Dark cloud hovering the grand opening ceremony of Holy Jubilee in Vietnam
J.B. An Dang11/23/2009

More than a hundred thousand of Catholics participated in the grand opening ceremony of the Holy Jubilee as Masses being simultaneously celebrated throughout the country. Though the joy on the opening day of the Holy Jubilee in Vietnam was overshadowed by the news that Archbishop of Hanoi had submitted his resignation to the Pope under the pressure of the communist government. French and American Cardinals brought Hanoi Catholics a glare of hope.

The grand opening ceremony at So Kien
Four hundred trumpets and drummers in the opening ceremony
Cardinal Etchegaray and Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet
Archbishop Joseph Ngo with his new crosier
Cardinal Bernard Law delivering his homily
Cardinal Vingt-Trois in Bac Ninh
On Monday evening, Nov. 23, 2009 Cardinal Roger Marie Élie Etchegaray, Vice-Dean of the College of Cardinals; Cardinal André Armand Vingt-Trois, Archbishop of Paris, President of the French Episcopal Conference; Cardinal Bernard Francis Law Archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore; Cardinal Jean Baptise Pham Minh Man, Archbishop of Saigon, 30 Vietnamese bishops of all 26 dioceses, 1200 priests including dozens of foreign priests from European countries and U.S.A; and an estimate of 120,000 faithful of northern dioceses took part in the grand opening ceremony of the Holy Jubilee in Vietnam.

As it was getting so dark so early in winter, the ceremony began at 5:30pm with the one hour long procession of Martyrs’ relics presided by Bishop Peter Nguyen Van Nhon, President of The Episcopal Conference of Vietnam.

During the procession, the congregation was reminded that in the period of 261 years, from 1625 to 1886, 53 "Edicts of Persecution of Christians" were signed by the Trinh, the Nguyen Lords and the Kings of Nguyen dynasty, one worse than the previous one. During that time, there were approximately 130,000 Christians were being victimized by these persecutions which were widespread throughout the country.

The Vietnamese Martyrs fall into several categories, with those of the Portuguese missionary era (16th century), those of the Dominican and Jesuit missionary era of the (17th century), those killed in the politically inspired persecutions of the 19th century, and those martyred during the Communist era of the 20th and 21th century.

The congregation expressed their gratitude that among an estimate of 130,000 Christians, who had died for their faith, a typical sample of 117 martyrs — including 96 Vietnamese, 11 Spanish Dominicans, and 10 French members of the Paris Foreign Missions Society (Missions Etrangères de Paris) (MEP) — were beatified on four separate occasions: 64 by Pope Leo XIII on May 27, 1900, eight by Pope Pius X on May 20, 1906, 20 by Pope Pius X on May 2, 1909, 25 by Pope Pius XII on April 29, 1951.

All these 117 Vietnamese Martyrs were eventually canonized on June 19, 1988 by Pope John Paul II under a strong protest of Vietnam communist government.

Also, on March 5, 2000, a young Vietnamese Martyr, Andrew Phú Yên, was beatified by Pope John Paul II.

Youth from various dioceses performed plays depicting how 117 Vietnamese Martyrs shed their blood for their faith in many different ways.

- 76 were beheaded with sword.
- 21 were slowly strangled to death by rope.
- 9 were brutally tortured and died in jail.
- 6 were burned alive.
- 5 were slowly sliced off piece by piece until death; their bodies were chopped up.

After the procession of Martyrs’ relics, Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet of Hanoi introduced cardinals and bishops who were going to concelebrate in the opening Mass, and special guests.

"Vietnamese Catholics - said Msgr. Kiet - should be grateful to the missionaries who sacrificed their lives to bring us the gifts of the Faith. I feel pride and gratitude for our ancestors who sacrificed their lives to keep the gift. As the Gospel says: 'If a grain of wheat falls to the ground and does not die, it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit'. The Gospel planted in Vietnam - he added - has known many difficult experiences. These are the forces of evil that want kill the seed of the Gospel. But strangely, the more the seed of the Gospel encounters difficulties, the more it is time to work for a rich harvest. "

The grand opening ceremony was followed by the solemn declaration of the Jubilee by Cardinal Jean Baptiste Pham Minh Man, President of the Holy Jubilee Committee.

After the opening Mass, the Festival Opening Night started with a sea of candle lights welcoming the spectacular performance from the Diocese of Bui Chu band of 400 trumpet players following the procession of 118 sisters of St. Paul Congregation in Hanoi.

The Festival Opening celebration continued throughout the night with a wealth of art works illustrating a rich history of 350 years since the creation of the two dioceses of North and South Vietnam (1659-2009), and 50 years since the establishment of the Catholic hierarchy in Vietnam.

The grand opening ceremony at So Kien, 70 km South of Hanoi, was the second recent largest Catholic gatherings in North Vietnam up to date. The largest one was the Mass at Xa Doai on Aug. 15, when more than half a million of Catholics protested against the brutal assaults against their priests in Tam Toa.

While the event in Vinh diocese had been intentionally ignored by state media, the grand opening ceremony at So Kien on Monday was widely reported and interpreted by state media as “an equivocal evidence” for the Religious Freedom Policy of Vietnam government.

The joy on the opening day of the Holy Jubilee in Vietnam, however, was marred by the news that Archbishop of Hanoi had submitted his resignation to the Pope.

At the annual retreat of priests in Hanoi Archdiocese concluded on Nov. 14, Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet told his priests that he had submit his resignation to Pope Benedict XVI citing his deteriorating health. In fact, Monsignor Joseph Ngo, 57, is among the youngest bishops in Vietnam.

Judging by his appearance, the prelate seems to look healthy and has been able to keep up with a tight schedule for such a large archdiocese. For most Vietnamese Catholics, the underlying cause of his resignation is obviously the persistent pressure from Vietnam government after a series of Church land disputes in recent years.

Nguyen The Thao, chairman of Hanoi’s People Committee has repeatedly called for the prelate’s resignation. On Oct. 15 2008, Thao met with foreign diplomats and charged that "a number of priests, led by Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet, took advantage of parishioners’ beliefs and their own low awareness of the law to instigate unrest, intentionally breaking the law and acting contrary to the interests of both the nation and the Church" trying to gauge diplomats’ attitude toward possible government action Church officials.

The next day, the Saigon Liberated News reported Thao's insistence that "the Hanoi archbishop must be transferred out of Hanoi as he has neither reputation nor creditability with the city’s citizens, including Catholic faithful."

Since then, Thao has repeatedly called for the prelate’s transfer and in many occasions the prelate has lamented on “enormous obstacles” in his pastor activities. The preparation for the grand opening ceremony serves as a typical example.

Rumors on the prelate’s “must go” plan has circulated among Catholics after the "Ad Limina" visit of Vietnamese bishops in June 2009. However, the official announcement of his resignation by the prelate himself still caused shock waves among not only Catholics who love him dearly but also fellow-countrymen who came to know and admire him as a patriot who cares deeply for the freedom of speech and expression of citizens in a country where corruption is rampant.

Upon hearing the news from their local priests, on Sunday morning of Nov. 22, the Feast of Christ the King, tens of thousands of Catholics in Hanoi packed the St. Joseph Cathedral of Hanoi listening attentively to Cardinal Roger Etchegaray who concelebrated the Mass with their archbishop.

The sermon and speech that he delivered at the end of the Mass were translated into Vietnamese by Fr. Jean-Baptiste Etcharren, Superior General of Missions Etrangères de Paris, who speaks Vietnamese at the level of a native tongue. He even impressed the large audience with rare Vietnamese idioms that only Vietnamese novelists and intellectuals are familiar with.

During his speech, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray solemnly gave his crosier to Archbishop Joseph Ngo as a gift, declaring that he would not be bringing it back to Rome with him.

Hours after Mass, crowds of Catholics still gathered in front of the cathedral expressing how the cardinal’s gesture had made such a deep impact on them.

Some interpreted it as a symbolic gesture that Rome wanted Archbishop Joseph Ngo to stay in Hanoi granting him more supports through diplomatic means.

Also, access to Vietnamese Catholic Websites soared unexpectedly during Sunday with Net-surfers looking for the full-text and audio, video clips of Cardinal Etchegaray’s speech. Minutes after the Mass, VietCatholic News published an audio clip of the cardinal’s speech fuelling excited discussions on his gesture on Vietnamese blogs of both Catholics and non-Catholics.

Some, quoting John L. Allen Jr. of National Catholic Reporter, stated that the cardinal earned the title of the pope’s “mission impossible” man, and that he was papal trouble-shooter, having represented John Paul in such hotspots as Vietnam, Burundi, China, East Timor, and the Middle East.

In fact, in 1989, Cardinal Etchegaray was the first Special Envoy of the Holy Father Pope John Paul II to visit 10 of Vietnam’s 25 dioceses. The next year, he led the first visit to Vietnam of Holy See Delegation for talks with the communist government.

A glare of hope seemed to flash out from the cardinal’s gesture.

On Sunday evening, St. Joseph Cathedral of Hanoi was packed again with tens of thousands of Catholics who attended the Sunday Mass concelebrated by Cardinal Bernard Francis Law and Archbishop Joseph Ngo.

The presence of the American cardinal among them, along with his inspirational sermon had undoubtedly warmed many hearts. His sermon was responded with thunderous applauses, especially when the cardinal made a reference to the Vietnamese Martyrs and the sufferings of the Church in Vietnam.

In Bac Ninh, 30km North of Hanoi, the hometown of handicrafts and Quan Ho folk songs, Cardinal André Armand Vingt-Trois of Paris was warmly welcome by Catholic faithful when he concelebrated the Mass of Christ the King with Bishop Cosma Hoang Van Dat of Bac Ninh, and Bishop Michael Hoang Duc Oanh of Kontum.

The president of the French Episcopal Conference had an opportunity to enjoy a unique Catholic Quan Ho Folk Arts Troupe which performs famous Quan Ho songs and the play of “The Parable of the Ten Virgins”. In recent years, Catholic Quan Ho troupes have composed some plays as demonstration from Biblical text, using them as a means for evangelization.

Cardinal Vingt-Trois gave Vietnamese bishops copies of his new book titled “Evêques, prêtres et diacres” published in time for the celebration of the Year for Priests. He will reportedly celebrate the opening ceremony of Holy Jubilee in Bac Ninh diocese on Nov. 25.

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