Saintly lives laid down in brutal Vietnam persecution

Saintly lives laid down in brutal Vietnam persecution St Andrew Dung-Lac depicted in stained glass. Photo: Nheyob
Saint of the week

November 24 sees the Church remember and celebrate 117 martyrs, killed for their commitment to the Catholic Faith in Vietnam between the 17th and 19th Centuries.

Fr Andrew Dung-Lac, a priest, gives his name to the feast, and the 116 other martyrs he’s remembered alongside stand in for a multitude. Among them are bishops, priests and laypeople – including women and children – who gave their lives for Christ throughout the aforementioned period.

96 of the 117 were native Vietnamese and with them were 21 Spanish or French missionaries who had lived in and loved Vietnam. The group of 117 was canonised together by Pope John Paul II in 1988, and represents a nameless host estimated at between 100,000 and 300,000 martyrs, a “great cloud of witnesses” whose blood was the seed of a flourishing Church in Vietnam.

Fr Andrew Dung-Lac, who lends his name to the feast and to the group, was born Dung An-Tran to a normal, poor family who followed the traditional religion of the region in northern Vietnam towards the end of the 18th Century.

However, when An-Tran was 12, his family moved to Hanoi in search of work, where he encountered a Christian catechist who housed him and introduced him to Christ and his teachings. An-Tran was baptised with the name Andrew, and in 1823, was ordained a priest – one whose simple lifestyle and preaching appealed to many in the region, who decided like him to convert to Christianity.

However, in 1832 Vietnamese Emperor Minh-Mang banned foreign missionaries and commanded Vietnamese Christians to publicly trample on crucifixes in order to renounce their faith before all. While many did, many did not, and as in other countries, during other persecutions, the Faithful took big risks to continue practicing their faith, including housing and hiding priests and undertaking covert religious practices.

Violent punishment and execution befell those the authorities managed to seize, though, including beheading, suffocation, flaying and public confinement to cages until death.

Fr Andrew was first arrested in 1835, but his parishioners managed to ransom him.

He changed his last name to Lac and moved to a different part of Vietnam to avoid persecution, but to no avail. In 1839, he was arrested again along with another Vietnamese priest, Fr Peter Thi, whom Fr Andrew had visited in order to go to Confession. Both were ransomed once more, before they were finally re-arrested, tortured, and beheaded in Hanoi on December 21, 1839.

The persecution continued after Frs Andrew and Peter’s deaths, but despite its viciousness, it was powerless to stop the staying power of the Church. By the end of the 20th Century, around 10% of the population of Vietnam was estimated to identify as Catholic.

When Fr Andrew and his martyred companions – 117 named and hundreds of thousands unnamed – were canonised, the then-communist government of Vietnam didn’t permit a single official representative to attend the ceremony. However, around 8,000 Vietnamese Catholic diaspora were there to celebrate the occasion, and it is on the November 24 every year that the global Church joins with them in remembering and celebrating the remarkable faith of those many saints from Vietnam.