A history of the Vietnamese Catholic Church



Bishop Robert J. Baker has declared 2001 a Year of Reconciliation and chosen May to celebrate the “Gifts of Our Brothers and Sisters of Asian Heritage” in the Diocese of Charleston.

This column provides an overview of the Vietnamese Catholic Church throughout history to the present, using historical and religious documents in Vietnamese, relevant material from Reuters and Associate Press news services, and testimony of Father John Tran Cong Nghi before the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom on Feb. 13, 2001.

Undergoing many trials

It was under the reign of King Le Trang Ton (1533) that a decree to halt the propagation of Christianity in his kingdom was issued. In that imperial decree, a westerner named Ignatius, who travelled by sea and preached the Gospel at Ninh Cuong and Quan Anh villages at Nam Chan district of Nam Dinh province, was mentioned. As the history was not mentioned clearly, hypothetically, Ignatius was a clergyman. Previously in 1533, an anti-Christianity decree was issued, so it was understood that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was preached in the Vietnamese homeland prior to 1533. Thus, the year of 1533 marked an important period in the history of the Vietnamese Catholic Church.

The Vietnamese Catholic Church in its infancy had emphasized the works and examples of foreign missionaries who had helped to spread God’s words. Priests such as Fathers Diego Doropesa, Batholomeo Ruiz, Petro Ortiz, Franciso De Montila and four deacons from the Franciscan order in The Philippines spread the Gospel in the northern part of Vietnam in 1583. In the central part, Fathers Louis De Fonseca and Gregoire De La Motte, along with Dominican Father Gaspar De Santa Cruz from Malacca, came to Ha Tien province in the southern part of Vietnam to spread the Gospel in 1550. The preaching task had become large and powerful through Jesuit priests such as Fathers Francesco Buzomi, Diego Carvalho and three deacons (one was Portugese and the others were Japanese). They came to Cua Han, Quang Nam province, in 1615 to strengthen missionary groups who worked for the propagation of the Gospel to the new land.


Ministering in great misery

The seeds of the Gospel were silently sowed, grown and reached fruition in Vietnam. However, a storm of hatred and fear surrounded the church. As a result, several “sweep and search” operations, harassing arrests, oppression, and detainments had been conducted on the Vietnamese faithful. Thousands of Vietnamese parishioners were executed, beheaded, crushed to death by elephants, or quartered by horses under the reigns of King Trinh in the north and King Nguyen and the Tay Son brothers in the south. Throughout the 16th to 19th centuries, the Gospel was continuously spread. Many orders were issued to halt the expansion of Christianity, and many massacres of Christians occured to stamp out their belief in Jesus Christ, brought a triumphal victory. As a result, more than 130,000 Vietnamese Christians had been courageous and strong-hearted enough to accept death, in the face of having their properties confiscated, being exiled, evading the enemy in the unhealthy climate, and clenching their teeth to stand sacrifices and hardships. These people were canonized, bravely proclaiming their faith in Jesus Christ.

The dedication of priests and clergymen from Franciscan, Dominican and Jesuit orders established the Foreign Missionary Association in Paris, France. Thanks to the lobbying effort of Jesuit Father Alexandre De Rhodes in Rome, Pope Innocent X named two priests, Father Francois Pallu and Father Lambert De La Mottee, to become bishops and chose them as “Vicarius Apostolicus” (representative for Vatican) in Vietnam and China in August 1658. In August 1662, Bishop Lambert De La Motte, along with two French missionaries arrived in Juthia, capital city of Thailand at that time, and established a seminary in 1665. Thus, this seminary was a place where priests and clergymen from the south and the north of Vietnam were trained during its infancy period. It was also here that the first Vietnamese native priests such as Father Joseph Trang (March 1668), Father John Hue and Father Benedict Hien (June 1668) and Father Luke Be (1669) were ordained. Now, the propagational field of Vietnam continued to grow through several generations of priests, lay catechists, and nuns despite oppression and dangers until 1802. The structure of the Vietnamese Catholic Church at the time was a diocese in the northeastern part of Vietnam with 140,000 faithful, 41 Vietnamese priests, 4 missionaries and one bishop; a diocese in the northwestern part of Vietnam with 120,000 Catholic population, 65 Vietnamese priests, six missionaries and one bishop; and a diocese in the central and southern parts of Vietnam with 60,000 faithful, 15 Vietnamese priests, five missionaries and one bishop.

So, in the early 19th century the Vietnamese Catholic Church had 320,000 faithful, 119 Vietnam priests and three bishops (Louvet, Les Missions Catholiques au 19e siecle, Paris 1894, p. 207).

The Vietnamese Catholic Church had been fathered and grown in the blood of more than 130,000 predecessors who bravely sacrificed their lives to protect their faith in Jesus Christ. Among them, 117 were beatified by Pope Luis XIII, Pope Pius X and Pope Pius XII. In June 19, 1998 Pope John Paul II cannonized 117 Vietnamese martyrs at St. Peter Square in Rome with the witness of more than 30,000 people from Italy, France, Spain, and especially thousands of Vietnamese refugees. Unfortunately, Vietnamese bishops, priests and other faithful from Vietnam were not allowed to attend because of the communist regime they lived under.

Among 117 Vietnamese saints, 98 were native Vietnamese, and the rest were foreign missionaries, eight were bishops, 50 priests, 16 lay catechists, one seminarian (Thomas Tran Van Thien) and 42 parishioners. If calculation was based on each period, there were two martyrs under King Trinh Doanh (1740-1767), two under King Trinh Sam (1767-1782), two under King Canh Thinh (1782-1802), 57 under King Minh Mang (1820-1840), three under King Thieu Tri (1840-1847), and 51 under King Tu Duc (1847-1883). On March 5, 2000, the first Vietnamese martyr, a young catechist named Andrew who in 1664 (under the reign of King Nguyen) gave his life for Christ, was beatified by Pope John Paul II.

The Vietnamese Catholic Church is very proud of her proto-martyr, Andrew (Phu Yen), and 117 Vietnamese saints. The Vatican Congregation for Liturgy chose a day to annually dedicate to them, Nov. 24. The number of Vietnamese faithful continues to increase, the propagation task keeps expanding. On June 11, 1933, Pope Pius XI appointed the first bishop of the Vietnamese Catholic Church at St. Peter Square, Bishop John Baptiste Nguyen Ba Tong (1868-1950), who later became the auxiliary bishop in the Phat Diem Diocese.

Growing up in Precious Blood

The day Nov. 24, 1960, marked an important historical event in the history of the Vietnamese Catholic Church when Pope John XXIII issued an ordinance to establish the basic structure of the Catholic Church in Vietnam with three archdioceses in Hanoi (northern part of Vietnam, capital city of Vietnam now), Hue (Central part) and Saigon (southern part of Vietnam, which the communists had changed to Ho Chi Minh City) along with 17 dioceses: Lang Son, Hai Phong, Bac Ninh, Hung Hoa, Thai Binh, Bui Chu, Phat Diem, Thanh Hoa, Vinh, Quy Nhon, Nha Trang, Kontum, Vinh Long, Can Tho, Da Lat, My Tho and Long Xuyen. All three archdioceses and 17 dioceses directly connect with the Vatican Congregation for Missionaries.

In November 1976, the Vietnamese Catholic Church welcomed her first cardinal, Archbishop Joseph Maria Trinh Nhu Khue. The second cardinal was elevated in 1979, Cardinal Joseph Trinh Van Can; the third cardinal, Joseph Maria Pham Dinh Tung, was elevated by Pope John Paul II on Oct. 30, 1994. Cardinal Pham Dinh Tung is currently the president of the Vietnamese Catholic Bishop’s Conference. The fourth cardinal was elevated by Pope John Paul II last Feb. 21, Cardinal Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, current head of the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice. The latter was a victim of the communist government and spent 13 years in communist prison and then continued under house arrest for several years. He left the country in 1991.

If the Vietnamese Catholic Church has acknowledged the bravery of the missionaries who came to Vietnam to spread God’s words despite dangers, deaths, severe illnesses, and persecution, it was her turn to repay that “spiritual debt” to those who died because of Jesus Christ. In 1972, the Vietnamese Catholic Bishops’ Conference agreed and appointed Archbishop Philip Nguyen Kim Dien to head and organize a Vietnamese Missionary Association with an aspiration and hope to spread God’s word to remote villages in Vietnam and neighboring countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and other Asian countries. The Vietnamese Catholic Church was worthy to receive the title “the eldest daughter” of the Catholic Church in Asia.

For more than 450 years, the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been preached in the land of Vietnam. The Vietnamese Catholic Church has always been brave and steadfast in spite of tortures, oppressions, and harassment. She has proclaimed her eternal and fervent faith to Jesus Christ, to the holy Catholic and apostolic church. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow, local Vietnamese parishioners still bravely conduct and implement their faith to become witnesses of the Gospel against the communist regime of Vietnam. Following the examples of Vietnamese martyrs, the Vietnamese faithful in the United States as well as all over the world, including the Diocese of Charleston, must consistently keep their faith in Jesus Christ and live their faith in these new lands.

Anthony Tuan Le is a parishioner at St. Mary Church in Greenville.