The arc of divine Providence spans across history and is evident to those who have both patience and faith. This truism is alien to politics, especially the politics of suppression. For Aristotle, chance is the intersection of two lines of causality — two people arriving at the same spot for different reasons meeting by chance. But when several lines of causality meet and produce a joyful and triumphant effect, the word “Providence” replaces the word “chance.”
Here is the story of how postage stamps, these miniature world travelers, can participate in God’s plan.
Some time ago, a beautiful and artistically decorated presentation case containing early stamps from South Vietnam was donated to the Cardinal Spellman Collection. Despite their attractiveness, the stamps did not fit into the collection’s theme, which is religious stamps. And so, Sister Fidelma journeyed from Boston to New York City, where they were to be sold to the highest bidder at the prestigious Harmer & Rooke auction house. At that time, in the early ’70s, there was little interest in Vietnamese stamps, and I, making my only appearance at this auction emporium, bought it at the lowest bid for the miniscule sum of $16.
Over the years, these stamps have appreciated in value very nicely. A major reason for this is the fact that the communist government, after the unification of South and North Vietnam, destroyed all of the South Vietnamese stamps it could find in order to erase any vestige they held of the history of South Vietnam and its Catholic tradition.
Holy Apostles College & Seminary, in Cromwell, Conn., is host to a number of seminarians and nuns from Vietnam. These students are learning English and, at the same time, learning theology and philosophy. They are exceptional for their industry, courtesy and unfailing cheerfulness.
I have had, over the past several years, the privilege of traveling from my home in southern Ontario to Holy Apostles, three times a year, to teach three-week intensive courses. In my most recent sojourn, I brought along my stamps of Vietnam to show to the many students who were born in, and are destined to return to, that country.
The students were delighted, even overjoyed, to see images of their own history and tradition that the communist government had withheld from them. I was surprised to learn that none of them had seen any of these stamps before. They were, in their own way, valuable treasures rescued from a forbidden past.
I listened intently as they told me about the faith and courage of some of the leaders depicted on the stamps. I was saddened to hear about their martyrdom. I was, at the same time, heartened by the faith of my Vietnamese students.
Among these “treasures” is a beautiful, multicolored set of four stamps honoring Our Lady of La Vang. During the great persecution (1798-1801), many Christians took refuge in the jungle in central Vietnam, where they experienced hunger and sickness. One day, when the community gathered in prayer, Mary, the Mother of God appeared to them. She offered them consolation and encouragement and advised them to use the leaves of a fern that had medicinal properties to treat their ailments. Mary appeared, holding her Child, on several occasions. A church in her honor now stands on the site where she first appeared.
One of the Vietnamese seminarians took photographs of the stamps and posted them on a website. It is now possible, thanks to computer technology, for anyone in the world to access and view the stamps. What the communist government sought to obliterate has now returned in greater numbers than ever before.
At one time, fishermen looked upon starfish as enemies who were eating the clams they were trying to harvest. They did the plausible thing: They captured the starfish, cut them in half, and threw the remains back into the water. They did not realize, however, that starfish have the capacity to regenerate. The strategy backfired. The fishermen inadvertently multiplied what they believed they had reduced.
Thanks to computer technology, a small victory is being won over communist suppression. The Vietnamese stamps, which the government believed it was abolishing, have now, like the loaves and fishes, been greatly multiplied. Yet the real thanks, nonetheless, must be accorded to divine Providence, in reminding us once again that God, and no particular earthly government — no matter how strong and efficient — is in charge of the world.
Like the starfish, and the sequence, from generation to generation, of human progeny, his Word has the everlasting power of regeneration.
Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.