On 24 November, the Church celebrates the memorial of St Andrew Dung-Lac, priest and martyr, and companions.
Vietnam has a long and rich Christian heritage, and for hundreds of years, believers in Vietnam have suffered for their faith.
In the 16th century, Portuguese merchants first brought Christianity to Vietnam. A hundred years later, Jesuits opened a permanent mission at Da Nang. It was Jesuit missionaries who translated the bible into Vietnamese and developed an alphabet for the Vietnamese language, based on the Latin script. But Christians experienced varying levels of tolerance in the wider community.
Throughout its history, in the multiple kingdoms that would become Vietnam, foreigners and the western empires they represented were looked upon with suspicion. Christians were seen as little more than foreign agents, linked to these powerful empires seeking to advance their own political agendas in the region.
As a result, the Church in Vietnam was actively persecuted, and the treatment these Christians endured at the hands of local rulers is considered by the Vatican to rank among the worst in the history of Christian persecution.
St Andrew Dung-Lac has come to represent faith in the face of this extreme persecution in Vietnam. Andrew was born Ahn Tranh in 1795 in northern Vietnam to a poor family. At the age of 12, his parents moved to the city of Hue where he received an education from a lay catechist, something that was usually denied to poor children.
He converted to Catholicism and upon being baptised, he took the name Andrew and became a catechist himself.
In 1823, he was ordained a priest in the apostolic vicariate of West Tonkin and worked in the missions with the priests of the Foreign Mission Society of Paris.
However, he lived in a time that was unfriendly to Christians in Vietnam. In 1832, Emperor Minh-Mang banned all foreign missionaries and tried to force Vietnamese Christians to deny their faith by walking on a crucifix.
During this era of persecution, Fr Andrew Dũng changed his name to Lạc to evade the authorities. He was saved from prison on more than one occasion, receiving help from Christian communities around the country.
Yet he did not fear death for Christ. ‘Whoever dies for the faith,’ he said, ‘goes up to heaven; on the contrary, we who continually hide ourselves spend money to escape persecutors! It would be much better to let ourselves be arrested and die.’
After imprisonment and repeated torture, he was beheaded on 21 December 1839.
In 1847 persecution broke out again, when the emperor suspected foreign missionaries and Vietnamese Christians of sympathizing with a rebellion and many more communities of Christians were killed.
Levels of Christian persecution across Vietnam have been difficult to quantify. According to Vatican estimates, the number of Vietnamese martyrs who suffered for the faith between 1820 and 1880 stands between 130,000 and 300,000 people.
St Andrew’s 116 companions include Dominican and Jesuit missionaries from the 18th century and those killed in the politically inspired persecutions of the 19th century.
The group consists of 96 Vietnamese Christians, 11 Spanish, and ten French Christians. Eight of the group were bishops, 50 were priests and 59 were lay Catholics. Included in their number was a nine-year-old child.
On 19 June 1988, Pope John Paul II canonised this group of 117 martyrs who died for the faith.
Thousands of Vietnamese people gathered at the Vatican for the celebration of the canonisation of 117 martyrs, chaired by Monsignor Tran Van Hoai.
In his homily, Pope John Paul II said, ‘once again we can say that the blood of the martyrs is for you, Christians of Vietnam, a source of grace to progress in the 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, at the same time want to continue to be true disciples of Christ.’