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The Catholic Connection

The Catholic Connection

Happy Easter! Since it’s Easter, I figured I’d write a blog about the history and my experience of Catholicism in Vietnam. I hope I’ll be able to write more about Cambodia and our Northern Excursion before the end of the trip. We’ll see with final exams approaching, but for now enjoy this little piece about Catholicism in Vietnam.

Coming to Vietnam I imagined large pagodas full of giant gold Buddhas, monks in saffron robes, and a society really imbued with Buddhism. I was seriously letting my experience from India and stories from Thailand inform my expectations more than I should have. When I got off the plane, I was met with something entirely different. My taxi driver had a statuette of the Virgin Mary on his dashboard (didn’t stop him from extorting a several dollar tip out of me as I groggily arrived in Saigon too tired to try and argue, I guess he could smell the fresh meat), and the first meal I had in Vietnam was a bowl of noodles under a large mother of pearl engraving of the last supper, flanked by a portrait of the laughing Jesus on the opposite wall and Jesus on a crucifix in the back of the room. Leaving the restaurant I brushed up against a Christmas tree lined with tinsel, and beginning to explore the city the first religious structure I came upon was the imposing Notre Dame Basilica Cathedral, a reminder of the French Colonial legacy with its huge pink bell towers and immense interior full of statues of saints and giant stained glass windows. I was to learn soon that Catholics make up a little more than twelve percent of the population of Vietnam, with a disproportionate amount living in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh city and a large portion of Vietnamese in foreign countries due to historical pressure in the region.

Jacob Ramsay in his section of the book Modernity and Re-Enchantment: Religion in Post-Revolutionary Vietnam, argues that Catholicism is just a much a Vietnamese religion because it is an imported religion just like Buddhism and Confucianism from China, its just that Catholicism had come a little later. According to some people Catholicism was an outside threat and shouldn’t have been adopted by so many Vietnamese. However if that logic were used, all of today’s Vietnamese would be animist ancestor worshippers without any Buddhist, Tao, or Confucian ideals because they were all imported from China or India. Now isn’t that a strange thought.

The first Catholic presence in Vietnam came from Spanish and Portuguese missionaries based in the nearby Philippines and East Timor. One of these Portuguese missionaries, Alexander de Rhodes, converted many people and also noticed a low literacy rate among the people. During that time basically only the elite had access to education and were able to learn Chinese characters, which were used to write Vietnamese at that point. Alexander knew that Chinese characters were too difficult for the masses to learn effectively, and so to improve literacy and enable people to read the Bible, he began creating a new script for the Vietnamese language. He used some of the underlying work used by Portuguese priests that came before him and using an adapted version of the Latin alphabet with diacritics and accent marks to display the use of tones in the language, Alexander created a language everyone could learn easily. The script is still used today and is called Quoc Ngu (National Language). Rhodes is still honored today, and a street in Saigon bears his name.

Over time, many Vietnamese converted to Catholicism thanks to successful missionary activity by the Jesuit order in the region. Whole communities embraced Catholicism, and that began to trouble some of the Ngyuen Emperors, who eventually expelled the missionaries and killed many Vietnamese Catholics who were believed to not be loyal to the state. This did not stop conversion however, as many Vietnamese of lower classes and even in the army came to Catholicism because of its egalitarian nature and as an escape from feudalism present at the time. Those killed became known as the Vietnamese martyrs, who are actually displayed at a side altar in Saigon’s Cathedral alongside the older European saints and angels. The majority of the martyrs were Vietnamese villagers along with a small contingent of Jesuit and Dominican missionaries. All of the martyrs, named and unknown were eventually beatified by Pope John Paul II before roaring crowds of happy Vietnamese.

Oppression against Catholics continued until the French came to power when Catholicism gained the upper hand with French patronage, and then later on in South Vietnam many people converted for political reasons because they thought it would land them better jobs or positions in the military. Just like the other religions, it survived the War… with some ‘alterations’.

I will say Catholicism is strong here. I imagine where life is tough, people need faith (why do you think Poland, Greece, and Cyprus have the highest church attendance ratings in Europe?) Driving to Da Lat for our day trip I saw multitudes of churches, and in front of these churches were poor barefoot farmers in rags. These men, women, and children stood on the outside of the churches because the insides were filled past capacity! When was the last time you saw people standing in crowds outside of church and at the side windows to hear the Gospel and receive Holy Communion? Those sights made me re-evaluate my devotion to Jesus.

Two more instances about Catholicism come from my own Catholic identity. I wear a crucifix on my neck, and twice on this trip people have noticed it and it has changed the dynamic of the moment. The first was when I met some of Nghiem’s father’s friend’s children. These two kids: Yaoman and Minh were the coolest kids. Yaoman had dimples that took up his entire face! Both of them wore small silver crosses and when they saw my crucifix they pointed at it and then at theirs, and then the large wooden crucifix they kept on the wall of their living room and gave me a thumbs up. Later when I was playing with the two kids their small grandmother hobbled over to me in her blue pajamas and showed me the cross on her neck and offered to take me to Mass. I would have agreed but I had to leave for Saigon, and so I had to decline.

Weeks later in Hanoi I was eating some fried fish and noodle on the street with Gabe, Alex, and Vien. An old woman nearby was serving tea out of her portable little stand (the flexible poles with two baskets on the ends which is ubiquitous to Vietnam and serves as transportation and a storefront when needed). She didn’t look very happy under her conical hat, but while giving us tea she noticed my crucifix and cracked a smile. She walked back to her little stall and returned to me with a Catholic prayer card. I’m not sure what exactly it says because it is in Vietnamese; however the man on the front of the card is definitely John the Baptist.

Later on in Hanoi I went to the huge Gothic Cathedral, St. Joseph’s to take a look around and say a few prayers. I was pleasantly surprised to find a stained glass window dedicated to very important and special saint to me, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the namesake of my school! The window pictured Ignatius writing a letter to other Jesuits. There were many other saints in the large windows and side altars. The stained glass illuminated the dark gothic interior beautifully. It was much more ornate than the Basilica in Saigon.

Saigon’s Basilica may be simpler on the inside, but its pink brick and tile exterior definitely trumps St. Joseph’s bleak grey stone. The Basilica also has a side alter dedicated to the Theotokos, a Byzantine Icon of the Virgin Mary that looks stunning in soft candle light. During Lent there were many services in the Basilica were people would sing songs and chant outside the church around a granite statue of Mary, styled as Our Lady of Peace, which was erected during the War era in the hope the country would find peace.

On Good Friday I fasted and for my one meal I went to the usual Pho restaurant asnd ordered my usual minus the beef. The woman taking the order looked surprised and said in English, “Are you Catholic?” I said yes and she smiled, “Very good. I am too.”

I went to Easter Mass at the Basilica and it was PACKED! People were standing in the courtyard it was so crowded. I didn’t get a seat, but stood next to the side alter for the Vietnamese martyrs. The pews were predominantly Vietnamese but there were many Americans, Europeans, Africans, and South Indians dressed up in fancy shalwar pyjama.

I really saw that our church is a Universal Catholic Church because of the diversity in the congregation. It was a very good experience. After Mass I went to my favorite German bakery and got some hot cross buns for all the Americans and our roommates. For dinner since there is no Easter ham or Friedmann Macn’cheese we all went to a fancy Sushi bar and sat on cushions in a private room with sliding bamboo doors and had delicious raw fish.

As for Cambodia, well… Catholicism was pretty much eradicated in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge era. Anything that wasn’t ‘Khmer’ was ‘erased’ and since Catholicism was seen as a western intrusion of Cambodian culture, most Catholics were killed. However, the Jesuits are still active and during our excursion to Cambodia we stopped by a Jesuit training center called Banteay Prieb, which is Khmer for ‘Sign of the Dove”. Banteay Prieb offers training certificates in five areas—mechanics, electronics, sewing, agriculture, and sculpture for people with disabilities. It was a very nice place and helped people who are marginalized in Southeast Asian societies find a home where they are accepted and learn skills to help them provide for themselves.

Catholicism is alive and well in Vietnam, and if anyone wants to say Christianity is just a ghost of Western colonization, think again the Vietnamese have successfully made Catholicism there own since the French departure with incense burners, joss sticks, services in Vietnamese, altars dedicated to the Vietnamese martyrs, churches built following traditional pagoda style architecture, and bronze Asian elephants flanking statues of saints. Elements of Vietnamese culture have blended with Catholicism to give it a regional flavor all it’s own, and it is beautiful indeed.

P.S. I had candy for the first time in 40 days. It was amazing!

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