There was hardly a seat available at this year’s Vietnamese Martyrs Mass held at St Patrick’s Cathedral on Sunday 19 November. Almost 2,000 people from around Melbourne gathered for the joy-filled celebration, giving thanks for the gift and witness of faith by generations of Vietnamese Catholics, both here and in Vietnam. The Mass is typically celebrated on the Sunday closest to the official feast day of Vietnamese martyrs (also known as that of St Andrew Dung-Lac and Companions), which takes place on 24 November.

Sunday’s celebration began with the rosary and a procession around the Cathedral grounds, featuring the statue of Our Lady of La Vang (the title given to the Blessed Virgin Mary after her reported apparition at La Vang, Vietnam, in 1798) and the relics of the Vietnamese martyrs.

It was a colourful display as the Vietnamese community dressed in traditional costume and members of 17 local Vietnamese groups held up their flags, including that of the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement, the Vietnamese Catholic Youth of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, the Legion of Mary, members of the Secular Franciscan Order (lay Franciscans), the Third Order of Saint Dominic (lay Dominicans), the Confraternity of Christian Mothers and the Catholic Charismatic Renewal Movement.

Throughout the afternoon, music was provided by the Vietnamese Martyrs Combined Choir, a group of more than 100 choir members from various parishes around Melbourne.

The principal celebrant of this year’s Mass was Bishop Terry Curtin, who expressed his joy at being present with so many of Melbourne’s faithful. He was joined by the local Vietnamese chaplains and members of the Archdiocesan clergy. Fr Thang Vu, parish priest of Flemington–Kensington—one of the first Vietnamese communities in Australia—delivered the homily.

Speaking in Vietnamese, he spoke of the courageous witness of the thousands of martyrs who, over many centuries, gave their lives for the sake of their faith and love for Jesus. He also paid tribute to generations of local Vietnamese, whose steadfast faith, he said, has led to continued vocations to family life, to the priesthood and to religious life.

‘These vocations have been nurtured by the activities of various groups such as the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement, youth groups, choirs, the Legion of Mary, the Cursillo Movement as well as ongoing encouragement from religious and clergy.’

He also encouraged the youth present to take heart from the witness of those who died for their faith. ‘Do not be afraid! Open your hearts and receive God’s unconditional love,’ he said, encouraging them to make space for God in their lives and, drawing inspiration from the martyrs, to be bold and ‘live for the faith’.

The Vietnamese Martyrs Mass has taken place at St Patrick’s Cathedral every year since the early 1980s and took on extra meaning after Pope John Paul II canonised 117 members of the Vietnamese Catholic Church in 1988—the largest group canonisation in Church history. That group consisted of eight bishops, 50 priests and 59 laypeople, including Agnese Thi Thành, a mother of six. The feast day for Vietnamese Martyrs remembers these men, women and children, as well as up to 300,000 Vietnamese Christians who lost their lives between 1630 and 1880, largely due to political instability and local leaders’ fears of foreign influence.

Do not be afraid! Open your hearts and receive God’s unconditional love.

At the 1988 canonisation Mass, Pope John Paul II expressed his closeness to the people of Vietnam and compared the persecutions to those experienced by the Church in the West during its first three centuries of life.

‘Once again we can say that the blood of the martyrs is for you, Christians of Vietnam, a source of grace to progress in faith. In you the faith of our fathers continues to be transmitted to the new generations.

‘This faith remains the foundation of the perseverance of all those who, feeling authentically Vietnamese, faithful to their land, want at the same time to continue to be true disciples of Christ.’