By ANTHONY TUAN LE
If Catholic people in Americas venerate Our Lady of Guadalupe in mid-December, European Catholic people have aspirations of our Holy Mother at Lourdes and Fatima, and then Catholic believers in Asia, especially in Vietnam, solemnly worship Our Lady of La Vang in August. As Catholics, we all understand that though our holy Mary has different titles, she is the best mediator to bring us closer to Jesus Christ, our savior.
Not so many Americans have ever heard of Our Lady of La Vang.
The year 1533 marked the first year European missionaries who the Gospel of the Lord to his people in Vietnam. For the next few hundred years, the Vietnamese Catholic Church was constantly harassed and oppressed by the king and official troops. Hundreds of thousands of bishops, religious, and laity were executed (beheaded, crushed to death by elephants, or quartered by horses). Among those martyrs, 117 were canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1988.
The worst period was under the reign of King Canh Thinh. On Aug. 17, 1798, the king issued a decree that authorized local officials to behead all Catholics without investigations. The parishioners of Co Vuu, Thach Han, and Hanh Hoa escaped to the La Vang forest nearby in the province of Quang Tri. Even though they were fearful because of this terrible event, they joined together every night to pray and recite the rosaries.
One night, they saw an extremely beautiful lady wearing a brilliant dress. Her face was so radiant with a compassionate expression. She consoled them, showed them how to collect leaves in the forest as medicine for the sick and asked them to keep faith in Jesus Christ. She promised that she would return, and she did many times.
In 1801, after the reunification of King Gia Long, the non-Catholics of this village also knew about the miracles of a woman who appeared at La Vang. In the forest, after work, they often came to the foot of this huge old tree to kneel in worship and prayer. Later, they built a small shrine dedicated to Mary.
In 1825, at the beginning of King Minh Mang’s reign, the nearby villages of Thach Han, Co Thanh and Ba Tru offered land and a temple to the Catholics. The pastor of Dinh Cat Parish agreed and permitted the Catholics there to make this temple into a church. This was the very first church of La Vang.
By the year 1866, a lot of people came to La Vang to pray. Bishop Gasper (from the Jesuit order in Portugal) decided to rebuild this church of La Vang and to dedicate it to Mary. This was the second renovation during 15 years. Since then (1901), every three years a Marian Day is celebrated in La Vang for the Vietnamese Catholics to venerate, honor, and pray to Mary.
On Aug. 22, 1961, Pope John XXIII elevated the La Vang Church to the Cathedral of Our Lady of La Vang. The Vietnamese Catholic bishops declared this Cathedral of La Vang and its land “The House of Mother of God.” From that day on an annual basis La Vang has become the National Marian Center for Vietnamese Catholics despite many threats by the communist government.
The summer of 1972, at the height of the war in Vietnam, the church was completely destroyed, but miraculously the shrine of Mary in the church remained intact.
On Aug. 15, 1993, during the World Youth Day in Denver, Colo., Pope John Paul II addressed the Vietnamese-American youth: “I entrust the Vietnamese Catholics under the protection of Lady of La Vang. In 1978, she appeared to comfort those who were hiding from the terrible persecution. …”
On Oct. 26, 1994, during a meeting in Rome, Pope John Paul II told the Vietnamese priests and religious: “Dear friends, while the Vietnamese Church is getting ready to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the appearance of Our Lady of La Vang, I am requesting that you will continue to keep a strong belief in God so that together with your brothers and sisters in Vietnam preparing for a brighter and better future ahead of you. …”
In 1998, the Vietnamese Catholic Church celebrated the 200th anniversary of the appearance of Our Lady of La Vang.
Pope John Paul II has expressed his wish to come to La Vang to visit and worship Our Lady of La Vang, but the current communist government in Vietnam has not allowed it. The Vietnamese Catholic communities in several states in the United States have chosen Our Lady of La Vang as their patroness and celebrated this event on Aug. 12, 1995.
On the way to find freedom and justice, despite severe dangers on the high seas with frequent and brutal attacks by pirates, the first and following waves of both Catholic and non-Catholic Vietnamese boatmen and boatwomen which left Vietnam in 1975 had prayed hardily to Our Lady of La Vang, and as a result, they came to this dream land safely, and thousands of non-Catholics have converted their faith to Catholicism.
Together with other Vietnamese-American Catholics in other states, the Vietnamese Catholic community here in South Carolina solemnly celebrated the aspirations of Our Lady of La Vang on the Feast of the Assumption, Aug. 15.
Anthony Tuan Le is a member of the Vietnamese community at St. Mary’s Church in Greenville.