Vietnamese Passion Plays Are Powerful, Because Vietnam Has Suffered With Christ

The Catholics of Vietnam experience the deprivations and indignities that point to Christ's Passion.

(photo: Register Files)

Everyone will hate you because of Me. But whoever holds out to the end will be saved. —(Mk 13:13)

Vietnam isn't the first country one would necessarily associate with a vibrant Catholic community. But despite this underestimation, it's a community of faithful and faith-filled men and women who struggle under a repressive and oppressive atheistic government intent on wiping them out.

But God has a different plan, as Catholics make up 12% of the total population.

I had come to Vietnam last year to volunteer at Phú Hạnh parish―named after a Vietnamese martyr. I have very few skills to offer the good people of Vietnam however, I used my stage magic skills as best I could to entertain those I could.

I came away being the grateful recipient of God's grace though the actions of this stalwart bunch.

The highlight of my Saigon sojourn was the parish Passion Play. Immediately after Palm Sunday Mass, 25 actors, ranging in age from 15 to 21, each depicting an individual connected to Christ's Passion, took their places upon the church's sanctuary and showed us a fraction of what Christ experienced for the sake of our salvation.

Christianity had its greatest expansion and consolidation under the French missionary priest, Bishop Adran Pigneau de Behaine towards the end of the 18th century. He soon became the confidant of Nguyễn Ánh, the last of the Nguyễn Lords, who was, at the time, engaged in civil war.

Nguyễn Ánh ultimately conquered Vietnam and declared himself Emperor Gia Long and gave the Catholic Church unfettered access to his empire. In AD 1802, the country had three dioceses and a total Christian population of 360,000 souls.

Nguyễn's successor, Gia Long, in turn, appointed his second son, Minh Mạng, as his successor choosing him for his deeply held and jingoistic Confucianist beliefs. Gia Long's first son's lineage had converted to Catholicism and were unjustly seen as a threat to local sovereignty. A power struggle ensued between Minh Mạng and his Confucianist troops and the pro-Catholic/pro-Western officials who wanted to maintain their legitimate position and power. Further, they were fearful that Minh Mạng's anti-Catholic stance would lead to more persecution against the nascent Christian community. Ultimately, 2,000 Vietnamese Catholic troops under the command of Fr. Nguyễn Văn Tâm rose up in an attempt to depose Minh Mạng and install a Catholic emperor in his place.

Unfortunately, the revolt was unsuccessful and, as predicted, severe restrictions were placed on Vietnamese Catholics and European missionaries. Between the 17th and 19th centuries, local governments implemented 53 decrees, signed by the lords and emperors of the country from 1625 to 1886, launching savage persecutions of Christians rivaling the those of the first through third centuries in the ancient Roman Empire. These nearly continuous persecutions led to many, smaller rebellions throughout the Nguyễn Dynasty often led by Catholic priests intent on installing a pro-Christian emperor. During the anticolonial wars against the French from 1858 to 1883, many Catholics joined the French to reestablish colonialism by fighting against the anti-Catholic, pro-Confucianist Vietnamese government. When the French wrested back power, Catholics were rewarded government posts and places in university. Parishes were given tracts of imperial land to grow food to distribute to the poor.

Like every parent in Christendom, I've seen dozens of Passion Plays. Even the bad ones are great―perhaps even more so.

However, nothing could prepare me for the version I witnessed in Saigon.

Like every Passion Play we've ever seen, the children's dramatization concentrated on Christ's final 12 hours. The children inserted songs and dance throughout the play to depict Christ's prayer to His Father about His forthcoming sufferings in Gethsemane and St. Peter's turmoil after his denials.

Speaking voices were prerecorded and the lines were expertly pantomimed.

Sound effects such as the whipping and hammering were added liberally throughout the performance.

The children labored intensely in the weeks prior to the play building and decorating sets and props the tools using in the play asking them out of discarded cartons, paper and boxes.

These troupers played to packed crowds at three performances. The kids simply got better with each showing―after all, they're kids and the play is about Jesus.

Vietnamese Catholics report being harassed by communist government officials for failing to comply with their government's Two Child Policy implemented in 1994. Families with more than two children have to pay a rice levy to the government for their “violation.” This policy stands in direct opposite to the Church's stand on artificial contraception, tubal ligation, vasectomies and abortion. One Catholic family has been fined 3,800 kilograms of rice for having six children. She has been fined 300 kilograms for her third child, 600 kilograms for the fourth, 900 kilograms for the fifth and 2,000 kilograms of rice for the sixth. Parish priests report that 90 percent of their parishioners have agreed to pay fines as a way to be faithful to Church teaching. Local Catholics are taught natural family planning methods during marriage preparation courses. Some local Catholics have asked for donations from foreign benefactors to support local people with large families.

Christians who refuse to denounce Christ are threatened with the loss of their jobs, with not being able to send their children to the public school, torture, imprisonment and death. Despite this, Christians continue to defend their faith. Degar Montagnards have recently built six wooden churches in six different villages in 2004. In the same year, the United States designated Vietnam as a "country of particular concern" (i.e., CPC watch list) for religious freedom more often than not against Christians and Catholics in particular. Theoretically, CPC designation could include economic and military sanctions being imposed on countries so designated. Communist authorities promised to undertake religious reforms, including stopping forced renunciations of faith used against Christians. In a press release issued November 13, 2006, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent federal agency, "expressed strong disappointment, that the State Department dropped Vietnam from the list of 'countries of particular concern.'" The press release specifically mentioned that "Violations such as forced renunciation of faith and new arrests and detentions of religious leaders continue in Vietnam." The USCIRF report pointed out that religious prisoners remain in solitary confinement, that extremely few churches closed since 2001 have been reopened and that forced renunciations of faith continue in many different provinces and Vietnam's new laws on religion are being used to detain or intimidate religious leaders who refuse affiliation with the approved religious organizations of the government.

Đỗ Xuân Khoa, the student who portrayed Jesus in the parish Passion Play, was kind enough to speak to the Register.

“Before playing the role of Jesus, I prayed so much to be able to fulfil the role well. In first moments of the show, I could not focus and forgot some parts. After, things got better: I began to place myself in the role of Jesus, trying to feel the pain that He suffered. However, nothing touched me until the soldiers beat me.”

“Then, I received the cross,” Khoa said. “Everything became clearer: pains and weakness. The scene of Jesus carrying the cross, walking with sufferings came into my mind. When I was hung up, feeling the pain from five wounds of the Christ, I cried for everything Jesus did for me: it was enormous. Moreover, I felt guilty, shame and discreditable because Jesus, my King, has been through the passion and died only for my sins because of His great Love for me.”

Christianity first entered Vietnam by the actions of Catholic missionaries in the 16th century. The Jesuits were the principal missionaries in the country and were responsible for a great number of advancements in that country including the development of the first Vietnamese alphabet. Jesuit Fr. Alexandre de Rhodes created the script based upon Latin letters in the 17th century. This writing system is now referred to as Quốc Ngữ which means the "national language." Prior to the Jesuits, Vietnamese was written using Chinese characters. Other missionaries joined their work including the Franciscans and Dominicans but none of these religious communities managed to reach the influence the Jesuits had.

In the mid-1950s, after France had relinquished its control of Indo-China, communists had taken over the northern half of the country. In the atheist communist-controlled north, Christians suffered a great decline through persecution and slaughter. However, Ngô Đình Diệm, President of South Vietnam, promoted Christianity as a bulwark against the godless, communists intent on overrunning the country. Diệm's brother was Archbishop Ngô Đình Thục, so he could enlist the help of the Catholic hierarchy in his defense of the country. The President gave broad rights to the Catholic Church and dedicated the nation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Catholics were promoted in the armed services and in public service. In 1955, 600,000 Catholics remained in North Vietnam after an estimated 650,000 had fled to the South in Operation Passage to Freedom—one of the largest mass migrations in modern world history. On November 24, 1960, Pope St. John XXIII established the Catholic hierarchy in Vietnam, elevating Ha Noi, Hue and Sai Gon (now Ho Chi Minh City) to the status of archdioceses. Invading communist troops destroyed the Our Lady at La-Vang Shrine in the summer of 1972 during the Vietnam War.

In 1975, after the communist invaders defeated the American troops stationed there, they claimed that Christians had the freedom of worship. This was a blatant lie. In actuality, persecution against Christians continued unabated. In fact, Christians from Vietnam's tribal highlands are still regarded as “enemies of the state” and targeted as “agents of America.” Christians are still being beaten, raped, tortured, mutilated, imprisoned and starved behind bars.

The Vietnamese practice a staunchly devout piety that harkens back to the 1950s. They easily fill half a church for a 5:00 a.m. Mass during Lent or at a weekly Novenas on Wednesdays or Exposition of the Sacrament on Fridays.

The Passion Play was magnificent. The audience was visibly moved including the children sitting in the audience. I'm not one for public display of emotions but, despite my convictions, even I shed a discreet tear.

Catechist Đào Xuân Khang, of the Youth Group's leaders, spoke with the Register.

“We considered the play successful if it helps the children and the entire parish be draw nearer to and love Jesus more for His great love and devotion,” explained Khang, who has worked with the parish youth group for nearly 13-years.

“It was an honor to work with the kids this year,” he continued. “I'm even more surprised that they've gotten the attention of to not only me but also the community to have an article about it. But the one we saw yesterday is only a rehearsal. We are preparing some tools and clothes for the actors. It should be nicer on the official days. We hope to record some clips and upload it to YouTube for general viewing.”

After the Vietnam War ended, the communists embarked on a brutal ethnic cleansing of the Degar Montagnards—one of the oldest native peoples of Southeast Asia. They have inhabited the peninsula of Indochina for more than 2,000 years. Though the ethnicity is mostly found in Vietnam, several hundred thousand Degar Montagnards also live in Cambodia. Tens of thousands in Laos. During the French colonization in the 19th century, the Degar Montagnard population was estimated to be over 3.5 million. Because of anti-Christian persecutions, only 700,000 and 800,000 survive to this day. The Degar Montagnards community is divided into 30 tribes. The two principal tribes are the Banar, (400,000 people) and the Jarrai (300,000 people.) They are almost entirely Christian. For years, Vietnamese Catholics faced persecution, finding it difficult to get jobs or enter universities. Hundreds of thousands fled to southern Vietnam.

On June 19, 1988, Pope St. John Paul II canonized a group of 117 Catholics who had died for their faith from 1533 to the present time. Saints Andrew Dung-Lac and his Companions feast day is celebrated on November 11th on the Church's universal calendar.

As of 2005, Fides reports the Catholic community in Vietnam is served by three archdioceses and 23 dioceses and by 39 bishops, 2,212 diocesan priests and 521 religious priests. In addition, there are 1,778 men religious, 11,443 women religious, 1,395 lay missionaries and 50,605 catechists involved in the work of the local Church.

Amnesty International's 2006 Annual Report discussed the continuing major human rights violations in Vietnam, stating: “Religious practice remained under the strict control of the authorities, despite the release of several religious dissidents and the issuing of instructions intended to facilitate official recognition of churches.” In addition, communist authorities insist the Catholic Church must submit approvals for all new seminaries, admit all seminarians who request to enter the program, the organization of religious classes and conferences, the construction and renovation of religious facilities, the ordination of priests and the promotion of clergy.

Recently, the Vietnamese government, feeling pressure from the international community, has made efforts to improve its horrendous record on religious liberty. On January 25, 2007, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyễn Tan Dung met with Pope Benedict XVI in order to discuss relations between the Vatican and Vietnam. Though the Holy See has diplomatic relations with 177 nations, Vietnam and the Holy See do not currently maintain diplomatic relations. The Vatican press office expressed the hope that the meeting marked “a new and important step toward the normalization of bilateral relations.”

Hanoi has merely changed tactics in persecuting Christians. Since being dropped from the CPC designation in 2006, thousands of Vietnamese Christians have been arrested, tortured and threatened in an attempt to suppress the Faith. Despite a long history of persecution, the Catholic community in Vietnam is now the second largest in East Asia. In addition, despite the many persecutions Vietnamese Christians have suffered over the past 500 years, the community has had a disproportionate number of vocations. In 2006, it had 230 seminarians from southern Vietnamese dioceses lived in very cramped facilities as they studied for the priesthood. In Hanoi, St. Joseph's Major Seminary supplies priests to eight northern dioceses. In 2006, it had 235 students.

Vietnam's not-so-secret war against Christians and the Church continues unabated even unto the 21st century. Due to the bravery and stalwart faith of Cardinal Văn Thuận and that of other Vietnamese Christians and those who seek to protect them, word of the atrocities of our self-professed and hypocritical atheist enemies is being exposed for what it is.

St. Paul assures us that “the sufferings which Christians experience contribute to that which is lacking Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col 1:24). This is no truer than in Vietnam. The Catholics of Vietnam experience the deprivations and indignities that point to Christ's Passion. Witnessing their children's approximation of that pains was an experience which I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

Thanks be to God.

Here's a video of the children's Passion Play: