GREENVILLE — Vietnamese-American Catholics came by the hundreds, the women in spectacular silken dresses, the men in white shirts and ties. They came to Our Lady of the Rosary Parish on May 16 to celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of La Vang for the fourth consecutive year.
Bishop Robert J. Baker presided at the solemn Mass. He greeted the people in Vietnamese, to a roar of spontaneous applause, and said he wished he knew the language better. Franciscan Father Dac Tran, parish administrator, and Dominican Father Dao Quang Chinh, a special guest of the Vietnamese-American community of South Carolina, knew the language perfectly and translated the bishop’s remarks.
Father Dao gave the homily. He is the Vietnamese representative and the director of the Office for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He told the standing-room-only crowd that they should be grateful to St. Paul, who made a transition between Gentile and Jewish cultures 2000 years ago that evoked one the Vietnamese had to make later.
“Once we were told we had to become French before we could become Christian. Remember those times? That is no longer so. Now we all share the grace of the Holy Spirit with each other. Thank St. Paul for that,” Father Dao said.
He also urged the people to thank Bishop Baker for being “a living example of the real missionary. He travels to many different places to share his love.”
The liturgy was in both English and Vietnamese, and the combined choirs of various Viet communities in the diocese sang beautifully in Vietnamese. A dozen girls in colorful costumes performed a liturgical dance interpreting the story of Our Lady of La Vang, who appeared to Vietnamese Christians during their great persecution 200 years ago near the city of Quang Tri in Vietnam. Lights surrounded the Virgin then, and flowers are the traditional Vietnamese offering, so the dancers danced with candles, flowers and incense sticks to pay their respects to Mary.
Gregory W. Haselden, comptroller at Erskine College, was one of the few non-Vietnamese at the afternoon celebration. He was impressed with the two-hour liturgical ceremony, its color and dignity — and with something else.
“It reminds me of the universality of our church,” he said.
Haselden was invited to the feast day celebration by Kathleen Merritt, diocesan director of the Office of Ethnic Ministries, who also serves on the advisory board of Father Dao’s USCCB office in Washington, D.C. Father Dao said that Merritt also invited him to participate in the feast day events. The priest, who has a doctorate in education from the University of Houston and a masters of divinity degree from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., gave two days of recollection on the weekend. On Friday he addressed the spiritual and social needs of the older Vietnamese living in America, and on Saturday the role of Mary in raising children.
The Mass was preceded by the praying of the rosary and a long procession that included men carrying a statue of the Lady on an ornate and gilded platform. An evening of traditional food, song and dance followed.