Today the Universal Church celebrates St. Andrew Dung-Lac and his 116 companions. Saints are holy people who chose to love God and their neighbor by leading extraordinary and exemplary lives of goodness. These individuals we celebrate today lived lives with the greatest love, laying down their lives for Jesus. Not everyone acts with courage in the face of adversity, persecution, cruelty or evil, and we all fail sometimes in this regard. Nevertheless, the lives of these saints give us hope and the courage to change our lives to be courageous soldiers of Jesus, to be in Love with the Triune God, which gives us understanding and the will to do what is right and good.
The actual persecution of Christians took place from 1625 to 1886, consisting of individuals in three Vietnamese kingdoms, Tonkin, Annam and Cochin China, wherein 96 were Vietnamese and 21 were foreign missionaries. However, there were actually 130,000 people who died during this persecution time period. The courage shown by these saints, including priests, lay people including children, catechists, missionaries and bishops, is absolutely incredible: 76 were beheaded, 21 suffocated, 6 were burned alive, 5 were mutilated and 9 died in prison because of torture.
The traditional religion in Vietnam was Buddhism, as well as elements of Taoism, Confucianism and local cults. At the beginning of the 16th century, the Catholic Church sent to Vietnam missionaries, wherein it is believed that at this time, 100,000 people were martyred. Unfortunately , most of the historical record governing this time period was lost and/or destroyed.
During the 19th century, Christianity experienced steady conversion, but this was interrupted by extreme persecutions by emperors Minh-Mang and TuDuc. Christians were ordered to renounce Jesus by trampling on the crucifix, some died of hunger, thirst, exposure in cages before being beheaded, some tortured by drugs so that retractions were made, and the torture included the cutting off the limbs, joint by joint, flesh being torn from bodies with red-hot tongs and like cruelty.
During this 19th century period, a Vietnamese diocesan priest who suffered persecution and martyrdom is Andrew Dung-Lac, who is honored by being the representative of the 117 martyrs in the Roman Catholic Church Calendar. His name initially was Dung An Tran. Andrew converted to Christianity whilst he was living in Hanoi, subsequently becoming a catechist in his country. On March 15, 1823, he was ordained a Catholic priest, known for his preaching, living a simple and moral life and being a wonderful example to people. In 1835 he was imprisoned under the emperor Minh-Mang’s persecutions, known in Vietnam as their “Nero,” with his freedom purchased by the members of his congregation. In an attempt to avoid further persecutions, he changed his name to Andrew Lac and moved to another prefecture to continue his work.
Nevertheless, on November 10, 1839, he was again arrested along with another Catholic priest, Peter Thi. Andrew was visiting Peter so that he might go to confession. Again, Andrew and Peter were liberated in exchange for money, but their freedom was brief, having been re-arrested and taken to Hanoi. Both of these priests suffered horrible torture and were beheaded on December 21, 1839.
Many other individuals suffered terrible persecutions during this time as well. Christians were marked on their faces with the words “ta dao” which means “false religion”, families were separated and villages destroyed, children, lay people, catechists, priests, bishops, judges and fishermen were persecuted.
In June of 1862, a treaty with France guaranteed religious freedom to Catholics, but it did not stop all persecution.
On November 24, 1960, Pope John XXIII established the Catholic hierarchy in Vietnam, including 1 cardinal, 35 bishops and 25 dioceses with about 6 million Catholics; of course the fruits of the martyrs’ blood. These 117 martyrs are known as the Martyrs of Vietnam, of Indo-China and Tonkin, their sainthood celebrated on November 24th.
In 1954, continued persecution forced approximately 670,000 Catholics to abandon their lands, homes and material goods and flee to the south. In 1964, there were still 833,000 Catholics in the north, but many people suffered in prison for their Faith. But in the south, Catholics enjoyed their first decade of religious freedom in centuries. During the Vietnamese war, Catholics again suffered in the north, moving to the south in great numbers. Now the entire country is under Communist rule.
Jesus said to “Take up your cross and follow me,” which includes all types of suffering, spiritual and temporal in nature. Nevertheless, out of suffering comes goodness and joy. We pray today for the gift of courage to love Jesus, and to stand for what is right and good in all of the avenues and opportunities provided in our lives.
May Our Lord bless you and keep you, and may Mary, the Mother of God, the angels and the saints assist you in your lives.
Much love to all,