Before our national involvement in the Vietnam War, most Americans knew little about this part of “Indo-China.” Today, as a consequence of that terrible conflict and the dispersal of so many of the Vietnamese, we are getting accustomed to having a large number of these Asiatics among us, and we are discovering how strong is their Catholic Faith.
It was persecution that strengthened that faith. French missionaries in particular introduced Catholicism among the Vietnamese from the early 17th century onward. Conversions were abundant in the 18th century and up till 1819. But when the profligate Emperor Minh-mang ruled (1820-1841), he initiated a brutal persecution of Catholics. In an edict of January 6, 1833, he ordered all Christians to renounce their faith, and as a sign of that renunciation, to tread on a crucifix. This command was followed by the destruction of Catholic churches and religious houses, and the death penalty for all priests. Thousands died in the prolonged massacre, among them not only numerous missionary clergy and religious, but myriads of native Christians, priests, religious and laity, cruelly tortured and executed.
The death of Minh-mang marked a slackening of the slayings, but under his successors, new legislation was eventually enacted to resume the war of hatred against Christianity. Only in 1862 did the anti-Christian movement begin to give way, thanks to the imposition of religious liberty by the French; and when this tolerance had not yet been fully implemented by 1883, the French government took over Vietnam as one of its protectorates. Vietnam remained a French protectorate until it threw off French control in 1954. In the 1960s the country had a population of 31 million and a well-organized Catholic population of 2.25 million, governed by native bishops, and blessed with a flourishing religious contingent.
Few nations have had to pay so dearly for their Catholicism. As many as 100,000 had died for the Faith by 1800. In the 19th century the number of victims increased, with from 100,000 to 300,000 executed. It would have been impossible to canonize all these martyrs. In an understandable compromise, the popes have beatified groups of these victims on four different occasions, totaling 117. This number includes eight missionary bishops, several missionary priests, and a large number of native 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 June 19, 1988, Pope John Paul II canonized these 117. Their feastday is November 24. Earlier the group of 117 was referred to as “the martyrs of Tonkin.” Since their canonization they are called “SS. Andrew Dung-Lac and Companions, Martyrs.” St. Andrew was a diocesan priest.
One of the martyrs, St. Paul Le-Bao-Tinh, executed in 1843, sent a letter from “death row” to the seminarians of Ke-Vinh. His words demonstrate the heroism of these Vietnamese saints. They could have been written by one of the earliest martyrs of the ancient Church:
“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 chains, 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.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara