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The faith witnesses




  • March 06, 2009

Earlier this year, Auxiliary Bishop Ignatius Wang and I traveled to Vietnam as members of a pilgrimage led by Bishop Tod Brown of Orange, California, and his Vietnamese-born secretary, Monsignor Tuan Pham. Bishop Daniel Walsh of Santa Rosa joined us, along with priests and about a dozen lay people from Orange. We visited the shrine of Our Lady of La Vang and several diocese and archdioceses in the country (Hanoi, Danang, Hue, and Ho Chi Minh City-formerly Saigon).

January 20 was our first evening in Vietnam. In the afternoon we had arrived in Hanoi, the capital of the country, had celebrated Mass, and then joined Archbishop Kiet of Hanoi and ninety of his priests for dinner. Naturally many of us Americans were thinking of presidential inauguration that was to take place in Washington later that same day. Because of the twelve-hour time difference, as we were sitting down to dinner at 6:00 p.m., Washington, D.C. was waking up at 6:00 a.m.

We had arrived during Tet, the period of preparation for and celebration of the Lunar New Year (New Year's Day this year was January 26). In the Vietnamese culture, Tet has enormous meaning. It is important for everyone to go home for this holiday and spend it with their families. Archbishop Kiet told me that the seminarians studying for priesthood in his archdiocese enjoyed a holiday of almost three weeks, taking in the ten days before and the ten days after New Year's Day.

After dinner the Archbishop invited us pilgrims to be his guests at a meeting with his priests, during which they would talk about the experiences of the past year and their hopes for the New Year. Monsignor Pham interpreted for us.

We met in a room that held about 75 people, so some priests and seminarians were gathered in the doorways and in the hall way. Before the meeting seminarians brought into the meeting Cardinal Paul Joseph Pham, 89, retired archbishop of Hanoi, who was very frail and confined to a wheelchair. During his years as archbishop the government held him in virtual house arrest. Everyone at the meeting expressed a powerful love and reverence for him. Cardinal Pham has since died, on Sunday, February 22, 2009.

On one wall of the room was a large framed print of Our Lady of La Vang, surrounded by a crowd of Vietnamese martyrs, Andrew Dung Lac and others, who had given their lives for their Catholic faith. As I listened to the priests describing their experiences in their parishes, I glanced now and then at that holy picture on the wall. The word "martyr" means, literally, "witness," and the connection between the witnesses in the picture and the witnesses in the meeting was powerfully moving.

Archbishop Kiet himself had come to Hanoi after serving in Vietnam's northernmost diocese, bordering on China. When he arrived there as bishop, in the entire diocese there was one elderly nun and the only priest was 90 years old. Now there are seven priests and twenty sisters, and the Church is coming back to life.

One of the priests at the meeting told of the struggles of the past year. He serves alone in a village of 7,000 people, 3,100 of whom are Catholic. The people are mostly farmers and farm workers, but recent floods have devastated the land. As a result there is no farm work, so workers come to the city to do manual labor, leaving the very young behind in the village to be cared for by the very old. There is no school for the children. Before this pastor arrived, there had been no priest in the village for 42 years. The Catholics there are gradually returning to the practice of their faith. Now some nuns have arrived and begun to help with the physically and mentally disabled.

Another priest spoke about his work among an ethnic group that leads a very simple rural life and often is looked down upon by the country's majority. After the French missionaries were expelled from Vietnam, this group had no priest for many years, and many of them lost their Catholic faith. Now that this pastor is working there, people are returning to the Church and there is a large enrollment in the parish's religious education program. The Communist government of Vietnam still does not permit the Catholic Church to operate schools or hospitals, but religious education programs are flourishing, and, from what we observed, the churches are full, the seminaries are full, and the novitiates for religious women are full.

That second pastor concluded his report and the other priests laughed as he sat down. Msgr. Pham translated the priest's closing remark: "I've lost eight pounds and I can't afford it!" (There certainly is no obesity problem in Vietnam, and that priest was very slight of build.)

The entire meeting revealed the love, affection, good humor and enormous dedication of Archbishop Kiet and his priests, many of who were young men. In their look at the past year and their look ahead to the next year, the talk was all about the needs of the people for the means of life for their families, and the challenge of keeping the faith alive and strong in the parishes.

As we left the room, I looked one last time at the picture on the wall. It seemed to me that the martyr-witnesses around Our Lady in the picture could be justly proud of their spiritual descendants, those witnesses in the room. From time to time witness to the Catholic faith is given through the shedding of blood, but always we witness by sharing out our lives day by day. We visitors had the privilege of witnessing the Catholic faith in action in Vietnam, lived out by those zealous apostles of Christ and His Church.

By Archbishop George H. Niederauer
From March 6, 2009 issue of Catholic San Francisco.

Archbishop Niederauer Portrait Pic