When Fr David Bingham MHM heard about the persecuted Catholics of Vietnam he decided he had to travel to the country to honour them It was a BBC programme some 10 or more years ago that first pointed me in the direction of La Vang, the national Marian shrine of Vietnam. The reporter contrasted the boredom of the assembled pilgrims for the feast of the Assumption, who had first to endure a harangue on Communism from the local party commissar, with their joy and enthusiasm on the arrival of the archbishop and the start of Mass. I decided then and there that if ever I managed to visit Vietnam, I would certainly do my best to reach La Vang. Early this last December the presence of my nephew working with the IMF in Hanoi gave me the opportunity.
For close on 100 years, from the late 18th century well into the 19th century, Vietnamese Catholics had to endure a series of savage persecutions, partly because their Faith was identified with French colonial ventures. An astonishingly large estimate is given for the number of those who died for their Faith over the course of that 100 years or more: well over 100,000 – perhaps even 200,000. As late as 1885 there was a massacre in which a certain Mgr Luc Gaspar estimated that 7,000 Catholics from 45 parishes had been killed.
In 1798 a group of Catholics hiding in the jungle some 37 miles from the city of Hue witnessed the apparition of Our Lady and the child Jesus. She comforted them and told them about the medicinal power of herbal leaves in the area known as la vang, hence the name of the place. Written records of this apparition were lost in warfare and in the destruction of Church prop erty, but the memory of the La Vang apparition remained a source of comfort and strength for the Catholics, who have continued to suffer persecution and oppression right up to modern times under Communism. It is a rallying point for Catholicism, and Rome has had no problem in giving full approval to this national shrine and place of pilgrimage.
An early start on December 8, the Feast Of the Immaculate Conception, saw me on the road from Hue, and then after 37 miles, some three miles off the main road along a narrow muddy rural road which opened up to a sort of mini-Lourdes. A few thousand people were already assembled at on the plaza, facing the shrine, which is made up of three enormous, and not very realistic, artificial banyan trees, with the statue of Our Lady and the child Jesus perched up amid the branches. One cannot help smiling at the thought of Our Lady up a tree, but it’s not so different from the Fatima apparition.
Present also was the Archbishop of Hue and his auxiliary bishop, plus some 40 or so priests, and serried ranks of religious Sisters, whose habits were traditional Vietnamese long black garments, split up the side, worn over trousers. The very hospitable clergy accepted my credentials as a Catholic priest and invited me to concelebrate. It was the most moving and dignified celebration, enhanced by Vietnamese cultural symbols such as umbrellas over the bishops, joss sticks burning before the altar and a large drum beaten at the consecration. One nun, ramrod straight, sang the Responsorial Psalm. I said afterwards that I think only in heaven will it be possible to hear something more beautiful, and I meant it.
As I said, this experience was especially moving for me, as I felt myself in the presence of a Catholicism that had been tried and tested in the crucible of the most intense suffering. La Vang needs to be better known. Apart from three young French women I was the only westerner there.
I was touched by the testimony of my Buddhist tour guide, who told me that during the Vietnam war (known in Vietnam as “the American War”) he had been employed on a United States airbase in Saigon. So the Communist government sentenced him to two years in a “re-education” camp that happened to be near La Vang. Conditions in the camp were extremely harsh and he said that he was saved from deep depression by periodically walking to the Christian holy site of La Vang where he found peace and consolation, albeit that the area at the time was largely in ruins from the war.
Pilgrims to Lourdes are apt to come away with bottles of Lourdes water. But pilgrims to La Vang take away plastic bags of the la vang leaves. I was amused how in the airport and on the plane an air hostess and some passengers identified me as a fellow Catholic by my bag of leaves. “By their leaves you will know them...” And they do seem to be effective, proved by the recovery of a sick friend in Malaysia after she had drunk a brew from the leaves.
Fr David Bingham is a member of the Mill Hill Missionaries