CARTHAGE, Mo. — More than 50,000 Vietnamese flocked to this largely Baptist town of 12,500 in southwestern Missouri on Aug. 7 for Marian Days, a three-day celebration of faith organized by the Congregation of the Mother Co Redemptrix.
Participants attended daily Mass and conferences and participated in Eucharistic processions.
In some years attendance has reached 60,000 Vietnamese Catholics from almost every state, with pilgrims setting up tents on the 30-acre campus of Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix as well as front lawns of local residents and in church parking lots.
“A lot of the same families come back every year and visit the same residents,” explained Carthage mayor Kenneth Johnson. “They've gotten to be very good friends [with their Vietnamese guests].”
Marian Days has been a fixture in Carthage for more than 25 years. The congregation of Vietnamese priests and brothers fled its home-land following the fall of Saigon in 1975. One of the first things they did after establishing themselves on a former Oblate of Mary Imm aculate seminary here was to hold a service to make reparation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. That was in December 1977. The following summer, the priests and brothers held a public event that drew more than 1,000 people, said Co-Redemptrix Father John Nghi, spokesman for the congregation.
Bishop John Leibrecht of Springfield-Cape Girardeau celebrated an evening Mass to commence Marian Days this year. That was followed by a nighttime procession of the Blessed Sacrament on the congregation grounds.
The first Vietnamese bishop in the United States, Auxiliary Bishop Dominic Dinh Mai Luong of Orange, Calif., who was ordained to the episcopacy in June, celebrated Mass the following day, Aug. 8.
The event also featured Eucharistic adoration, a procession of a pilgrimage statue of Our Lady of Fatima and workshops for parents, teens, the elderly and families. Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, celebrated the closing Mass in honor of the Immaculate Heart of Mary on Aug. 10.
“What's really [impressive is] the reverence that the people have as the procession winds through the streets,” Bishop Leibrecht said. “My participation in these Marian Days always makes me much richer in my own devotion to Mary and my appreciation for the great gift of Eucharist.”
Vietnamese Catholics are known for great devotion to the Mother of God, which dates back to the time of the first missionaries, from Portugal and Spain, in the 16th century. The Vietnamese love for Mary was solidified when Our Lady of Lavang appeared in 1798, the same year King Canh ‘Minh issued an edict to destroy all Catholic churches and seminaries.
Several years ago, Bishop Leibrecht recalled, organizers had to cancel the Marian procession through town due to heavy rain.
But pilgrims were undeterred by the inclement weather, standing through the evening Mass in the rain.
“We celebrated that Mass, and most of them had umbrellas,” he explained. “In fact, the power went out for maybe 10 or 15 minutes during the Mass and the people did not speak; they stayed in a prayerful silence. This is just another sign of their great reverence for the Eucharist.”
The Church in Vietnam has seen slow but steady growth despite persecution and oppressive regimes, said Dominican Father Anthony Chinh quang Dao, the new executive director of the Office for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“The traditions in Vietnam make for good ground for Catholic teachings, good ground for the Good News,” said Father Dao, who is Vietnamese and a regular Marian Days speaker. “That is why many Vietnamese people became Catholic. Right now, about 10% of Vietnam's 75 million people are Catholic.”
But persecution is not a thing of the past. The Center for Religious Freedom has reported as recently as July 17 that the Vietnamese government is engaging in a campaign to coerce minority ethnic Hmong Christians to abandon their faith and resume the practice of animist rites, which they had abandoned 10 years ago.
Members of the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix have been jailed in recent years as well. The congregation was founded near Hanoi in the waning days of the French presence in the country.
Canonically established in 1953, the Co-Redemptrix order experienced rapid growth, principally because of the saintly example of its founder, Father Dominic Mary Tran Dinh Thu, who is still living in Vietnam at age 96. Known for deep prayer and a simple lifestyle, he was imprisoned from 1975-1977 and again from 1987-1993 by the Vietnamese government. His reaction: “It is God's grace for a priest to be imprisoned. Imprisonment is a long and blessed retreat for a priest.”
Following the defeat of the ruling French to Ho Chi Minh's communist forces in 1954, thousands of Vietnamese Catholics in the north fled to South Vietnam.
When communists finally took over the south in 1975, Father Tran Dinh Thu was afraid his congregation would be wiped out. So he asked some of the priests and brothers (many were seminarians and deacons at the time) to go to the United States along with other refugees. About 160 did so.
Father Thomas McAndrew, an Army chaplain who served in Vietnam from 1969-1970, met refugees arriving at Fort Chaffee, Ark., and got to know the Co Redemptrix congregation. Together with then Bishop Bernard Law, Father McAndrew, a priest of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa, helped the congregation negotiate the lease of a vacant minor seminary in Carthage with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The Viet namese congregation finally purchased the original 25-acre property in 1981 and since has bought an adjacent lot to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims.
In the United States, about 300,000 of the 1.4 million Vietnamese-Americans are Catholic, according to Father Dao. He said there are about 700 priests and that 9% of seminarians nationwide are Vietnamese.
Marian Days has done a wonderful job of focusing on the “demonstration of faith” through the sacraments, processions and other devotions, said Father Dao of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“It is very beautiful and the Vietnamese are very good about it,” he explained. “Besides demonstration of faith, we need to have an understanding of faith. We need to know why we do it.”
Patrick Novecosky writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.