Catholic Church in Vietnam with 470 years of Evangelization

The following speech is delivered at Religious Education Congress in Anaheim Convention Center in 2004 and this article is distributed to general public who are attending the Congress. Our purpose is to give a general view about the Catholic Church in Vietnam

1. The beginning stage of Catholic Faith in Vietnam

Vietnam is a long, narrow country in the shape of S alphabet, located along the Pacific Ocean and separated from the rest of the peninsula by mountain ranges and hill country. It is surrounded by China on the north, and by Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia on the west. Early inhabitants came from China or migrated over the mountain ranges from India.

Catholicism came to Vietnam from of European missionaries during the sixteenth century. Before Christianity was introduced, Vietnamese worship centered on several religions. Animism, a form of natural religion, taught that nature is filled with spirits, who are most evident in natural phenomena--rivers, mountains, oceans, and celestial bodies. Ancestors worshippers have been common religion for many Vietnamese, who honor their ancestors of which the ritual is influenced by Chinese. The arrival of Buddhism from India in the sixth century B.C., subsequently mixed with Taoism, a religious-philosophical system, and finally with Confucianism in a reformed mode. This form of syncretism religion was ingrained in the Vietnamese culture for almost two millennia before Christ.

Recorded history of Catholicism in Vietnam was as the followings: According to the Royal Vietnamese Annals: “in the year of Nguyên Hòa (1533), under the reign of King Lê Trang Tông, there was a decree already in existence that banned Christianity. The decree mentioned the name of an European individual, Ignatio, who by seaway had landed and preached the religion at Ninh Cường and Quỳnh Anh Villages, district Nam Chân” (present Nam Định). The document did not mention his congregation, but probably Ignatio belonged to a religious order. Based on the fact that the above decree had been issued before 1533 it is understandable to presume that the Good News of Jesus Christ had been preached before that year of 1533 on the soil of Vietnam. Therefore, it was a very important year in the history of the Vietnamese Catholic Church.In the very early stage of the Vietnamese Church, the missionaries traveled all over the country. They came from different European countries via neighboring countries such as the Philippine Islands, Malacca, Macao, Japan,... They were accompanied by European merchants and belonged to a variety of congregations: Society of Jesus (SJ), Dominican Fathers (OP), Order of the Minor Friars of St. Francis (Franciscans, ofm) and the Foreign Mission of Paris (MEP).

2. The Challenging and Persecution Period

Phat Diem Cathedral
The seed of the Gospel was sowed into Vietnam with the new waves of commercial ventures of Europeans. In the beginning there was an acceptance and in tranquility, and sometimes with curiosity about the Western culture and religion. But frightening storms arose because of misunderstanding that those who followed Western Religion would denied their traditional customs and not loyal to the Royal Court. There began persecutions and innumerable arrests, imprisonments and killings have clouded the sky of the Church throughout 4 centuries, under three dynasties. 130,000 Vietnamese Catholics have shed their blood to defend their faith, braving all kinds of tortures and sufferings such as cruel execution, exile, property confiscation, refuge in jungle, local discrimination, hostility from authority, misunderstanding from their compatriots, even their relatives,... Somehow at that time, their death sentence had already been marked at the very moment they received baptism.

But “the blood of the martyrs is the seeds of Christians” as Tertullian reminded us in the first century of the Christianity proved to be true in Vietnamese situation.

The first seminary in Vietnam was established in 1665 and from there that the first Vietnamese priests were ordained: Father Joseph Trang (March 1668), Fathers John Huệ and Benedict Hiền (August 1668). Thanks to these Vietnamese clergy and the zeal of European missionaries that the Church made a tremendous inroad into Vietnamese society, even amidst many trials and difficulties.

St Joseph Cathedral in Hanoi
By 1802, the Vietnamese Catholic Church was considered to have had a sufficiently stable structure with 3 dioceses as follows:

• Diocese of Eastern North Vietnam: 140,000 members, 41 Vietnamese priests, 4 missionary priests and 1 bishop.
• Diocese of Western North Vietnam: 120,000 members, 65 Vietnamese priests, 46 missionary priests and 1 bishop.
• Diocese of Central and South Vietnam: 60,000 members, 15 Vietnamese priests, 5 missionary priests and 1 bishop.

At the first years of 19th century, the Vietnamese Church was composed of 320,000 believers, 119 Vietnamese priests, 15 missionary priests and 3 foreign bishops. The constant increase of followers as well as a wide development of evangelization have led to the consecration of the first Vietnamese bishop, Most Reverend John Baptist Nguyễn Bá Tòng, on June 11, 1933 at St. Peter’ Basilica by Pope Pius XI who installed him as the coadjutor bishop of Phát Diệm with the right of succession.

3. Establishement of Hierarchy of the Church in Vietnam

A memorable event in the history of the Church of Vietnam occurred on November 24, 1960 when Pope John XXIII issued a decree to establish the hierarchy of the Church at Vietnam that consisted of 3 archdioceses: Hà Nội, Huế, Sài Gòn, and 17 dioceses: Lạng Sơn, Hải Phòng và Bắc Ninh, Hưng Hóa, Thái Bình, Bùi Chu, Phát Diệm, Thanh Hóa, Vinh, Qui Nhơn, Nha Trang, Kontum, Vĩnh Long, Cần Thơ, Đà Lạt, Mỹ Tho và Long Xuyên.

Consequently in 1976, the Holy See elevated Archbishop Joseph Mary Trịnh Như Khuê as the first Vietnamese cardinal. Succeeding him in 1979 was Joseph Mary Cardinal Trịnh Văn Căn, and on October 30, 1994, Paul Joseph Cardinal Phạm Đình Tung. The other Vietnamese Cardinal that well known to everyone is Cardinal Nguyên văn Thuân, who was imprisoned by the Communist regime from 1975-1988, nine years of which he spent in solitary confinement. He was appointed Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and then made President on 24 June 1998. On February 21, 2001 he was elevated to the College of Cardinals by the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. And as recently as October 21, 2003, the Archbishop John Baptist Pham Minh Mẫn of Saigon Archdiocese was elevated by Pope John Paull II to the College of the Cardinals.

The Church of Vietnam was born and grew up in persecution and in the blood of the holy Vietnamese Martyrs, even today, many Catholics are still suffering trials and persecution under atheist Vietnamese Communist Regime. More than 130,000 heroic ancestors of ours courageously sacrificed their lives to defend their strong faith to Jesus Christ. On Sunday, June 19, 1998, at the St. Peter Square, Pope John Paul II solemnly canonized 117 Vietnamese Blessed Martyrs: 8 bishops, 50 priests, 16 catechists, 1 seminarian and 41 laymen and 1 laywoman. Their feast day is to be celebrated on November 24.

With all those glorious accomplishments and efforts in evangelization, the Catholic Church of Vietnam deserves to be called "the eldest daughter" of the Church of Asia.

4. The Catholic Church in Vietnam at Present Time

Across the country, despite the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom, the Vietnamese Communist Party and its government continue their policy of systematic elimination of all organized religions. The Vietnamese communist government has repeatedly rejected Vatican-appointed Bishops for vacant ‘sede’. Meanwhile, the training and ordaining of new clergy to fill position left opened by priests who have passed away continues to be severely restricted and Church facilities continue to be confiscated by the government. For the last two years, there have been some openness to different kind of religious activities of the Church. At the present time, we have 25 dioceses. And here are some statistical numbers summary:

Phủ Cam Cathedral in Huế
• 8 millions of Vietnamese Catholics in the population of 84 millions)
• 2,200 parishes in 25 dioceses
• 2,900 priests
• 1,500 religious men
• 10,000 religious women
• 1,500 seminarians
• 40,000 catechists
• 100,000 baptism every year
• 30,000 new catechumen every year
(Source: Vietnamese National Bishops Conference )

The Vietnamese Catholics in the United States

In the aftermath of the Communist takeover of South Vietnam on April 30, 1975, the world witnessed an outpouring of refugees in small makeshift vessels, even oil drums strung together--none considered sea-worthy. The first wave of Vietnamese refugees numbered about 160,000 persons. Between 1970 and 1987, the number of so-called "boat people," was estimated to be approximately 600,000. They defied death and risked their lives on the high seas to escape the unimaginably brutal and inhuman treatment of the Communists. An estimated forty-five percent died at sea; many women were captured by pirates who molested them.

According to the 1990 Census, over fifty percent of Vietnamese refugees were settled in California, and 100,000 went to Texas. Arizona, Illinois, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Louisiana, Colorado, New York…In these Vietnamese enclaves, Vietnamese Catholics have formed communities among themselves for the sake of cultural and religious practices.

By 1989, the Orderly Departure Process (ODP) was initiated, which decreed that only immediate family members--spouses, parents and unmarried children--were qualified to enter the United States. Also, the Amerasian Children Program, and finally the Humanitarian Program (HO) for former political prisoners. It is estimated that as a result of these programs, over one million Vietnamese now live in the United States. Of this number, approximately twenty-seven percent or 300,000 Vietnamese are Catholic.

Among the refugee population many are priests, religious, and brothers. Among the first wave of refugees, approximately 200 priests and 250 sisters who escaped were able to minister with their people. These priests and religious were a great benefit to the refugees because as they moved out of the transit camps, the priests and religious went with them to take care of their spiritual needs. Vocations to the priesthood from the Vietnamese-American communities grew rapidly so that by 2004, about 450 more priests were ordained and about 1,000 sisters entered the Vietnamese religious orders in the United States to minister in their communities.

In 1980, at the first convention of Vietnamese Catholics, the Vietnamese Catholic Federation was formed with Rev. Joseph Tinh as its first president. The Vietnamese Community of Clergy and Religious, formed earlier in 1968, was merged with the federation. Up to now, 6 Vietnamese Catholic National Conventions were organized to bring Vietnamese Catholics in USA together, and the last convention was organized in June 2003 in Orange County, California.

Nhà Thờ Đức Bà Cathedral in Saigon
Some dioceses have responded to the pastoral needs of the Vietnamese by creating personal parishes, of which there are now 34 in the United States. Many dioceses established Vietnamese Apostolate Centers, many of which have now been phased out. All of these pastoral models have been organized for the care of seventy-five percent of Vietnamese Catholics; the remaining twenty-five percent or 70,000 Catholics live and worship in small scattered communities.

On April 24, 2003, Pope John Paul II has appointed Monsignor Dominic Mai Thanh Lương, as the first Vietnamese Bishop in USA with Titular Bishop of Cebarades and Auxiliary Bishop of Orange, California.

Like other people who have migrated to the United States, the Vietnamese bring with them special characteristics of their own culture. These characteristics help them preserve the foundations of their family and spiritual life and contribute to making the American culture more beautiful. In their liturgical life, these characteristics also help Vietnamese Catholics preserve and practice their faith in a stable way while adjusting to life in this new land.

Until now, although living in the United States, most Vietnamese have continued to adhere to the structure of the extended family to form one family unit. Each person must respect and obey his or her elders, staying together and supporting one another. This way of life has a permanent effect on the liturgical life of Vietnamese Catholics.

While adjusting to U.S. culture, Vietnamese Catholics have preserved their faith and made significant and steady progress in evangelization because of the development of pastoral activities that embrace their own culture. This has resulted in strong family unity and sound academic achievement by their children. More and more, they are participating in and contributing to the life of the local community.

Our Lady of La Vang

Our Lady of La Vang is the central and national shrine of Vietnam, approximately 60 kilometers from the former capital Huê. During the great persecution (1798-1801) many Christians took refuge in the jungle situated in proximity of Quang Tri, a village in central Vietnam, where they experienced hunger and sickness, and prepared themselves for martyrdom. One day, as the community was assembled in prayer, the figure of a lady surrounded by abundant lights, appeared to them. She presented herself as the Mother of God, encouraged and consoled them, and gave them a special sign of her loving care. She advised the people to use the leaves of the fern to treat their ailments, and promised them to receive their prayers with maternal generosity. All who would congregate on this site to pray would be heard and their petitions granted. Mary appeared on several occasions at the same site.

Our Lady of La Vang statue
After the persecution in 1802, the Catholics left their jungle hiding places and returned to their villages. However, the story of the apparition and its message was passed on. In 1820 a chapel was built at the apparition site. From 1820-1885 still another wave of persecution decimated the Catholic faithful. In 1885 the chapel in honor of Our Lady of La Vang was destroyed by a fanatic. A new chapel was built between 1886 and consecrated in 1901. Soon it was no longer able to hold the many pilgrims to La Vang, and in 1923 a new and bigger church was erected. It was consecrated in August 22, 1928. in the presence of 20,000 pilgrims. Every three years a national pilgrimage was organized for the whole country which was to have a special meaning even after the separation of South and North. In 1959 La Vang was officially declared a national shrine, marking the 300 years of the Church's presence in Vietnam. The Church of La Vang was made a basilica minor in 1961.

The Holy Father recently said that: "In visiting the shrine of Our Lady of La Vang, who is so loved by the Vietnamese faithful, pilgrims come to entrust to her their joys and sorrows, their hopes and sufferings. In this way, they call on God and become intercessors for their families and nation, asking the Lord to infuse in the heart of all people feelings of peace, fraternity and solidarity, so that all the Vietnamese will be more united every day in the construction of a world based on essential spiritual and moral values, where each one will be recognized because of his dignity as a son of God, and be able go in freedom and as a son toward the Father of Heaven, 'rich in mercy' ".

Rev. John Trần Công Nghị
(A presentation at 2004 Religious Education Congress in Anaheim)