheless, toward the end of the eighties, with the thaw between the East and the West, the government of Hanoi started to decrease its international isolation establishing diplomatic contacts and opening the Country to foreign visitors.
Thanks to the fall of the communist block in the eastern European countries, Vietnam first appeared on the international political stage. In 1993, when Bill Clinton was elected President of the United States, the economical embargo was revoked, and in 1995 diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam were opened again. Since then, the Country has recovered its ordinary and trading relationships with other western countries, including the United States.
Today Vietnam is a member state of ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, it is dealing with the reconstruction of the Country, following a market economy system, but it still retains its single communist-Marxist party system, in order to safeguard the government in power.
Vietnam still remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with over 50% of its population living under the poverty threshold.
Society, Economy and Culture
Vietnam has about 83 million inhabitants over a national territory of 331,689 sq km. 84% of its population are Vietnamese, 2% Chinese, and the remaining ethnical minorities are Khmer, Cham and “Mountain-people” tribes (Muong, Thai, Nung and Meo).
The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, proclaimed in July 1976, is a unitary State born from the forceful unification of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (Northern Vietnam) and the Republic of Vietnam (the South).
The national constitutional assembly elected in 1976 issued the Constitution sanctioning the principle of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the essential values of Marxism-Leninism. Its political institutions are similar to their Soviet and Chinese models. The political system is ruled by the Communist Party, with 1,800,000 registered members. The influence of the Party is perceived at all levels of the social and political life of the Country.
Vietnam is divided in 50 provinces (tinh), enjoying a considerable amount of autonomy. Therefore, the attitude toward foreign investments, economical development and religions varies very much from one province to another.
About 70% of the population lives off agriculture. Compared to other countries living in conditions of extreme misery, the Vietnamese population enjoys a fair degree of education. The literacy rate is around 82%, though official statistics report higher numbers (95%). Actually, with poverty, illiteracy tends to increase.
We should take note of the fact that the fair degree in education was attained in large part thanks to the work of a French Jesuit Missionary, Fr. Alexandre de Rhodes, who transcribed Vietnamese into Latin characters in the middle of the 17th century. At the beginning, the Communists denied him his merits, though they were acknowledged by the Vietnamese people as a whole, but in December 1995, during an official conversation, Vice Prime Minister Nguyen Khanh, exalted the national writing, finally acknowledging Fr. Alexandre de Rhodes as the main artificer and creator of the national Vietnamese writing.
The Vietnamese language (kinh) is a hybrid of Mon-Khmer, Thai and Chinese idioms. From the monotonic Mon-Khmer languages, the Vietnamese have drawn most of the primary words of their language. The most well-known foreign languages are Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), English, French and Russian.
Among the most notable forms of Vietnamese popular art, there are the traditional paintings on silk, mounted on frames, different types of stage works, sculpture with religious subjects and lacquered objects. Vietnamese cuisine is particularly diverse: some say there are at least 500 traditional dishes. The classic Vietnamese dish is made of white rice with vegetables, meat, fish and spices.
Celebrations and Events
Most religious celebrations follow the lunar calendar: in Vietnamese tradition, the celebration of Tet (end of January-beginning of February) is the most important: it marks the beginning of the new lunar year and the coming of Spring. The “Day of Lost Souls” (in August), the second most important celebration, celebrates the moment when the peace-less souls of the dead are offered food and gifts. During Doan Ngu (June), images of people who will become soldiers of the army of the god of death are burnt. On the Day of the Dead (in April), people remember their deceased relatives.
The Main Cities
Saigon is the heart of Vietnam. It is chaotic, dynamic and active, the greatest city in the Country, the economical capital and also the promoter of any new cultural trend. The streets, where most of the city-life takes place, are disseminated with shops and stalls. It is a constant turmoil. Nevertheless, in the modern metropolis, century-old traditions and the memory and beauty of its ancient culture are not lost. The main cultural and religious landmarks include the Pagoda of Giac Lam, the neo-Romanic Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Palace of Reunification and the Market of Colon.
Country Information Table
Name of the Country: Socialist Republic of Vietnam
Surface: 329,560 sq km
Population: 83,535,576 inhabitants
Capital: Hanoi (1,396,500 inhabitants, 2,543,700 including its surrounding districts)
Peoples: 85-90% Vietnamese (six main groups: Karen, Hmong, Lahu, Mien, Akha, Lisu), 3% Chinese, Khmer, Cham (descendants of the ancient Champa kingdom, of Indian origin) and member of 60 language ethnic groups (also known as Mountain-people, Montagnard in French)
Language: Vietnamese (official language)
Religion: Buddhist (49.5%), Taoist, Confucian, Hoa Hao, Caodaist, Muslim and Christian (8.3%)
President: Tran Van Khai
Secretary of the Communist Party: Nong Duc Manh
GDP: 227 billion dollars
Annual Economic Growth Rate: 7.3%
Rice, pepper, food products, textile products, clothing, footwear, bauxite, coal, steel, chemical products, cement, glass, rubber, paper, coffee, tea, cereals, potatoes, soybeans, bananas, sugar, poultry
USA, Japan, Australia, China, Germany, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong
Annual demographic growth: 1.8%
Child Death Rate: 37%o
Life Expectancy: (men) 68 years; (women) 72 years
Illiteracy: (men) 3.5%; (women) 8.8%
Education 12-17 years of age: 47%
Four great philosophies and religions are at the basis of the religious and spiritual life of the people: Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Christianity. During the centuries Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism melted together with the ancient popular Chinese customs and Vietnamese animism producing what everyone calls “Tarn Giao” (Triple religion). Confucianism, originally more a system of social and political ethics than a religion, assumed many religious aspects.
Taoism, originally an esoteric philosophy for the learned, joined with Buddhism in the rural areas, and many of its elements have become part of the popular religion.
Mahayana Buddhism (Dai Thua, or Bac Tong, meaning “of the north”, to indicate that it comes from China) is also known as the “School of the Great Wheel”, “School of the Great Vehicle” and “Northern Buddhism”. It is the predominant religion in Vietnam.
Theravada Buddhism (Tieu Thua or Nam Tong, meaning “of the south”; also known as hinayana, “School of the Little Wheel”, “School of the Little Vehicle” or “Southern Buddhism”) came to Vietnam directly from India. It is practised especially in the Mekong region, in particular by the Khmer.
The worshipping of the ancestors, a ritual expression of filial piety (hieu), developed long before Confucianism or Buddhism were imported into the Country. Some even consider a sort of “religion of religion”. The worshipping of the ancestors is founded on the belief that the soul lives on after death and becomes the protector of its descendants. By tradition, the Vietnamese worship and revere especially the spirits of their ancestors by offering sacrifices to the protector of the family and his spirit.
“Caodaism” is a Vietnamese indigenous sect, its task is the research of the ideal religion, by melting together eastern and western secular and religious philosophies. In Vietnam, it has two million believers. Islam, practised especially by the Cham and the Khmer, represents 0.5% of the population.
Protestantism, introduced in Vietnam in 1911, has about 200,000 believers. It is practised especially by the “Mountain-people”, the indigenous people of the mountains, living in the region of the Central Plateaus and, in more recent times, also in the northern highlands. After the unification of the Country, many Pastors, especially the ones educated by the American missionaries, were arrested, and the government still enforces severe limitations to their activity today.
When they are asked which religion they practise, the Vietnamese generally answer that they are Buddhists, but they follow Confucianism with regard to their family and civic duties, while they tend to be influenced by Taoism with regard to the interpretation of nature and the universe.
The Issue of the “Mountain-People”
There is news from different sources as to the hard conditions of the life of the populations of “Mountain-people”, the native peoples of the mountains, inhabiting the highlands of central Vietnam, mostly Christian.
The Mountain-people, Montagnard in French, or Degar, are one of the most ancient native people of Southeast Asia and they have lived in the Indochinese peninsula for more than two thousand years. Though the majority of them live in Vietnam, there are also a few hundred thousand Mountain-people living in Cambodia and some tens of thousands in Laos. Under French colonisation, which began in the 19th century, the mountain people were estimated to be about three and a half million. Today the survivors range between seven and eight hundred thousand.
When the United States intervened in Vietnam, the Mountain-people sided with them, hoping their requests for political, social and cultural autonomy for every native population would be satisfied.
At the end of the war in Vietnam, after the success of Ho Chi Minh, the regime of Hanoi nationalised their lands without acknowledging their rights over places they had lived in for millennia. Hundreds of villages were destroyed and shifted to unfertile lands, in order to make room for the State-owned coffee plantations.
The Mountain-people are a population of more than 30 different tribes, with hundreds of warriors. The two main tribes are the Banar, with approximately 400,000 people, and the Jarrai, with about 300,000 people. Most of them are Christians.
The Communist Government penalises them first because they were allies of the Americans, and also because many of them are Christians: the local officers try to take their lands. The Mountain-people, however, are a hardened people, proud, and therefore rebellious.
They have always been fiercely courageous. In year 2001, they held a demonstration with 20,000 people against the government.
At the vigil of the celebration of Easter in 2004, the Mountain-people organised demonstrations starting out from their lost villages, marching through the towns and finally reaching the capitals of the provinces in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, finally gathering together to pray publicly in front of the buildings of the Vietnamese Communist Party.
Their slogan was “Moak Hrue Yesus Kgu Hdip” (Happy Day, Christ is Risen). According to local sources, there were 130,000 people, and the governmental forces used weapons to disperse them, killing about 400 people. It is hard to confirm what actually happened since the Vietnamese government forbade foreigners from going to the region.
In spite of the persecutions and the departure of missionary priests and pastors as soon as the communist regime was installed, the Mountain-people have preserved their faith. There are more than 180,000 Catholics among them. There are several testimonies about Mountain-people keeping their faith and remembering liturgical prayers by listening to “Radio Veritas”, the Vatican Radio Vietnamese program broadcast from Manila.
The regime threatened them, forcing them to abandon their Christian faith, but they refused. They lost their jobs, they cannot send their children to public schools, but they continue to defend their faith. They recently built six wooden churches in six different villages.
PART II – The Catholic Church
The Catholic Church reached Vietnam in the 16th century, thanks to the work of missionaries from France, Spain and Portugal. This is the essential chronology of the spreading of the Christian faith:
1580 A group of Franciscans from the Philippines move to Cochin China
1615 The Mission of Cochin China officially begins with the arrival of Jesuits Francesco Buzoni and Diego Carvalho
1627 Alessandro de Rhodes, S.J., arrives in Tonkin (northern Vietnam)
1630 Prohibition of Christianity. Fr. de Rhodes is expelled
1640 Edict against Christianity
1650 Fr. de Rhodes suggests Propaganda to send in Bishops and create a local Vietnamese clergy
1663 Persecutions begin
1668 The first two priest of Tonkin and Cochin China are ordained
1670 First Synod of Cochin China
1676 The Dominicans of the Philippines begin their missionary activity in eastern Tonkin
1679 The Apostolic Vicariate of Tonkin splits into two Apostolic Vicariates: one still entrusted to the Fathers of the Foreign Missions of Paris, the other to the Dominicans of the Philippines
1712-1720 Persecutions. The Apostolic Vicar of Cochin China, Msgr Bourges, is deported
1745 Fr. Gil de Fedesich, O.P., is the first Dominican Martyr
1759 In western Tonkin there are 120,000 Catholics and 25 native priests
1787 Treaty between France and Annam (Southern Vietnam). Msgr. Pigneaux de Béhanie, Apostolic Vicar of Cochin China, plays an important role in the agreement
1798 Martyrdom of the Blessed E. Trieu and J. Dat, Vietnamese priests
1802 Union of Tonkin and Cochin China under the Annam Empire: relative freedom
1821-1841 Annam is ruled by Emperor Minh Mang (the “Nero of Indochina”). Persecutions begin
1861 Martyrdom of the Blessed Teophane Vénard, M.E.P.
1874 Treaty between Annam and France, acknowledging the sovereignty of the Emperor of Annam. Full freedom for missionaries and Christians
1884 In Tonkin the revolt of the autonomous princes begins. Christian persecutions
1887 Tonkin, Annam, Cambodia and Cochin China are joined together and become French Indochina
1909 Beatification of the Martyrs of Annam
1925 The Apostolic Delegation for French Indochina is established. Its Seat is Hué; it is moved to Hanoi in 1951
1933 First Plenary Council held at Hanoi
1946 Agreement between Ho-Chi-Minh and France: acknowledgement of the Republic of Vietnam (Tonkin) as a free state within the Indochinese Federation
1947 Massacre of 29 Catholics executed by partisans belonging to the Viet-Minh at Annam
1951 First Vietnamese Bishops’ Conference at Hanoi
1954 Division of Vietnam
1960 Establishment of the Sacred Hierarchy
1975 The Communist begin the invasion from the north. The Country is unified under the communist regime, seminars and schools are closed. The Coadjutor of Saigon is imprisoned. The Apostolic Delegate is expelled. The Civil authorities interfere with the appointment of bishops and priestly ordinations. Contacts between the Holy See and the bishops become more difficult by the day
1979 Msgr. Trinh Van Can, Archbishop of Hanoi is appointed Cardinal
1988 Canonization of the 117 martyrs, including 11 Spanish missionaries and 10 French missionaries
1989 Pastoral visit of Cardinal Roger Etchegaray
1990 Dialogue begins between the Holy See and the Government of Vietnam with specific regard to the appointment of Bishops
1994 At the Consistory of November 26th, Msgr. Joseph Paul Pham Dinh Tung, Archbishop of Hanoi, is appointed Cardinal by John Paul II
2001 At the Consistory of February 21st, H.E. François-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, is appointed Cardinal
2003 At the Consistory of October 21st, H.E. Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man, Archbishop of Saigon, is appointed Cardinal
The Church Today – Its Structure
Bishops’ Conference: Bishop’s Conference of Vietnam.
Metropolitan Archdiocese : Ha Noi – Suffragan: Bac Ninh, Bùi Chu, Hai Phòng, Hung Hoá, Lang Són et Cao Bang, Phát Diêm, Thái Bình, Thanh Hóa, Vinh
Metropolitan Archdiocese: Hué – Suffragan: Ban Mê Thuôt, Dà Nang, Kontum, Nha Trang, Quy Nhon
Metropolitan Archdiocese: Saigon – Suffragan: Cân Tho, Dà Lat, Long Xuyên, My Tho, Phan Thiêt, Phú Cuong, Vinh Long, Xuân Lôc, Ba Ria
The Church Today – Statistics
Archdioceses: 3; Dioceses: 23
Pastoral Seats: 2,816
Diocesan Priests: 2,212
Religious Priests: 521
Non-priest Religious: 1778; Religious Sisters: 11,443
Lay Missionaries: 1,395; Catechists: 50,605
Nursery Schools: 563 (pupils: 53,323)
Primary Schools: 100 (pupils: 6,399)
Middle Schools: 2
High Schools: 40
The Ad Limina Visits of the Vietnamese Bishops
After unification of the Country in 1975, the first ad limina visit was in December 1980. In 1990, the second ad limina visit took place, after the journey of Cardinal Roger Etchegaray (1989). In 1996, the third ad limina visit took place and in January 2002 the last visit to the Holy See.
Visits of the Delegation of the Holy See to Vietnam
In the last few years, there have been several visits of a Delegation of the Holy See to Vietnam. The overall impression is that the Vietnamese authorities are more open and friendlier than before. The government authorities seem readier to dialogue. They still retain a certain degree of control over the personnel of the Church, especially in the appointing the Bishops. For all the rest, however, the Church enjoys a limited religious freedom. Bishops, priests and religious men and women are now used to live in such a situation. On the other side, the Vietnamese government now acknowledges the contribution of Church to Vietnamese society.
The Holy See and Vietnam still have no diplomatic relations yet, though in the past few years they have pursued a rapprochement, which has enabled to overcome at least some of the major problems the Vietnamese Catholics have. After the meeting in July 2005, when a Vietnamese delegation was received in the Vatican, it expressed its “wish that we may quickly normalise relations between the Holy See and Vietnam”.
The Life of the Church in Vietnam
Diocesan priests work very hard. They are dynamic; they work at the construction of churches and in pastoral and social activities. The religious, as well, men and women, are appreciated by everyone for their activities, which they carry out discreetly, but effectively: they assist the handicapped, they work in the hospitals, the orphanages, the leper hospitals and nurseries, offering a wonderful witness to the Gospel. Among the women religious, there is a profound desire for change and to know the Word of God: for this reason we organise courses of theological studies and refreshment.
There are presently six Major Inter-diocesan Seminaries, with 1,580 seminarians. The Seminaries are in Saigon, Can Tho, Nha Trang, Hué, Vinh Thanh and Hanoi. There are many vocations, but the government requires that there be no more than a fixed number of students for each Seminar. There is a widespread lack of formators.
The Bishops have asked to open two more Major Inter-diocesan Seminaries (Xuan Loc and Thai Binh), which would be propaedeutic for each diocese.
Among the Catholic, more than 5.5 million faithful, constantly increasing, religious practise is high (80-90%). Often foreign visitors are surprised to see the widespread participation of the faithful not only at Sunday Mass, but also during the rest of the week. The faithful everywhere show a keen interest in the Word of God and in studying the catechism. They yearn to contribute with their own efforts and their capabilities to the edification and development of the Church in their Country.
In the south, Christian faith is practised in the concrete situations of everyone’s daily life. In the north, due to the lack of priests, the spirit of the second Vatican Council has still not reached the minds and religious practises of the Christian people. There are, however, small congregations of faithful in remote villages, which have preserved the seed of their faith even without a priest for many years.
Also in the north, at present, there are some encouraging signs. The case of the Parish of Hoa Binh, in northern Vietnam, is exemplary: in September 2005, the faithful celebrated the 75th anniversary of the foundation of their church. To celebrate this “diamond wedding” of the parish (3,000 faithful and two catechists), more than 20 Vietnamese priests gathered in the church and concelebrated the Holy Mass at the presence of many local faithful. The people’s enthusiasm for the celebration and the event was wonderful, also because the government granted permission to the believers of the area to re-open the church for divine worship and liturgy only three years ago.
In 2002 the local government of Hoa Binh, 75 km east of Hanoi, allowed the construction of a Catholic chapel, to celebrate the Sacraments. The church has now been working for the last three years, and parishioners are no longer forced to long and tiring marches to participate in the Holy Sunday Mass or the most important religious festivities.
The original church of the area (built 75 years ago) was destroyed in 1947 after the clashes between the French army and the communist guerrilla. Since then the Catholic community was left without an official place of worship. For a few years now, the believers in northern Vietnam, isolated up to 1975, are living a time of rebirth, and thanks to the work of the bishops, priests and laypersons, they are meeting and discovering the spirit of the Vatican II. Though it is still under the control of the local authorities, the Church hopes it will slowly be able to return to the normal running of the different pastoral activities: catechesis, liturgy and charity. In the past, the Catholics used to meet in the houses to pray. Thanks to those meetings, even without the presence of a priest, the people could preserve their faith. During Christmas and Easter, the Catholics used to move up to 100 km sometimes, to take part in the celebration of the Eucharist and receive the Sacraments.
All Vietnamese faithful cherish in their hearts the words of John Paul II in 1984. Coming back from a pastoral visit to Korea, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, he sent his greetings to the whole Vietnamese people “whom I love, manifesting to them my feelings of sympathy and peace, my encouragement and my vows of friendship”.
The Pope said: “Every human being, every people, with its own culture, have their own place in the benevolent eyes of the universal Catholic Church and in the heart of its Shepherd. With regard to Vietnam in particular, everyone knows and appreciates the courage of its efforts, its tenaciousness in times of trouble, its sense of family and the other natural virtues you prove you have. In this Country, which has cruelly suffered for the sorrowful events of the war, you had to work hard to rebuild the Country, you have made huge efforts to face the different problems of education, of healthcare. The Church is intimately concerned for these shared efforts. It encourages them and through them it wishes that everyone may receive not only bread and education, but also the chance to freely fulfil the best of himself, including his religious aspirations, in a context of peace with the other peoples that seek, like Vietnam, a life of peace and dignity”.
John Paul II continued: “I turn to you, now, dear Catholic brothers and sisters. From the outset of evangelisation, you form living communities, rich in the faith of the whole Church, well assimilated according to the nature of your Vietnamese culture, communities ardent in prayer, generous in a love that is open to everyone. To you, bishops and priests, to you, religious men and women, fathers and mothers, children, young people and elderly, especially to those of you who are put to the test by sickness or other painful life conditions, I want to express my love. Every day, with the intercession of the Holy Virgin Mary, I entrust you to the Lord so that he may continue to give you the courage of faith, hope and peace. May your cohesiveness with the Bishops never end, in adhering to Christ and to his Church! And I pray for you to have the concrete chance to profess and practise your faith. Ensuring this gives honour to a country; it shows a country’s concern for justice and favours the fulfilment of its spiritual values, so crucial to development. The entire Church has her eyes set on you. You have a privileged place in her heart. She is proud of you, because she is aware of the Christian faith you nourish in your hearts, combined with the loyal love you feel for your nation. The Church encourages you, together with your fellow citizens, to build a better future for everyone”.
New Ordinations of Priests
The priestly ordination of 57 deacons shows a change in the trends, with regard to the number of vocations that are starting again also in the North. The future candidates to priesthood come from eight dioceses: Bac Ninh (5); Bui Chu (7); Hanoi (13); Haiphong (3); Hung Hoa (5); Phat Diem (9); Thai Binh (5); Thanh Hoa (10).
In 1954, when Vietnam was divided into North and South, many priests of the North followed the exodus and flight of their faithful towards the South. For a long time, this engendered a lack of priests in the North. Furthermore, for many years, the government forbade the opening of the Seminaries. This situation changed at the end of the eighties: in 1987, the Inter-diocesan Seminaries of Hanoi and Saigon were reopened; in 1988, the Seminaries of Can Tho and Vinh; in 1992 it was the turn of Nha Trang, and in 1994, the Seminary of Hué finally opened.
At the beginning, the authorities sanctioned the entrance of new candidates only ever six years. Then, in the nineties, they allowed entrance every three years, and a few years later, every two. The seminary of Hanoi now has the permission to welcome vocations every year. The government, however, has always required the Seminaries not to exceed a fixed number of students in each Seminary. For Hanoi, the government fixed the number of 90 students.
The Growth of Religious Congregations
In Vietnam, many young people want to enter the Seminaries to follow a vocation to consecration. In spite of the restrictions, men religious have increased by 77.74%, and women religious by 51.44%. In the last five years, the Catholic Church in Vietnam has grown by 14.39%. Among the most active religious orders, there are the Redemptorists and the Salesians.
In Vietnam, the Redemptorists work in the field of catechesis and ad gentes mission to non-Christians , they are active in solidarity with the poor, and in the last few years they have been working on the translation of the Bible into Vietnamese.
Fr. Gorge Darlix, Vicar General of the Congregation of the Holy Redeemer, back from a visit to the Redemptorist Province in Vietnam, said that “the situation is still difficult for the religious. In northern Vietnam, for instance, there are few priests and only now, after 50 years, the Christian believers are starting to receive some formation. When the situation will improve, as missionaries our task will be enormous!”. The Redemptorist Province in Vietnam is the largest in Asia. In the last 20 years, the Province has grown considerably: in 1983 it had 179 professed brothers, today it has 207, including one hundred priests; there are also 83 postulants.
We must also point out that young people in Vietnam are fascinated by the charisma of Don Bosco: more than 430 young people aspire to join the Congregation of the Salesians in the Country. The principles of goodness, joy, discipleship of Christ, expressed in the typical forms of the disciples of Don Bosco, continue to conquer the hearts of thousands of young Vietnamese, though the Church still has some trouble with its ordinary pastoral care. The substantial growth of the Salesian order in Vietnam was illustrated to us by Fr. Francesco Cereda, Councillor for Formation of the Order, who recently visited the Asian Country. Fr. Cereda met the young people in formation in Vietnam, and he noticed their great love for Don Bosco, their admiration especially for his missionary spirit. He visited the parishes that serve Vietnamese ethnical minorities at k’Long and k’ren.
“We nourish great expectations for the growth of religious life in Vietnam, in terms of quality and numbers. We will go on working especially on formation”, said Joseph Hoang Van Tiem, Salesian Bishop of Bui Chu, in southern Vietnam.
In 2003, the Bishop organised the first national meeting of religious representatives in the Country in the last 50 years. Msgr. Hoang Van Tiem is the person in charge of the Bishops’ Commission for the Religious, established in 2001. “The Lord continues to give us vocations – Msgr. Van Tiem pointed out – and in Vietnam the number of local religious institutes is increasing”. In Vietnam there are 46 women’s congregations, 25 men’s congregations and 19 secular institutes.
A New Diocese
The Holy See has recently proclaimed the establishment of the new diocese of Ba Ria, in the south of the Country, due to the high number of Catholics in the area. The foundation of the new diocese in the southeastern coastal area of the Country brings the total number of the ecclesiastical circumscriptions in Vietnam up to 26.
The decision came four months after the visit to Rome, from June 27th to July 2nd, of a delegation from Hanoi, the first since 1992, aiming at “increasing the contacts in order to promote mutual understanding”. The talks examined “some aspects of the Catholic Church’s activities in Vietnam, in particular the developments since the previous meeting” in Vietnam in April-May 2004. The news of the foundation of the new diocese came shortly after the news that Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, will ordain 57 new deacons in the Cathedral of Hanoi.
In 2004, the Vietnamese Church celebrated the Holy Year of Evangelisation, which we may call a fresh start for the Church in Vietnam. The Church is undergoing a powerful return to faith and it is reaching a growing awareness that evangelisation is a task up to every believer, said H.E. Msgr. Joseph Hoang Van Tiem, Salesian Bishop of Bui Chu (Southern Vietnam).
The Holy Year of Evangelisation commemorates and celebrates 470 years since the arrival of the first missionaries in Vietnam. The Bishops invited all the faithful to pray, but also to sacrifice for the work of evangelisation. “The objective was to increase the awareness that this task is not only up to priests and religious, it is for all Christians”, the Bishop explained. “The Holy See – he continued – granted the privilege of the Plenary Indulgence, earned in any of the Cathedrals and churches indicated by the Bishops of each diocese. This possibility produced a huge flow of pilgrimages, prayers, of faithful approaching the Sacraments and coming back to faith. It was a special nourishment for the whole community”.
Msgr. Van Tiem says that the Bishops also sent out the priests, the sisters and the laypeople in mission two by two, into the houses of non-Christians, especially the sick, the elderly and the poor. “They went to undertake acts of charity for them, by performing gestures of love in silence and care for their neighbours. If questioned, they explained that their motivation was their faith in Jesus Christ. This way of evangelising fully agrees with the oriental traditions, which demand great respect for the other”.
The previous year, in 2003, the Bishops wrote and published a Pastoral Letter titled “The Mission of the Church in Vietnam today, to proclaim the Good News”. The Letter indicated to all believers what is necessary to renew their commitment to evangelisation in the Vietnamese Church today: to follow Jesus’ example, who used to preach everywhere; to be courageous and enthusiastic in proclaiming the good news; to use modern means of communication and new technologies.
The text, an authentic programmatic charter for the mission of the Church in the Country for the coming years, offers indications to the priests, to the religious, as well as to the seminarians and the laity.
The main theme of the Letter is evangelisation in Vietnam: the Bishops emphasize that the proclamation of the Good News “is a grace, it is the special and most profound vocation of the Church, which draws its origin from the work of love and Salvation of the Trinity”.
The Bishops therefore invite the faithful, the clergy and the laypeople, to follow the example of the Lord Jesus Christ and be his messengers: “He was never tired of preaching the Good News, meeting all kinds of people and performing many miracles, in order to bear witness to the coming of the Kingdom of God”.
The second point the Bishops underscore is to be faithful to the tradition of the Church, taking especially the Church of the beginning as an example, and obeying the teachings that the Church offers its believers today. The Church in Asia, the letter says, received a special task of evangelisation in the third millennium, as the post-Synod exhortation Ecclesia in Asia says.
That is why the Bishops’ attention focused on Vietnam: they thank the missionaries who courageously brought faith into the Country, and invite everyone to follow their example in terms of enthusiasm and commitment to evangelisation. It is necessary to rediscover the spirit that inflamed the Apostles after Pentecost: they lived in harmony and brought the Gospel to people of every tribe, language, people and nation. The faithful, the Bishops pointed out, should have the courage to reach new places, “never reached before by the Good News”, by using mass means of communication and modern technologies.
The Letter ends with some practical indications for everyone: at a spiritual level, to pray for evangelisation in families and congregations; to live life as a witness, even before verbal preaching; to visit people of other religions and start a dialogue with them; to establish special evangelisation committees in the dioceses; to keep in touch with isolated missions and villages; to promote works of charity and human promotion.
“May the Holy Spirit – the text ends – send plentiful grace and a new Pentecost, so that in the third millennium there may be a huge harvest of faith in this vast and vital continent and in our beloved homeland, Vietnam”.
The Church in Vietnam Founded on the Blood of the Martyrs
The work of evangelisation started out in the 16th century, then it settled in the first Apostolic Vicariates of the North (Dàng-Ngoai) and the South (Dàng-Trong) in 1659. Through the centuries it has undergone considerable developments.
The Vietnamese Catholic Hierarchy was established by John XXIII on November 24th, 1960. This was also the result of the fact that since its very first outset, the seed of Faith in Vietnamese soil was mixed with the abundant blood of the martyrs, belonging to the missionary clergy as much as to the local clergy and the Christian people of Vietnam. All together, they endured the labour of the apostolic work, just as they stood together in their death, bearing witness to the truth of the Gospel.
The religious history of the Church in Vietnam reports that 53 edicts, signed by the Trinh and Nguyen Lords or by the King, decreed persecutions against the Christians, one worse than the other, for nearly three centuries, the 17th, 18th and the 19th (precisely 261 years: 1625-1886). There were approximately 130,000 victims to these persecutions, spread all over the Country.
During the centuries, these Martyrs of Faith were buried anonymously, but their memory has always lived on in the spirit of the Catholic community.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, 117 of this immense multitude of Heroes, whose sufferance was of cruel indeed, were chosen and raised to the Altars by the Holy See, in four separate beatifications:
In 1900, by Pope Leo XIII, 64 people
In 1906, by Pope St. Pious X, 8 people
In 1909, by Pope St. Pious X, 20 people
In 1951, by Pope Pious XII, 25 people
The Martyrs of Vietnam (+1745-1862) are:
– Andrea Dung-Lac, Priest
– Tommaso Thien and Emanuele Phung, Laypeople
– Girolamo Hermosilla, Valentino Berrio Ochoa, O.P., and other six Bishops
– Teofano Venard, prist, M.E.P., and 105 Companions, Martyrs
Classified as follows:
Spanish: 11, all belonging to the Order of Preachers (Dominicans): 6 Bishops, 5 Priests.
French: 10, all belonging to the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris: 2 Bishops, 8 Priests.
Vietnamese: 96, 37 Priests (including 11 Dominicans), 59 Christians (including 1 Seminarian, 16 Catechists, 10 Dominican Tertiaries and 1 woman).
According to the following chronological order:
2 fallen under the kingdom of Lord TRINH-DOANH (1740-1767)
2 fallen under the kingdom of Lord TRINH-SAM (1767-1782)
2 fallen under the kingdom of Lord CANH-THNKH (1782-1802)
58 fallen under the kingdom of King MINH-MANG (1820-1840)
3 fallen under the kingdom of King THIEU-TRI (1840-1847)
50 fallen under the kingdom of King TU-DUC (1847-1883)
And on the place of their execution, beside each of them, their sentence is stated:
75 sentenced to be beheaded
22 sentenced to be strangled
6 sentenced to be burnt alive
5 sentenced to the laceration of their bodies
9 died in prison due to the tortures they were inflicted
LIST OF THE 117 MARTYRS OF VIETNAM
(Number, Name, Status, Martyrdom) according to the date of martyrdom
1 Andrea DUNG-LAC, Priest 21-12-1839
2 Domenico HENARES, Bishop O.P. 25-06-1838
3 Clemente Ignazio DELGADO CEBRIAN, Bishop O.P. 12-07-1838
4 Pietro Rosa Ursula BORIE, Bishop M.E.P. 24-11-1838
5 Giuseppe Maria DIAZ SANJURJO, Bishop O.P. 20-07-1857
6 Melchior GARCIA SAMPEDRO SUAREZ, Bishop O.P. 28-07-1858
7 Girolamo HERMOSILLA, Bishop O.P. O1-11-1861
8 Valentino BERRIO OCHOA, Bishop O.P. 01-11-1861
9 Stefano Teodoro CUENOT, Bishop M.E.P. 14-11-1861
10 Francesco GIL DE FEDERICH, Priest O.P. 22-O1-1745
11 Matteo ALONso LECINIANA, Priest O.P. 22-O1-1745
12 Giacinto CASTANEDA, Priest O.P. 07-11-1773
13 Vincenzo LE OUANG LIEM, Priest O.P. 07-11-1773
14 Emanuele NGUYEN VAN TRIEU, Priest 17-09-1798
15 Giovanni DAT, Priest 28-10-1798
16 Pietro LE TuY, Priest 11-10-1833
17 Francesco Isidoro GAGELIN, Priest M.E.P. 17-10-1833
18 Giuseppe MARCHAND, Priest M.E.P. 30-11-1835
19 Giovanni Carlo CORNAY, Priest M.E.P. 20-09-1837
20 Vincenzo Do YEN, Priest O.P. 30-06-1838
21 Pietro NGUYEN BA TUAN, Priest 15-07-1838
22 Giuseppe FERNANDEZ, Priest O.P. 24-07-1838
23 Bernardo VU VAN DUE, Priest 01-08-1838
24 Domenico NGUYEN VAN HANH (DIEU), Priest O.P. 01-08-1838
25 Giacomo Do MAI NAM, Priest 12-08-1838
26 Giuseppe DANG DINH (NIEN) VIEN, Priest 21-08-1838
27 Pietro NGUYEN VAN Tu, Priest O.P. 05-09-1838
28 Francesco JACCARD, Priest M.E.P. 21-09-1838
29 Vincenzo NGUYEN THE DIEM, Priest 24-11-1838
30 Pietro Vo BANG KHOA, Priest 24-11-1838
31 Domenico Tuoc, Priest O.P. 02-04-1839
32 Tommaso DINH VIET Du, Priest O.P. 26-11-1839
33 Domenico NGUYEN VAN (DOAN) XUYEN, Priest O.P. 26-11-1839
34 Pietro PHAM VAN TIZI, Priest 21-12-1839
35 Paolo PHAN KHAc KHOAN, Priest 28-04-1840
36 Giuseppe Do QUANG HIEN, Priest O.P. 09-05-1840
37 Luca Vu BA LOAN, Priest 05-06-1840
38 Domenico TRACH (DOAI), Priest O.P. 18-09-1840
39 Paolo NGUYEN NGAN, Priest 08-11-1840
40 Giuseppe NGUYEN DINH NGHI, Priest 08-11-1840
41 Martino TA Duc THINH, Priest 08-11-1840
42 Pietro KHANH, Priest 12-07-1842
43 Agostino SCHOEFFLER, Priest M.E.P. 01-05-1851
44 Giovanni Luigi BONNARD, Priest M.E.P. 01-05-1852
45 Filippo PHAN VAN MINH, Priest 03-07-1853
46 Lorenzo NGUYEN VAN HUONG, Priest 27-04-1856
47 Paolo LE BAo TINH, Priest 06-04-1857
48 Domenico MAU, Priest O.P. 05-11-1858
49 Paolo LE VAN Loc, Priest 13-02-1859
50 Domenico CAM, Priest T.O.P. 11-03-1859
51 Pietro DOAN LONG QUY, Priest 31-07-1859
52 Pietro Francesco NERON, Priest M.E.P. 03-11-1860
53 Tommaso KHUONG, Priest T.O.P. 30-01-1861
54 Giovanni Teofano VENARD, Priest M.E.P. 02-02-1861
55 Pietro NGUYEN VAN Luu, Priest 07-04-1861
56 Giuseppe TUAN, Priest O.P. 30-04-1861
57 Giovanni DOAN TRINH HOAN, Priest 26-05-1861
58 Pietro ALMATO RIBERA, Priest O.P. 01-11-1861
59 Paolo TONG VIET BUONG, Layperson 23-10-1833
60 Andrea TRAN VAN THONG, Layperson 28-11-1835
61 Francesco Saverio CAN, Catechist 20-11-1837
62 Francesco Do VAN (HIEN) CHIEU, Catechist 25-06-1838
63 Giuseppe NGUYEN DINH UPEN, Catechist T.O.P. 03-07-1838
64 Pietro NGUYEN DicH, Layperson 12-08-1838
65 Michele NGUYEN HUY MY, Layperson 12-08-1838
66 Giuseppe HOANG LUONG CANH, Layperson T.O.P. 05-09-1838
67 Tommaso TRAN VAN THIEN, Seminarista 21-09-1838
68 Pietro TRUONG VAN DUONG, Catechist 18-12-1838
69 Paolo NGUYEN VAN MY, Catechist 18-12-1838
70 Pietro VU VAN TRUAT, Catechist 18-12-1838
71 Agostino PHAN VIET Huy, Layperson 13-06-1839
72 Nicola Bui Duc THE, Layperson 13-06-1839
73 Domenico (Nicola) DINH DAT, Layperson 18-07-1839
74 Tommaso NGUYEN VAN DE, Layperson T.O.P. 19-12-1839
75 Francesco Saverio HA THONG MAU, Catechist T.O.P. 19-12-1839
76 Agostino NGUYEN VAN MOI, Layperson T.O.P. 19-12-1839
77 Domenico Bui VAN UY, Catechist T.O.P. 19-12-1839
78 Stefano NGUYEN VAN VINTI, Layperson T.O.P. 19-12-1839
79 Pietro NGUYEN VAN HIEU, Catechist 28-04-1840
80 Giovanni Battista DINH VAN THANH, Catechist 28-04-1840
81 Antonio NGUYEN HUU (NAM) QUYNH, Layperson 10-07-1840
82 Pietro NGUYEN KHAC Tu, Catechist 10-07-1840
83 Tommaso TOAN, Catechist T.O.P. 21-07-1840
84 Giovanni Battista CON, Layperson 08-11-1840
85 Martino THO, Layperson 08-11-1840
86 Simone PHAN DAc HOA, Layperson 12-12-1840
87 Agnese LE THi THANH (DE), Layperson 12-07-1841
88 Matteo LE VAN GAM, Layperson 11-05-1847
89 Giuseppe NGUYEN VAN Luu, Catechist 02-05-1854
90 Andrea NGUYEN Kim THONG (NAM THUONG), Catechist 15-07-1855
91 Michele Ho DINH HY, Layperson 22-05-1857
92 Pietro DOAN VAN VAN, Catechist 25-05-1857
93 Francesco PHAN VAN TRUNG, Layperson 06-10-1858
94 Domenico PHAM THONG (AN) KHAM, Layperson T.O.P. 13-01-1859
95 Luca PHAM THONG (CAI) THIN, Layperson 13-01-1859
96 Giuseppe PHAM THONG (CAI) TA, Layperson 13-01-1859
97 Paolo HANH, Layperson 28-05-1859
98 Emanuele LE VAN PHUNG, Layperson 31-07-1859
99 Giuseppe LE DANG THI, Layperson 24-10-1860
100 Matteo NGUYEN VAN (NGUYEN) PHUONG, Layperson 26-05-1861
101 Giuseppe NGUYEN DUY KHANG, Catechist T.O.P. 06-11-1861
102 Giuseppe TUAN, Layperson 07-01-1862
103 Giuseppe TUC, Layperson 01-06-1862
104 Domenico NINH, Layperson 02-06-1862
105 Domenico TORI, Layperson 05-06-1862
106 Lorenzo NGON, Layperson 22-05-1862
107 Paolo (DONG) DUONG, Layperson 03-06-1862
108 Domenico HUYEN, Layperson 05-06-1862
109 Pietro DUNG, Layperson 06-06-1862
110 Vincenzo DUONG, Layperson 06-06-1862
111 Pietro THUAN, Layperson 06-06-1862
112 Domenico MAO, Layperson 16-06-1862
113 Domenico NGUYEN, Layperson 16-06-1862
114 Domenico NHI, Layperson 16-06-1862
115 Andrea TUONG, Layperson 16-06-1862
116 Vincenzo TUONG, Layperson 16-06-1862
117 Pietro DA, Layperson 17-06-1862
[Key: O.P.: Order of Preachers (Dominicans); T.O.P.: Tertiary of the Order of Preachers; M.E.P.: Society of Foreign Missions of Paris]
On June 19th, 1988, with a solemn celebration on St. Peter’s Square, Pope John Paul II presided over the solemn canonization of the Martyrs of Vietnam (+1745-1862):
– Andrea Dung-Lac, Priest
– Tommaso Thien and Emmanuele Phung, Laypeople
– Girolamo Hermosilla, Valentino Berrio Ochoa, O.P., and 6 other Bishops
– Teofano Venard, Priest, M.E.P., and 105 Companions, Martyrs
In the Jubilee Year 2000, the Holy Father John Paul II presided over the Beatification ceremony of Proto-Martyr Andrea Phù Yén, a lay catechist martyred in 1644, with the participation of more than two thousand Vietnamese coming from all over the world.
Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan: a Witness of Our Times
The martyrs of the past centuries are not the only authentic witnesses of Christian faith, there are more today. Among the figures that have left a heroic and courageous witness of faith and an indelible trace in the hearts of all Vietnamese in the last few years, there is the Vietnamese Cardinal François Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan (1928-2002).
François Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan was born on April 17th, 1928 at Hué (Vietnam). His family counted many martyrs among its ranks. After the family prayers every evening, his grandmother, who could neither read nor write, used to say the rosary for the priests. His mother Elisabeth had educated him in a christianly manner since he was just a baby. Every evening she told him stories from the Bible and of the witness of the martyrs, especially his ancestors. In this family, Francis Xavier felt called to become a priest, and on June 11th, 1953, he finally realised his dream and became a priest.
After his degree in Canon Law in Rome, in 1959, he went back to Vietnam as a professor, then as Rector of the Seminary, Vicar General and Bishop of Nha Trang in 1967.
At Nha Trang he worked very hard. Under his leadership, in eight years, the major seminarians went from 42 up to 147, and the minor seminarians from 200 up to 500. The motto of the young Bishop was “Gaudium et Spes”, joy and hope. It would become the program of his whole life.
On April 24th, 1975, Paul VI appointed Van Thuan Archbishop Coadjutor of Saigon, but a few months after his appointment, he was imprisoned. It was August 15th, 1975, the Day of the Assumption. The communists in the Vietnamese capital said his appointment was a plot of the Vatican, and put him in prison.
Van Thuan was 47 years old; with only a rosary in his pocket as his luggage, he was sent to a communist re-education camp, where he spent 13 long years, nine in absolute solitary confinement.
He had not even had the chance to take the Bible with him in prison, so he devised to collect all the small pieces of paper he could lay his hands on and make a small notebook out of them. Using his memory, he then wrote down all the sentences of the Gospel he could remember on them: they were more than 300.
This “Gospel” was his daily companion, the precious treasure-case from where he drew the necessary strength to overcome the terrible moments of his imprisonment. The huge feeling of loss of the first days, the long moments when he thought he was becoming crazy, until he finally understood that it would only harm him to reject his condition and wait for a change that would never come. He had understood that “he needed to grasp the moment, and fill it with love”, as he wrote. Therefore, slowly, the hellish darkness of the prison became a monastery, where Van Thuan prayed for his faithful, for his warders, for the Church and for the world, offering his sad conditions as a prisoner even through the Mass.
As soon as he was arrested, he had been given permission to write a letter to his relatives to ask them for what he needed. Van Thuan asked them for a little whine as a medicine against stomach pains. His relatives understood the real meaning of his request, and they sent him a little bottle of wine for the Mass, with the label: “Stomach-Ache Medicine”. The imprisoned bishop could celebrate Mass every day, with three drops of whine and one drop of water mixed in the palm of his hand, and a little bread hidden in a packet of cigarettes.
During his thirteen years of persecution, the celebration of the Eucharist was the main focus of his days.
“In those terrible years of solitary confinement, the hardest of my life – the Bishop often remembered – I saw only two guards who were ordered not to speak to me. I felt abandoned by everyone and I felt the same sufferance as Jesus, alone on the Cross. I thought of my parishioners, the faithful, the priests, the religious, and the seminarians who were outside, abandoned to their sufferance, many of them killed. In that abyss of physical ad mental weakness, I was sent grace from the Virgin Mary. I could no longer celebrate, but I said hundreds of times the Hail Mary, and the Virgin gave me the strength to be united with Jesus, nailed to the Cross: I could perceive how Jesus had saved humanity, there, alone on the Cross, completely still. The warders slowly understood me. We became friends. They helped me. They allowed me to cut a small piece of wood the shape of a Cross. I hid it in a piece of soap. I cut a small piece of electric wire. They lent me a pair of pliers and they helped me to work on it. The cross I wear is made with the wood of the prison and some wire! This cross is a constant call: love, always! Forgive, always! It is how you can evangelise today! Every minute must be devoted to love God!”.
To love always, never to hate: this evangelical rule, that the Vietnamese Bishop could live out daily in the harshness of the prison, where he was thrown without a trial or any sentence, only out of hatred for faith, his attitude of meekness and love, profoundly impressed his warders.
Released on November 21st, 1988, and expelled from his Country, Nguyen Van Thuan came to Italy, where he was appointed President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. After having preached the Lent Spiritual Exercises for the Pope and the Roman Curia during the Year of the Great Jubilee, during the following Consistory, on February 21st, 2001, he was appointed Cardinal. Only a year later, on September 16th, 2002, he died after a long a painful sickness.
His biography is contained in a book by Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, “Witnesses of Hope”, published by Città Nuova. The book contains the homilies of the author to the Pope and the Roman Curia during the Spiritual Exercises for Lent 2000.
At the end of the Year of the Eucharist, we include this testimony, left by Cardinal Van Thuan shortly before his death, on this theme:
“Jesus in the Eucharist helped me survive the hardest years”
Eminences, Excellencies, dear brother priests, dear sisters, dearest brothers and sisters in Christ,
I wish to share with you about my experience in prison and other things I lived as President of “Iustitia et Pax” in the world. As you know, I spent more than thirteen years in prison, nine in solitary confinement, without a single visit from my family, always with two policemen with me, who were not allowed to talk to me, with no radio, no newspaper, no telephone, no television. It was a culture of death.
I immediately want to say how I spent these years, and especially how Jesus in the Eucharist helped me survive the hardest of them. There were moments of despair, of rebellion: why is the Lord sending me to prison when I am still a young Bishop, after eight years of experience? The entire imprisonment with no trial and no judgement.
The first day I was empty–handed. The second day I was allowed to write a few lines to ask for clothes or toothpaste. I wrote asking to be sent some wine and some medicines against stomach pains. People outside have the gift of the Holy Spirit, they immediately understood. The director of the prison summoned me and he asked: “Mr Van Thuan, have you got a stomach-ache?”. “Yes, sir!”. “Do you require medical treatment?!. “Every morning”. “Then here’s a bottle labelled “stomach-ache medicine””. It was a joy to discover that those were the most beautiful Masses of my whole life: I offered the sacrifice every day in the palm of my hand, with three drops of wine and one of water. Every day I could express to the Lord my new and eternal covenant as a priest.
And the Eucharist was strength for me and for the other prisoners. They were close to me, because we all slept together in one bed, 25 on each side, head to head and feet sticking out. In the evening, at half past nine, in the darkness, I would bend down to celebrate the Mass by heart; then, under the mosquito net, I used to pass the Holy Communion to the other five Catholics close to me. The presence of Jesus in the Eucharist was a comfort to us. The following day, we would all go to collect the paper of cigarette boxes, to make small containers out of it and put the Holy Sacrament inside. Every week, on Fridays, there used to be a session of indoctrination. The whole prison went to study. During the break, we would go by every group of fifty and give them a little bag with the body of Jesus inside. Each person of the group carried Jesus in his pocket, and in the hardest moments, when anxiety, sadness, distress were about to prevail, they felt Jesus in the Eucharist always with them. They prayed during the night, they held the holy hour, and thanks to the adoration of Jesus Christ and the Communion, these people who had sometimes abandoned faith, became authentic Christians.
I will never forget how useful it was to have the Liturgical Hymn St. Thomas left us for the celebration of the Corpus Domini, a compendium of the whole of theology in words so simple. Allow me to sing it to you, to make you understand what we felt when we sung it, our heads bowed in the evenings in prison, to see what the Lord has promised us through the figures of the Old Testament:
“In figuris praesignatur / cum Isaac immolatur / Agnus Paschae deputatur / datur manna patribus”. On the other hand, we understood the Marian profile of the Eucharist: when we celebrate, we are indeed children of Mary: “Ave verum corpus, natum de Maria virgine”.
These hymns helped many of us in prison. These laypeople became so courageous, serene in great sadness, and they served everyone with love. Their witness fascinated other non-Catholics, sometimes fanatics, who questioned them to know more about religion, about Jesus. These laypeople become catechists, they baptised other fellow prisoners and become their godfathers.
With the Eucharist, the prison changed: it became a school of faith and catechesis. (…)
Jesus gives us what we need in the Eucharist: love, the art of loving: to love at all times, to love smiling, to love immediately and to love one’s enemies, to love forgiving and forgetting having forgiven. I believe that Jesus in the Eucharist can teach us seven aspects of this love. In the cenacle, Jesus shows us his sacrifice of love:
“This is my body, given for you”. When, after the supper, he goes to the Gethsemane, he is abandoned love: Jesus feels abandoned by the Father, but he abandons himself completely and totally in the hands of the Father: “Non sicut ego volo sed sicut tu”. On the cross, Jesus showed love fulfilled, for he loved us to the end and he said: “Everything is fulfilled”. There is nothing he did not do for us. Moreover, when the Risen accompanies the two disciples of Emmaus and talks to them, explaining the Scriptures to them and he reveals himself as the Eucharist in the breaking of the bread, he is intimate love. In the Mass, Jesus offers himself in our hands every day; his sacrifice for us, his blood shed for us and for everyone, is a sacrificial love, a manducated love, as the curate of Ars used to say: “The priest, and all Christians, are manducated people”. In the tabernacle, Jesus shows us his love, hidden in silence and prayer. On the monstrance, Jesus shows us his radiant love and we are all a ray of Jesus: we must be light, just as he wants us to be.
When I was in prison, the police officers would not speak to me, but one day they told me that when their superiors had sent them there, they had told them: “Since you are going to guard a very dangerous Bishop, you will have shifts every two weeks with another group, otherwise he will contaminate you”. After having followed them, the superiors summoned them and said: “We aren’t changing you anymore, otherwise this wicked Bishop will contaminate the whole police-force”.
But what poison did he contaminate them with? The poison of Jesus’ love. One day I had to chop some wood. I asked one of them who had become my friend: “Let me cut a piece of wood the shape of a cross”. “It is very dangerous, it is forbidden. You are my friend now and I will be in prison like you”. “No, close your eyes and let me go on with it”. He could not resist and he left. I cut a piece of wood the shape of a cross and hid it in a piece of soap until the day I was released: I made this cross with the black wood of the prison.
In another prison close to Hanoi, one day I asked a policeman to do me a favour: to cut a piece of electric wire for me. “Do you want to kill yourself?”. “Absolutely not!”. “But what are you planning to do with a piece of wire?”. “I want to make a chain so I can wear my cross”. “But I can’t understand how you plan to make a chain with some wire!”. “Just lend me a small pair of pliers and I’ll show you: it’s hard!”. Three days later, he came back saying: “I cannot refuse, it is a security breach; but you are my friend: tomorrow I’ll bring the things you asked me for and we’ll have to get it all done between 7 and 11, otherwise, if anyone sees us, he’ll expose us”. And in four hours, he helped me make this chain of wire that I always carry with me, not only because it is a memento, but above all because it is a call to love like Jesus loved us.
The policemen often asked me: “Do you love us?”. “Of course I do”. “That’s impossible! We’ve been keeping you here for more than ten years, with no judgement, no trial, and you love us?”. “I still love you, and you see that we are friends. It is beautiful, but incomprehensible that you can love your enemies”. “Why do you love us, though?” “Because Jesus taught me to, and if I do not love you, I am no longer worthy of being called a Christian. A Christian must love like Jesus”. That is how we lived in prison until the end. (…)
Praying to Jesus in the Eucharist leads to love the whole world as Jesus said: “My flesh is for the life of the world. Caro mea est pro mundi vita”. And for the celebration of the Corpus Domini, I am sure there are many other immense graces that the Lord is saving for us”.
(Msgr. François Xavier Van Thuan, Vietnamese Archbishop, President of the Pontifical Council “Iustitia et Pax”)
The Shrine of La Vang: the Virgin Patron of the Catholics of Vietnam
The very heart of the Marian faith and spirituality in Vietnam is the Shrine of La Vang, which Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe will visit during his Apostolic Journey. It remembers the Apparition of the Virgin Mary in the forest near Quang Tri to a group of Vietnamese Catholics fleeing from the persecutions of King Canh Minh toward the end of the 18th century.
Today the Shrine of “Our Lady of La Vang” is one of the most well-known and visited places in Asia. The Shrine of La Vang, which belongs to the Archdiocese of Hué, in central Vietnam, is where the Virgin appeared, for the first time in 1798, to comfort the Vietnamese Christians in their extreme sufferance.
The name “La Vang” comes from the forest, where in the past a few small Christian communities around the area used to go to collect wood.
Toward the end of the 18th century, present Vietnam used to be divided in two kingdoms: the North, with Hanoi as its capital, where the Trinh family ruled, and the South, with Hué as its capital, ruled by the Nguyen family. The rulers of the South, in the attempt to occupy also the North, asked France for help. A group of cultured men, calling themselves “Van Than”, opposed the French intervention and endorsed the proclamation of Quang Trung as king of the South. The new king actually conquered the North, but he died prematurely shortly afterwards.
In August 1798, the collaborators of the young king decreed a persecution against the Christians, which the Van Than considered responsible for the French presence in Vietnam. The Christians took shelter in the forests of La Vang, about 60 km from Hué, heedless of the danger of wild beasts, hunger and diseases. To encourage one another, they used to gather every day around a large tree and say the rosary to the Virgin Mary.
One day, with two angels at her sides, with the Baby Jesus in her arms, the Virgin appeared, reassuring the Christians that she had heard their prayers, and promising them protection and healing for their troubles. The Lady also gave them a sign: they would eat and be satisfied of the ferns and wild plants of the jungle.
Other Apparitions came after this one and the Virgin again comforted the Vietnamese faithful and taught them how to recognise and use some of the surrounding plants as medical herbs. She also told them that from that day on, anyone who would come there to pray would be rewarded with many graces. In particular, she said: “Be assured, endure good-heartedly pains and sorrows. I have already fulfilled your prayers. From now on, anyone who comes to pray in this place shall see his prayers fulfilled”.
More, however, and even more violent persecutions, raged against the Vietnamese in the mid 19th century: the devotion to the Virgin remained one of the crucial points of the faith of the martyrs, who often presented themselves for torture with the rosary around their necks. About 100,000 Christians were said to have died during those persecutions.
After the first Apparition in August 1798, the Virgin continued to appear to the people of the place many other times during persecutions, establishing such a devotion, that many Vietnamese Catholics, captured and sentenced to be burnt alive for to their faith, asked to be killed in the place of the Apparitions, at La Vang.
In 1886 the persecutions stopped. As soon as peace was restored, a small wooden church rose in the area, becoming the destination of many pilgrimages. Later the persecutors burnt down the small church of the Virgin of La Vang. It was substituted by a stone church, solemnly inaugurated in 1901 by Fr. Morineau, of the Foreign Missions of Paris, before a huge number of faithful, nearly twelve thousand people, who rejoiced at hearing the Lady of La Vang proclaimed “Patron of the Vietnamese Catholics”.
This chapel, however, was soon too small to contain the ever-growing flow of devotees. More chapels were built, one after the other: the last one, with its three small bells, was blessed in 1928 by Msgr. Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Allys, the Apostolic Vicar of Hué.
A few years later, and precisely in 1934, the Holy Virgin appeared once again, this time to two women of the place, pagans, to show them the way to a spring where they could immerse the sick son of one of the two Seers, who was immediately healed.
On April 13th, 1961, the Bishops of southern Vietnam (divided from northern Vietnam from the 18th parallel), gathered in Hué and pronounced a vow to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. They promised to consecrate a temple to her as soon as the circumstances would allow it and asked the Virgin for freedom for the Church and peace for the two parts of the Country. Furthermore, with their Collegial Letter dated August 8th of the same year, they recognised La Vang as “National Marian Centre”. A few days later, on August 22nd, Pope John XXIII raised the church of La Vang to the status of Minor Basilica, a joy to the hearts of all Vietnamese Catholics.
However, the tormented events of the Shrine did not end, as if it were involved in the sorrowful history of the Vietnamese Catholic people. In 1961 and in the following years the Shrine was enlarged and enriched with further works. The different constructions of La Vang, however, were completely destroyed in 1972, during the war between the North and the South. Only after the reunification of the Country (April 30th, 1975), the Bishops of entire Vietnam, gathered in Hanoi on May 1st, 1990, solemnly renewed the recognition of La Vang as “National Marian Centre”.
Every year many thousands of pilgrims go to La Vang to worship the Heavenly Lady, the beloved “Patron of the Vietnamese Catholics”. The very Marian heart of Vietnam, the Shrine is the physical sign of the sturdy faith of this little flock.
In the course of two centuries, bishops, priest, religious and laypeople have gone to this “house of Mary”, to listen to a message of hope that encouraged them to bear a powerful witness of Christian life even in the face of adversities.
Mary, the Mother of all people, has an important place in the Vietnamese Catholic Church. During the terrible war in Vietnam, the Catholics of Vietnam addressed their pleas for peace to her, because they know and revere Mary especially with her title of “Our Lady of Peace”. In every home, the statue of the Virgin has a place of honour, and during the month of May, people organise processions through the cities and the villages, though religious activities are still subject to severe restrictions.
In 1998, for the 200th anniversary of the first Apparition, the Marian Shrine of La Vang was the destination of more than 200,000 pilgrims, who challenged the restrictions enforced by the government. The Vietnamese authorities advised people against setting out on the journey for “security reasons”, and they warned the travel agencies not to sell tickets to pilgrims. The Vietnamese pilgrims, however, were not discouraged, and they reached their beloved Shrine in mass.
As they go to Notre-Dame de La Vang, a place so dear to the Vietnamese Christians, the pilgrims entrust their sorrows, their hopes and their sufferance to Mary. Through Mary, they turn their hearts to God and intercede for their families and the entire people. They ask the Lord to fill everyone’s heart with feelings of peace, fraternity and solidarity, so that the people of Vietnam may grow in unity and build a more just and authentic world, founded on fundamental spiritual and moral values, where every human being is recognised for his dignity as a son of God, who may address freely, as a Son, the Heavenly Father “rich in mercy” (Eph. 2, 4).