Jubilee marking the canonisation of Vietnamese martyrs starts in Vietnam

The Jubilee on the occasion of 30th Year of the canonization of 117 martyrs has started in Vietnam on Tuesday, June 19, 2018.

Saint Pope John Paul II canonized the 117 Vietnamese martyrs on 19 June 1988 in St Peter's Square. The group included 96 Vietnamese, 11 Spanish and 10 French. They were decapitated, drawn, and quartered or burned alive or died in cages too small for them to either sit or stand. Up to that time, that was the single largest number of martyrs canonized at a single occasion, surpassing the 103 Korean martyrs beatified in Korea in 1984. This record was only broken when the Polish pope beatified 120 Chinese martyrs in 2000.

During their ad limina in March 2018, Vietnamese bishops asked The Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura for the permission to hold a Jubilee to mark the 30th Year of the canonization of 117 martyrs”. Their request was approved.

In Tuesday’s early morning, Cardinal Peter Nguyễn Văn Nhơn, Archbishop of Hà Nội Archdiocese presided over the opening Mass with the presence of 20,000 Catholics from 10 dioceses of Hà Nội ecclesiastical province.

The opening ceremony took place in the Minor Basilica of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Sở Kiện, Hà Nam Province. The Basilica was built 135 years ago in the hometown of two martyrs – Father Peter Trương Văn Thi and Brother Peter Trương Văn Dương.

In his homily, Bishop Cosma Hoàng Văn Đạt - Bishop of Bắc Ninh - highlighted the gratitude and the rejoice of the people of God in Vietnam and all over the world. Borrowing words of the Psalm 126:3 “The Lord has done great things for us, we are filled with joy”, he urged the congregation to give praise and thanks to the Lord.

The prelate helped the community look back at the heroic history of the Church in Vietnam. Nearly 500 years ago, the first cross in Vietnam was planted in Chàm, a small island off the coast of Quảng Nam. Since then, the seed of faith has planted, flourished, and borne abundant fruits in the ground of Vietnam. However, at the same time, the Church in Vietnam has suffered so many sorrows, trials, and fierce persecutions to this day.

Hours later, in the afternoon, at the Ba Giồng Pilgrimage Centre in Tiền Giang Province, thousands of Catholics in Sàigòn Archdiocese and ten dioceses in southern Vietnam celebrated the opening ceremony of the Jubilee. Tiền Giang is the hometown of thousands of 18th and 19th century martyrs.

In the evening, the Jubilee’s opening ceremony for the Archdiocese of Huế and the five dioceses in central Vietnam was celebrated at Our Lady of La Vang Pilgrimage Centre in Quảng Trị Province – where Our Lady appeared to console the faithful who had fled to the jungle to avoid waves of persecution 220 years ago.

At the beginning of the Mass, Father Anthony Dương Quỳnh, Huế's vicar general, recalled that “117 martyrs were sanctified among more than 100,000 martyrs through the periods of Trịnh, Nguyễn, Tây Sơn, Minh Mạng, Thiệu Trị and Tự Đức. That is not to mention about 300,000 people died during waves of persecution.” In particular, he mentioned that hundreds of Catholics were burnt alive to death at the church nearby Tri Bưu.

Anti-Christian persecution broke out almost immediately when the Gospel was proclaimed in Vietnam in the mid-16th century. However, it reached a peak under the Nguyễn Dynasty – Vietnam’s last ruling family. Their rule lasted a total of 143 years, beginning in 1802, when Emperor Gia Long ascended to the throne after defeating the Tây Sơn dynasty. During this period, more than 300,000 Vietnamese Catholics were killed.

A gradual lessening of persecution occurred when the French occupied the whole of the country by 1886. But waves of more terrible persecution occurred again during the communist era. So far, the Church in Vietnam has not yet been able to count the exact number of people killed, and the number of people imprisoned for their beliefs during the current communist era, not to mention the large number of Catholics discriminated and marginalised because of their faith.

Bitter opposition from Vietnam's Communist government against the canonization followed by its violent reaction is a typical image of what modern persecution looks like under communism.

Shortly after the Vatican announced the decision to canonize 117 Vietnamese martyrs, on October 12, 1987, the Vietnamese Government's Committee for Religious Affairs sent a communique to all provincial People's Committees and Religious Affairs Departments in the entire country that said:

“The Vatican's decision to declare 117 people to be martyrs was a deliberate and vicious political misrepresentation of Vietnamese revolutionary history, instigating fanaticism and martyrdom among Catholics in Vietnam. It was designed to cause division and to harm the national unity of our people, especially in the current period when the Party and State are striving to properly implement the policy of religion, strengthen the solidarity of the people over all challenges to successfully build socialism and firmly defend the socialist fatherland of Vietnam.”

The strong and violent reaction of the communists surprised many as none of the 117 Vietnamese martyrs were killed during the communist era, or somehow had something to deal with the communists.

On September 18, 1987, upon the order of the Prime Minister, the Government's Committee for Religious Affairs convened the Executive Committee of the Episcopal Conference to “highlight the seriousness of the Vatican’s canonization, sternly criticizing the wrongdoings of some bishops”. During multiple meetings being held late at night, the committee, led by Cardinal Trịnh Văn Căn, was forced to write a letter to Vatican to ask for the cancelation of the event.

Despite enormous threats, the bishops refused to do so. As scheduled, Saint Pope John Paul II canonized the 117 Vietnamese martyrs on 19 June 1988 in St Peter's Square. More than 20,000 pilgrims, including 8,000 Vietnamese living in other parts of Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America, gathered in St. Peter's Square for the outdoor Mass, which proceeded uninterrupted for more than three hours through thunder and a brief rain shower.

Nguyễn Quang Huy, Hanoi's official in charge of religious affairs, warned in March 1988 that the canonization “creates an obstacle to the Vietnamese desire to have friendly relations with the Vatican.”

In reply, the Roman Catholic pontiff appealed for an end to modern day religious repression in Vietnam. Vietnamese Catholics, he said, are loyal to their country as well as to their church.

“They feel themselves authentically Vietnamese, faithful to their land. They also want to continue to be true disciples of Christ,” the Pope said in his sermon.

Months before the event, several seminars were held throughout the country to distort and falsely accuse this canonization event.

The “Catholics and the Nation”, a magazine financed by the state and controlled by the Communist Party, was tasked to run a campaign to distort the history of the Church in Vietnam, falsely accusing Pope John Paul II.

Led by a priest, Fr. Trương Bá Cần, who repeatedly claimed himself a historian - a claim without any persuasive evidence, the magazine launched a series of writings by professional communist writers and even by priests in the “Committee for the Solidarity of Vietnamese Catholics”, to distort historical facts. They suggested that the to-be-declared martyrs were not killed because of their faith but due to their cooperation with the French invaders; and that the Polish Pope wanted to interfere in the political affairs of the country.

Catholics were threatened with imprisonment not to celebrate the event. State-run media outlets denounced many of the martyrs as imperialists who paved the way for France's conquest of Vietnam in 1884, and reported that the government requested Catholics not to celebrate the canonization because it fell on the same day that the South Vietnamese government, defeated by the north in 1975, used to celebrate Armed Forces Day. It also quoted Bishop Paul Huỳnh Đông Các of Qui Nhơn who said in a pastoral letter that “We will celebrate and solemnly hold canonization Masses on another Sunday that is approved by the administration”.

Just a few years later, after the collapse of the communism in Eastern Europe, despite any menaces, Catholics in Vietnam publicly celebrated the event with thanksgivings on June 19 each year.

Trương Bá Cần died on July 10, 2009. A few weeks earlier, a friend priest visited him right on the anniversary of the event. He asked Cần to repent for the damage done to the Catholic Church in Vietnam, especially in the canonization of 117 martyrs. “I received from him a drastic refusal,” said Fr. Oánh Nguyễn, who suggested that Cần “failed to believe in our Lord’s mercy”.