Vietnamese Marian apparitions of 1798 bolstered persecuted faithful

WASHINGTON—Most Catholics are familiar with the Blessed Virgin's appearances in places like Lourdes and Fatima. What is not so well known is that Marian apparitions have been reported in many non-western settings as well—in Africa, for example, and, perhaps most strikingly, in Asia.

Among the Marian visions granted to Asian Catholics, the 200-year-old apparitions at La Vang, Vietnam, have been attracting media attention in recent weeks. Pilgrimages to the shrine for the 1998 bicentennial of the event in mid-August demonstrated the fervor and vitality of the Church in communist-dominated Vietnam, and a high-profile celebration of La Vang in Washington, D.C., last month reminded Americans of the determination of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese Catholics who found refuge here after the collapse of South Vietnam.

There are approximately 200,000 Vietnamese Catholics in the United States today. The Catholic population of Vietnam is about 6 million, out of a total of 62 million.

La Vang also highlights for many western observers one of the least known corners of the Catholic world — the long-suffering communities of Asian Catholics in places such as Vietnam, Japan and China — “martyr Churches” that have endured centuries of often unimaginable persecution in the name of Christ.

“At La Vang, Our Blessed Mother appeared in order to console the people and to urge them to pray for the strength to persevere.”

That's how Father Joseph Tran, a U.S.-based Vietnamese priest, and secretary general for the organizing committee of the La Vang celebrations in Washington, D.C., recently summarized the message of Our Lady of La Vang.

It was a message addressed to a Church in extremis.

In the 18th century what is now Vietnam was divided into two kingdoms: The north, with Hanoi as its capital, was ruled by the Trinh family and the South, ruled from the city of Hue, was governed by the Nguyens. These southern rulers sought the help of the French in 1787 as part of their campaign to subdue the north. However, a group of intellectuals, known as Van Than, opposed French influence and led a palace revolution that placed a king who shared their point of view on the southern throne. Quang Trung died shortly after reuniting the country, leaving the reins of government in the hands of his ten-year-old son, Canh Thinh.

On Aug. 17, 1798, in an action reminiscent of the edict of Japan's shogunate two centuries earlier, the young king's advisers issued a royal ordinance forbidding the practice of the Catholic faith by Vietnamese on the grounds that it was a foreign religion. The Van Than clique saw native Catholics as a “fifth column” responsible for the growing French presence in the country.

Like its Japanese counterpart, the decree commanded nothing less than the wholesale extermination of Christianity in Vietnam. Churches were destroyed, foreign and native clergy arrested and killed, and Vietnamese believers were given the option of apostasy or death. In the century of persecution and civil war that followed — a war that ended with a French protectorate over what was then called Indo-China in the late 1880s — more than 100,000 Vietnamese Catholics were slain.

When the king's decree was first issued in 1798, many Catholics fled into the jungles. The dense foliage of La Vang, a hill about 40 miles from the city of Hue in central Vietnam, provided a haven from persecution for thousands of believers, although other dangers stalked them there — wild animals, famine, disease.

Families gathered every night beneath a large tree in the forest to pray the rosary and seek God's help. According to the traditional account, one night Our Lady appeared to them, bearing the Child Jesus and surrounded by angels. She promised them her protection and assured them that their prayers would be heard. Most of all, she urged her supplicants to be faithful.

“Have trust, be willing to suffer hardship and sorrow. I have already granted your prayers,” she told them. “Whoever will come and pray with me here will receive favors and blessings.”

As a sign, she instructed the faithful to boil the leaves of certain trees and many of those suffering from diseases were cured.

Other apparitions followed, and a series of small straw chapels were built to commemorate the site.

“The oral tradition,” said Father Tran, “is that Our Lady appeared every night to encourage the people. Word spread and La Vang became a place of pilgrimage. What I can say is that many miracles have taken place, and continue to take place there.”

Unfortunately, no early written attestations of the appearances at La Vang survive, probably because Church archives in nearby Hue were destroyed during the civil wars of 1833 and 1861.

Nevertheless La Vang continued to function as a beacon of hope and as a place of solace and blessing for thousands of harried Catholics during the terrible decades of persecution.

When the war against the Church ended in 1886, pilgrimage to La Vang increased. Beginning in 1901, national pilgrimages to the site were organized, usually every three years. By 1928, the shrine had become an independent parish.

La Vang was, however, destined to play as major a role in Vietnam's recent history as it had in the brutal civil wars of the past. In that sense, La Vang occupies a place in the drama of Catholic identity in Southeast Asia that is not unlike the role of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the life of Mexico or Czestochowa in Poland.

The defeat of the French in the IndoChina war (1946-1954) led once again to the division of the country, this time into a communist North and an anti-communist South. In April, 1961, the bishops of South Vietnam, assembled in Hue, made a vow to the Immaculate Heart of Mary to consecrate a national shrine to her, asking Our Lady for the freedom of the Church and peace for their divided land. Later in August, the bishops recognized La Vang as a national Marian center, and early the following year, in the letter Magno Nos, Pope John XXIII raised the parish to the status of a minor basilica.

By the mid-1960s, La Vang had been transformed into a veritable Marian polis. Holy Rosary Square with its 15 statues representing the mysteries of the rosary set off the new basilica. There were two small lakes, fountains, retreat houses. But in 1972, barely nine years after completion, the new Marian complex was totally destroyed by invading North Vietnamese forces.

But that was hardly the end of the story.

After reunification, all the bishops of Vietnam, gathered in Hanoi in 1980, reconfirmed the earlier designation of La Vang as the country's central Marian site, and national pilgrimages resumed. In 1996, the last major national pilgrimage to the shrine before this year's bicentennial observances, not only did larger numbers of Vietnamese Catholics participate than ever before, but they were joined by significant numbers of pilgrims from the surrounding countries.

This year's bicentennial celebrations began to take shape as early as 1993. Pope John Paul II urged Vietnamese Catholics who participated in that year's World Youth Day in Denver to look to the 200th anniversary of the La Vang apparitions as an opportunity “to reinforce unity and mutual understanding” between all Vietnamese. And on several other occasions, particularly the 1994 ad limina visits of the Vietnamese bishops, the Pontiff spoke about the importance of the upcoming anniversary, especially in light of the Church-wide preparations for the Great Jubilee of the year 2000. He also underscored his regard for the event by granting a plenary indulgence for those who participate in any of the bicentennial celebrations of Our Lady of La Vang.

Following that lead, the bishops in Vietnam announced a year-long series of pilgrimages to La Vang and other commemorative events only to find those plans scaled back by the communist-dominated Vietnamese government late last year.

According to a Catholic News Service report, the government's office of religious affairs ruled last December that the celebrations of La Vang would be limited to the traditional Aug. 13-15 time slot, and be open only to Catholics from the Archdiocese of Hue, where the shrine is located, and that tour operators would be forbidden to bring foreign visitors to the site. The government said that the province was experiencing the worst draught in a century, and that its restrictions were appropriate for difficult economic times.

“The government tried to frustrate the organization of pilgrimages,” Father Tran told the Register, “and there was no reason to do so. We had clearly demonstrated that the [commemoration] had no political implications, that it was purely religious.”

As it turned out, more than 200,000 people mobbed the three-day event in central Vietnam in mid-August, including 14 bishops, 300 priests, and representatives from every diocese in the country.

Vatican Radio reported Aug. 17 that the celebration, marked by processions, Masses, and catechesis was perhaps the largest “unofficial” gathering in Vietnam since the country's reunification 23 years ago — with numbers exceeding even the organizer's expectations.

La Vang celebrations in the U.S. took place a week later than their Vietnamese counterparts, Aug. 20-23 in Washington, DC. These involved workshops on the Church and the third millennium held at The Catholic University of America, a youth rally and candlelight prayer vigil, an outdoor procession in honor of Our Lady of La Vang and the martyrs of Vietnam, all culminating in a Mass in honor of Our Lady of La Vang held at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception with James Cardinal Hickey presiding, and Archbishop F.X. Nguyen Van Thuan, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, as homilist.

More than 10,000 people attended the celebration.

“One of the aims we had at the event,” Father Tran related, “was to thank the American people and the Catholic Church in America for helping welcome more than one million Vietnamese refugees to this country since 1975. We really want to do this, to thank people for their generosity and help.”

Father Tran also indicated that his committee was “in the process of preparing a request” that a chapel to Our Lady of La Vang be included among those in Washington's National Shrine.

We have so much to thank her for, said the priest. “In a certain way, Vietnamese Catholics — their survival, their faith — is the greatest of the miracles of Our Lady of La Vang.”

Senior writer Gabriel Meyer is based in Los Angeles.

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