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The Church in Vietnam: Road of Hope

The first historical mention of the presence of Catholics in Vietnam was made in 1533. An ancient Vietnamese chronicle announces the promulgation of a royal decree forbidding the profession of faith in Christ within the realm of Vietnam (the chronicle even mentions the name of the missionary–Ignatius–who was guilty of this “crime”).

Martyrdom from its very beginnings

Christianity came to Vietnam in the first half of the 16th century, thanks to the missionary activity of Catholic orders (especially the Jesuits), which spread the Gospel throughout the regions of South-East Asia bordering Indochina (the Philippines, the Moluccas, South China). Significantly, the first historical mention of the presence of Catholics in Vietnam was made in 1533; an ancient Vietnamese chronicle announces the promulgation of a royal decree forbidding the profession of faith in Christ within the realm of Vietnam (the chronicle even mentions the name of the missionary–Ignatius–who was guilty of this “crime.”

The history of the Church in Vietnam during the following three centuries is analogous to the history that was the lot of Catholics of that day and age in that part of the world (China and Japan): in other words, persecution, interrupted briefly by periods of tolerance for Christianity. It is estimated that until the beginning of the 19th century over 130 000 Vietnamese Catholics sacrificed their lives for Christ. Between 1625 and 1886 various Vietnamese rulers made out over fifty anti-Christian edicts. The bloodiest period of oppression to afflict the Church in Vietnam was during the reign of Minh Manga (1820–1840), who was not without cause named the ‘Nero of Indochina’.

Today’s Church remembers the Vietnamese martyrs in its martyrology. On 19 June 1998 Pope John Paul II canonized 117 witnesses of Christ from Vietnam, who with their own blood bore witness to endurance in Christ. Amongst them are clergy (eight bishops and fifty priests) as well as lay people (forty one men and one woman).

Since the time of the Roman persecutions, it is a well-known truth amongst Christians that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”–a truth not without relevance to the Vietnamese Church. Despite oppression, the church continued to grow. In 1668 the first Vietnamese priests were ordained. In the beginning of the 19th century an ecclesiastical structure existed (with three dioceses). In 1933 Pope Pius XI consecrated the first Vietnamese bishop (John the Baptist Nguyen Ba Tong).

As in the case of the martyred church in Japan (see the earlier article in Love One Another), during times of oppression the Church in Vietnam likewise experienced the special presence and care of the Mother of God. The biggest Marian sanctuary in Vietnam is found in the village of La Vang (in the central part of Vietnam). During the bloody persecution of the Church from 1798–1801, the faithful sought safety in the jungle nearby. Here, in these Vietnamese catacombs, starving Vietnamese Catholics prayed, awaiting death at the hands of their oppressors. One day, the Mother of God appeared before the praying community, and she promised to promptly liberate those who persisted in prayer. In keeping with Mary’s promise, the persecutions ceased in 1802. In 1820, at the site of the apparition, a chapel was built, which was destroyed in 1885 during a subsequent wave of oppression. In 1928, in the presence of over twenty thousand pilgrims, the Le Vang church was consecrated. The Apostolic See raised it to the status of minor basilica in 1961. At this time, Vietnam was already politically divided into the communist north and the democratic south. The national pilgrimages to the Lady of Le Vang were a visible witness to the unity of all Vietnamese.

Communist Re-education

In 1954 France’s reign in Indochina came to an end. At the same time, communist rule in northern Vietnam began. For the time being, the southern part of the country had resisted the communist invasion; indeed, since the 1960s, southern Vietnam had enjoyed American military support. The communist dictatorship signified a new era of persecution (confined to the north until 1975) for the Vietnamese Church. Vietnamese communists acted according to the previously proven scenario in Europe and Asia (China). They therefore tried to break up the Church from within, by endeavoring to create a so-called patriotic Church, obedient to the authorities. The prelude to this was the Committee of Patriotic and Peace loving Catholics, set up in 1955.

When this undertaking miscarried, because of the unshakable obedience of the Church in North Vietnam to the Apostolic See, the communist authorities commenced the second phase of their anti-Catholic policy: overt persecution. This took place under the pretext of “land reform” towards the end of 1955 and the beginning of 1956. The church possessed various real estate and farmland: the income from these went towards the maintenance of catholic schools, orphanages and other charitable initiatives. The authorities thus deemed the church a “landowner.” As a result of this “reform” some 170 000 people died, including many Catholics (both the clergy and lay).

Over the following years the communist authorities in North Vietnam continued to pursue the politics of repression. Those priests who had previously not escaped to South Vietnam had to face the real threat of prison and death. Such a fate met the Redemptorist Father Marcel Nguyen Tan Van who, unlike most of his fellow brothers, remained in Hanoi, the capital of communist Vietnam. In May 1955 Father Marcel was arrested without cause. Four years later he died in a communist cell. A similar fate met Father Clement Pham, who was arrested in 1962 and died in prison from emaciation in 1970.

South Vietnam, which was defended by the American army until 1975, offered asylum to Vietnamese Catholics who were persecuted by the communists. Following 30 June 1975 everything changed. On that day the northern communist aggression towards the democratic south came to an end with the successful capture of Saigon (the capital of South Vietnam). The last American divisions left Vietnam. The so-called Vietnam War was over: a war thoroughly distorted by communist propaganda, as well as the Hollywood films that followed in its wake.

The deception relied on presenting the aggressor (i.e. the communist north) as the victim, and the victim of the aggression (i.e. the south) and its allies (the Americans) as the aggressors. In the meantime, after 1975 the darkness of communist dictatorship descended upon all Vietnamese, particularly those in the south. None of the Hollywood stars, so passionately protesting against the Vietnam War, remembered the 100 000 victims and more of the so-called re-education camps created by the communists in South Vietnam after 1975. There were no protests in the streets of Western cities taking up the cause of the refugees, the so-called boat people, who escaped by the thousands from communist Vietnam in small boats. It is estimated that by 1987 the number of boat people had reached 600 000, half of whom perished out at sea. Many of these (as in the case of the victims in re-education camps) were Christians from South Vietnam.

After 1975 the communist regime extended its anti-Catholic politics to include the newly acquired south. Here too (likewise unsuccessfully) the maneuver involving the so-called patriotic Church was attempted (shortly after taking Saigon, the communists formed the Solidarity Committee of Vietnamese Catholics and sponsored the publishing of the pro-government periodical “Catholics and the People”). The government’s purpose became clear; in 1976 it was enjoined that prayers for the intention of the pope should not be recited during Mass in the patriotic Church. Following this event, the Committee died a natural death.

The Cardinal Martyr

After the communist occupation of South Vietnam, the great majority of priests who had been working there until 1975 met the fate which had been the lot of their fellow priests in the north following 1954: prison (most commonly called “re-education camps” located deep in the jungle), which often ended in death.

Such a fate met Bishop Xavier Nguyen van Thuan. He had been the bishop of Nha Trang diocese from 1967 to 1975. On 24 April 1975 (six days before the occupation of Saigon by the communists) he was elected archbishop by Pope Paul VI–the coadjutor of Saigon. Four months later he was thrown into prison for his part in a “spy conspiracy” (this was the interpretation the communists placed upon the aforementioned papal nomination).

For thirteen years Bishop Nguyen Van Thuan was a prisoner in the communist re-education camp: 9 of these were spent in solitary confinement. He was freed in November 1988 and exiled. He arrived in Rome, where John Paul II appointed him head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. In 2001 the Holy Father elevated him to the position of Cardinal. As we know, the cardinal’s purple reminds us of the readiness to martyrdom. In the instance of this cardinal, it was rather more a description of his life.

Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan said: “The martyrs taught us to say “yes”: a “yes” devoid of conditions, with boundless love for the Lord. But the martyrs also taught us to say “no”–no to flattery, to compromises, to injustice–even with the justification of saving one’s own life.” The life of the Cardinal was just such a “yes” to Christ. In his book, The Road of Hope, the Cardinal recalled: “One night in the depths of my heart I heard a voice say to me, “Why are you distressed? You must distinguish between God and God’s work–all that you have done and intend doing, such as pastoral visits, the formation of seminarians and monks, the building of schools and evangelization. All that is wonderful work, God’s work, but it is not God! If God wants you to be done with all this and to leave this work in His hands, do so and trust in Him. God will carry out this work incomparably better than you, He will entrust this work to others who are more gifted than you. You only need to choose between God and His work.”

The future cardinal’s life in the communist jail was a wonderful witness to a great faith in the power of the Eucharist. Years later, Nguyen Van Thuan wrote: “[I]n the loneliness of the desert, in the darkness of the prison, turn towards all the world’s altars upon which Christ offers Himself in sacrifice: offer up yourself. Your heart will overflow with courage and consolation.” Despite the inhuman conditions in the prison, the bishop did not stop saying Mass. His altar was a small box; he cupped the wine (which was smuggled into prison as a “stomach medication”) and the water in his hands during Mass, and the consecrated hosts, wrapped in tissues, were then objects of adoration for himself and his fellow prisoners. This example of heroic faith bore wonderful fruit within the prison walls in the form of conversions of his non-Christian fellow prisoners (e.g. Buddhists). Later, prison wardens remembered that Bishop Nguyen Van Thuan showed neither hatred nor even animosity towards anybody, not even his persecutors. And, like the many Vietnamese martyrs who preceded him, he too turned for help to the Mother of God. He wrote, “[T]he hard years in prison passed very slowly. Suffering humiliations and abandonment, I sought support and hope in the love of Mary, our most holy Mother. And in the intercession of Mary’s wonderful servants–St Louis de Montfort, St John Bosco and St Maximilian Kolbe: they were my companions on the road of hope. They inspired me and gave me a steadfast trust in the love of Mary, Queen of apostles and martyrs.”

In prison, Bishop Nguyen Van Thuan entrusted his life to the Mother of God. On Her feast day he began thirteen years of life in prison (15 August 1975), and on another Marian feast day (Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary) he was freed (21 November 1988). The cardinal martyr died in 2002. During the funeral Mass, John Paul II called him “a shining example of Christian faith culminating in martyrdom.” In his encyclical Spe Salvi Benedict XVI referred to him as a heroic witness to hope. Recently, the Apostolic See announced the beginning of the beatification process of this Vietnamese cardinal.

A Tough Present

At the start of the 21st century, the catholic community in Vietnam numbers about 8 million people (out of a population of 82 million) and, following the Philippines, is one of the biggest catholic groups in South East Asia. This does not mean that the tough times are over for the Vietnamese church. The Vietnamese communist rulers continue to try their hand at meddling in the inner affairs of the Church, such as questioning Rome’s nominations of bishops. (In 2003, the authorities in Hanoi officially protested against the nomination of Jean Baptiste Pham Minh Mana as cardinal.) Various administrative difficulties proliferate, aimed at both the lay and the clergy (this is especially obvious in the authorities’ restrictive policy concerning the catholic press and education.) In the summer of 2008, police brutally dispersed a group of faithful, who were praying at the site of the former Redemptorist monastery–a place that had witnessed the martyrdom of Vietnamese monks. On this occasion the state press dubbed the Catholics “criminals.” But the Church of the martyrs cannot perish.

Grzegorz Kucharczyk (translated by Alicja KozЕ‚owska)

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The article was published with the permission from "Love One Another!" in June 2016.

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