Before the Vietnam War, most people in English-speaking countries knew little about Vietnam, except that it was an obscure part of “Indo-China.” Today, however, as a consequence of that terrible conflict, so many Vietnamese people are dispersed throughout the world, and they have blended into the countries that received them. One of the things that was apparent right from the start of this process is the deep faith of Vietnamese Christians. Indeed, there are many Vietnamese priests serving in Roman Catholic dioceses throughout the world.
This vibrant faith was nurtured by persecution. French missionaries first preached the Gospel and planted the Church among the Vietnamese people from the early 17th century onward. Many people were converted to the Lord in the 18th century and up until 1819.
But at the order of Emperor Minh-Mang, who reigned from 1820 to 1841, a brutal persecution began. Indeed, Minh-Mang is often referred to as “Vietnam’s Emperor Nero.” On 6th January, 1833, he ordered all Christians to renounce their faith, and as a sign of that renunciation to tread a crucifix under foot. Churches and religious houses were destroyed. The death penalty was decreed for all priests. Many thousands died in the prolonged massacre, among them not only missionary clergy and religious, but also huge numbers of indigenous Christians, priests, religious and laity.
Although following the death of Minh-Mang there was a time of relative freedom, after a while new legislation came into being that resumed the war of hatred against Christians. Only in 1862 did the anti-Christian movement begin to abate, thanks to the imposition of religious liberty by the French. When by 1883 it became clear that this tolerance had not been fully implemented, the French government took over Vietnam as one of its protectorates. Vietnam remained a French protectorate until 1954. In the 1960s the country had a population of 31 million and a well-organized Catholic population of 2.25 million, governed by indigenous bishops, and cared for by a flourishing network of religious communities. Following the turmoil of the Vietnam War and its aftermath, there are now six and a half million Catholics out of a total population of 90 million. There are also flourishing evangelical protestant communities.
Few nations have had to pay so dearly for the Gospel and the Faith. As many as 100,000 had been martyred in Vietnam by 1800. In the 19th century the numbers increased, with between 100,000 and 300,000 executed. It would have been impossible to canonise all these martyrs one by one. So, groups of them, totaling 117, were beatified on four different occasions, including eight missionary bishops, several missionary priests, and a large number of indigineous victims: priests and religious, and lay people, some killed simply for sheltering priests. Among the “blessed” were one woman, Agnes Le thi Thanh and one boy, Joseph Tuc, aged nine.
On 19th June, 1988, Pope John Paul II canonised these 117. Their feast day is today, November 24. The group used to be referred to as “the Martyrs of Tonkin.” Since their canonisation they are called “St Andrew Dung-Lac and Companions, Martyrs.”
Andrew was a diocesan priest. His name was originally Dung An Trân, and he was born around 1795 to a poor family in Bac-Ninh in North Vietnam. When he was twelve the family had to move to Hà-Nôi (Hanoi) where his parents could find work. There he met a catechist who gave him food and shelter. The catechist brought him to Jesus and for three years taught him the Christian Faith. Dung An Trân was baptized in Vinh-Tri with the Christian name Andrew.
After learning Chinese and Latin he, too, became a catechist. Then he was chosen to study theology, and on 15th March 1823 he was ordained to the priesthood. In his parish of Ke-Dâm Andrew he was tireless in his ministry. He fasted often and lived a simple life. He preached and lived the Gospel, and many became Christians through his witness.
In 1835 during Emperor Minh-Mang’s persecutions he was imprisoned, but his freedom was purchased by donations from his people. To avoid persecution he changed his name to Lac (Andrew Lac) and moved to another prefecture where he could continue his work. But on 10th November 1839 he was again arrested, this time with Peter Thi, another Vietnamese priest who had come to visit in order to make his confession.
Once again Andrew was set free, along with Peter Thi, in exchange for money. But their freedom was brief. They were soon re-arrested and taken to Hanoi, where both were tortured. Finally they were beheaded on 21st December 1839.
One of the Vietnamese martyrs, St Paul Le-Bao-Tinh, executed in 1843, sent a letter from prison to the seminarians of Ke-Vinh. His words reveal the faith and the heroism of these saints:
“I, Paul, in chains for the name of Christ, wish to relate to you the trials besetting me daily . . . the prison here is a true image of everlasting hell; to cruel tortures of every kind - shackles, iron chairs, manacles - are added hatred, vengeance, calumnies, obscene speech, quarrels, evil acts, swearing, curses, as well as anguish and grief. But the God who once freed the three children from the fiery furnace is with me always; He has delivered me from these tribulations and made them sweet, ‘for His mercy is forever.’
“In the midst of these torments, which usually terrify others, I am, by the grace of God, full of joy and gladness, because I am not alone - Christ is with me. Our Master bears the whole weight of the cross, leaving me only the tiniest, last bit . . .
“Come to me with the aid of your prayers, that I may have the strength to fight . . . We may not again see each other in this life. But we will have the happiness of seeing each other again in the world to come, when, standing at the throne of the spotless Lamb, we will together join in singing His praises and exult forever in the joy of our triumph. Amen.”