By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — Vietnamese Catholics celebrate the feast of the Assumption with extra joy because of the sense of hope they believe the Blessed Virgin Mary instilled in them during a time of persecution.
On Aug. 13, the Sunday before the actual feast day, the Vietnamese Catholic Community of Sacred Heart Cathedral gathered for a three-part celebration.
Martin Ngo, president of the Vietnamese Catholic community, said the feast not only recalls the spiritual and physical departure of the mother of Jesus Christ from the earth, but also gives honor and thanks to her. “Mary is the patron saint of the Vietnamese.” The Vietnamese Catholic community at Sacred Heart is also called “The Vietnamese Catholic Community of the Assumption of Our Lady,” he noted.
“We believe she gave us hope during the persecution of Catholics in Vietnam in 1798,” Ngo said. “Mary appeared to the Vietnamese to help them through crisis, disease, hunger and oppression by the government at that time. Since then, Vietnamese Catholics continue to honor Mary for helping them through tough times.”
Fearing the spread of Catholicism, the Cảnh Thịnh Emperor restricted the practice of the faith in Vietnam in 1798. Soon after, the emperor issued an anti-Catholic edict, resulting in persecution.
“Many people sought refuge in the rainforest of La Vang in Quảng Trị Province, Vietnam, and many became very ill. While hiding in the jungle, the community gathered every night at the foot of a tree to pray the rosary. One night, an apparition surprised them. In the branches of the tree a lady appeared, wearing the traditional Vietnamese áo dài dress and holding a child in her arms, with two angels beside her,” Ngo said.
“The people present interpreted the vision as the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus Christ. They said that Our Lady comforted them and told them to boil leaves from the trees for medicine to cure the illness. Legend states that the term ‘La Vang’ was a derivative of the Vietnamese word meaning ‘crying out.’ Modern scholars believe it comes from the ancient practice of naming a location for a genus of a tree or plant native to the area, ‘la’ meaning leaf and ‘Vang’ meaning ‘herbal seeds.’”
In 1802, Catholics returned to their villages, passing on the story of the apparition in La Vang and its message. As the story of the apparition spread, many came to pray at this site and to offer incense.
Today the tradition continues in Vietnam and places where Vietnamese have resettled.
After the Vietnam War in 1975, many Vietnamese left Vietnam and lived all over the world because they did not want to live in the Communist country, Ngo said. They brought the tradition of honoring Mary with them. They host many events throughout the year in the U.S. to honor Mary, he added.
The biggest event is in Carthage, Mo. Each year about 60,000-70,000 Vietnamese Catholics travel to Carthage in early August for a weeklong retreat honoring Mary. This year, because of the 100th anniversary of the Marian apparitions at Fatima, Portugal, nearly 100,000 Vietnamese Catholics attended the Carthage retreat, including some from Sacred Heart Cathedral.
Back at the cathedral for the Feast of the Assumption, Vietnamese Catholics gathered in the courtyard in the front of the shrine of Our Lady of La Vang. Bishop Thomas Zinkula blessed the shrine as part of the celebration. Incense was offered, hymns were sung in Vietnamese, young children danced, a prayer was read, balloons were released and a procession with a state of Our Lady of La Vang moved from the courtyard into the cathedral.
Before and after the Mass, celebrated in Vietnamese, a drum and gong were played and incense was offered. Following Mass, a reception was held on the parish lawn. Organizers served homemade Vietnamese cuisine donated by parishioners. Priests from Divine Word Seminary in Epworth, Iowa, sang at the reception. They celebrate the Mass in Vietnamese throughout the year at Sacred Heart.