Saint Andrew Dũng-Lac and his Companions, Martyrs

Christian missionaries first brought the Catholic faith to Vietnam during the 16th century. The first two apostolic vicariates were established in 1659.

The traditional Vietnamese religion is Buddhism, mixed with elements of Taoism, Confucianism and the cult of ancestors. When Christianity came with missionaries early in the 16th century, it was seen as a foreign element and during the following three centuries (1625-1886) became the object of persecution.

During the first 20 years of the 19th century, Christianity made steady progress, but this was dramatically interrupted by the persecutions under the Annamite emperors Minh-Mang (1820-40) and Tu Dúc (1847-83). From 1832, Minh-Mang banned all foreign missionaries and ordered Vietnamese Christians to renounce Christianity by trampling on a crucifix. Churches were to be destroyed and teaching Christianity forbidden. Many suffered death, and many others endured extreme hardship.

Altogether, during the first 200 years of Christianity in Vietnam, it is estimated that some 100,000 Christians were martyred, but there is little historical record of most of them. They came from the three Vietnamese kingdoms of Tonkin, Annam and Cochin China.

Imprisoned bishops, hardly 30 years old, were given a piece of bamboo as crozier and a paper mitre, while older priests were put on display in cages to be publicly mocked, although often with the opposite effect. Poor peasants were murdered for refusing to trample on a crucifix. Some of the tortures were barbaric, and the persecutions have been compared with those of ancient Rome.

Among the Vietnamese priests who suffered martyrdom was Andrew Dũng-Lac, who was chosen to represent a first group of 117 who were martyred. His original name was Dũng An Tran. He was born about 1795 into a poor family in Bac-Ninh in north Vietnam. At the age of 12, the family was forced to move to Hanoi where his parents could find work. While there, Andrew met a Christian catechist who gave him food and shelter. He was also instructed in the Christian faith for three years before being baptised in Vinh-Tri and given the Christian name of Andrew.

After learning Chinese and Latin he became a catechist. He was then picked out to study theology and on 15 March, 1823 was ordained priest. As parish priest in Ke-Dâm he was an indefatigable preacher. He frequently fasted and lived a very simple life. His good example led many to become Christians.

In 1835, he was arrested and imprisoned under emperor Minh-Mang’s persecutions (this emperor has been called Vietnam’s Nero). However, Andrew was freed thanks to money given by members of his congregation. To avoid persecutions, he changed his name from Andrew Dũng to Andrew Lac and moved to another prefecture. However, on 10 November, 1839, he was again arrested, this time with Peter Thi, another Vietnamese priest whom he was visiting to make his confession. Again, together with Peter Thi, he was liberated for a sum of money. But the period of freedom was brief. Once again, they were re-arrested and taken to Hanoi where they were subjected to dreadful tortures. On 21 December, 1839, they were beheaded. Andrew was beatified in the first group of Vietnamese martyrs on 27 May 1900.

During this time, Christians were marked on their faces with the words ta dao (= false religion), husbands were separated from their wives, and children from their parents. Christian villages were destroyed and their possessions distributed.

Among the most significant of the martyrs was Théophane Venard of the Paris Mission. A schoolmaster’s son, he was born at Saint-Loup-sur-Thouet, Deux-Sèvres, in 1829. He joined the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris from the Poitiers diocese seminary and was ordained priest in 1852. In 1854, he was sent to Tonkin in a time of persecutions. Expelled from Nam-Dinh in 1856, he went to Hanoi, where renewed persecutions obliged him to hide in caves and small boats. Finally, he was arrested, placed in a bamboo cage, and ultimately in 1861, beheaded for the Christian faith. His letters and his example inspired the young Theresa of Lisieux to volunteer for the Carmelite convent at Hanoi. But, because of her tuberculosis, she was not able to go. In 1865, Vénard’s decapitated body was brought back to his society’s church in Paris. With 19 other martyrs from this area, he was beatified in 1909.

In June 1862, a treaty between France and Annam guaranteed religious freedom. This marked the beginning of the end of the persecutions. The 117 martyrs were beatified in four groups, the first of them on 27 May, 1900 (Pope Leo XIII), the second (all Dominicans) on 20 May, 1906, a third group on 2 May, 1909 (both by Pope Pius X) and the last (including the two Spanish bishops) on 29 April, 1951 (Pope Pius XII). They were all canonised in Rome on 19 June, 1988 by Pope John Paul II.

Of the 117 martyrs celebrated today 96 were Vietnamese, and 21 foreign missionaries. Of the Vietnamese, 37 were priests and 59 lay people, among whom were catechists and members of third orders. One of them was a woman, a mother of six.

Of the missionaries, 11 were Spaniards – 6 bishops and 5 priests, all Dominicans (OP), and 10 were French – 2 bishops and 8 priests from the Société des Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP, Paris Foreign Missions).

Of those who died, 76 were beheaded, 21 suffocated, 6 burnt alive, 5 mutilated and 9 died in prison as a result of torture. A detailed description of their sufferings is found in a moving letter written by seminarian Paul Le Bao Tinh to the seminary of Ke Vinh in 1843:

I, Paul, chained for the name of Christ, wish to tell you the tribulations in which I am immersed every day, so that you, inflamed with love for God, may also lift up your praise to God, “for his mercy endures forever”. This prison is truly the image of the eternal Hell: to the cruelest tortures of all types, such as fetters, iron chains and bonds, are added hate, vindictiveness, calumny, indecent words, interrogations, bad acts, unjust oaths, curses and finally difficulties and sorrow. But God, who once freed the three boys from the path of the flames, is always with me and has freed me from these tribulations and converted them into sweetness, “for his mercy endures forever”…Assist me with your prayers so that I may struggle according to the law and indeed “fight the good fight” and that I may be worthy to fight until the end, finishing my course happily; if we do not see each other again in this life, in the future age, nonetheless, this will be our joy, when standing before the throne of the spotless Lamb, with one voice we sing his praises, exulting in the joy of eternal victory. Amen

On 24 November, 1960, Pope John XXIII established the Catholic hierarchy in Vietnam. There are about 6 million Catholics, about 10 percent of the population – all the fruits of martyrs’ blood.

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