Vietnamese Catholics show filial piety to ancestors

They participate in traditional rituals and practices to strengthen family ties, live in harmony

UCA News reporter

Updated: November 10, 2023 05:42 AM GMT

James Dang Huu Thuan (left), a Vietnamese Catholic, wears traditional clothes while attending a ceremony to honor his ancestors on Oct. 23 in Thua Thien Hue province. (Photo: UCA News)

Dang Phuoc Doa and a few elderly men kneel in front of an ancestor altar, complete with ancestral tablets, flowers, and candles, performing elaborate rituals to invite their ancestors to party with them.

Dressed in traditional robes and a turban, they pour tea and alcohol for the departed souls while banging gongs and beating drums.

There are betel leaves, bananas, dragon fruit, sticky rice, boiled pork, vegetables, bowls, chopsticks, and beer laid out on three tables by the altar. And there is water and a red hand towel for the ancestors to wash their hands before the meal.

One of them chants the merits of their ancestors before their descendants. Others, depending on their family rank, offer incense sticks and pray to the ancestors.

When the incense sticks burn to the end, for an hour or so, it means our ancestors have finished the meal, Doa said.

They even burn votive offerings — gold and paper notes — as gifts for the dead.

Doa presided over this ceremony on the ninth day of the lunar ninth month or Oct. 23 at their ancestral home in Mai Duong village, which lies in Quang Dien district of Thua Thien Hue province in central Vietnam.

The date chosen for the ceremony marks the day in 1930 when their ancestors, who originally lived on boats catching fish in Tam Giang Lagoon, the largest lagoon in Southeast Asia, bought a 300-square-meter plot of land in the village to build the ancestral home.

The ceremony was attended by 50 people who believe the souls of their ancestors are somewhere else.

The event aims to express our filial piety to heaven, earth, and our ancestors. We offer the dead the food they used to eat when they were alive as a way to show our gratitude to them, said Doa, the patriarch of the Dang family.

The 67-year-old, who has four children and 11 grandchildren, said they also hold memorials for their ancestors on the first day of the lunar New Year and the 21st day of the 11th lunar month.

The ceremonies offer the opportunity to strengthen family ties. The living and the dead have close relationships and their blessings are also sought during weddings and funerals, harvesting crops or starting a new business, and even when hurt in an accident, Doa said.

Ancestral worship is part of the indigenous faith, which is deeply rooted among Vietnamese people, regardless of their background.

Mai Duong village is home to 40 people who trace their origin to the Dang family. Nine of them have embraced Catholicism.

James Dang Huu Thuan, 63, from An Xuan Parish said his family makes donations and joins other relatives in looking after their ancestors' graves and organizing annual ceremonies at their ancestral home.

We work with our non-Catholic relations closely to hold the ceremonies for our ancestors, he said. I silently recite the Our Father prayer for my ancestors while others are performing rituals.

His family also cleans the ancestor altar in their house, provides candles, flowers, and fruit, offers incense sticks, and says prayers. They also ask priests to celebrate Mass for their ancestors.

As Catholics, we must love and respect our ancestors and we pray to loving God to save them although they were not Catholics, Thuan, who has four children and six grandchildren, said.

He said they make an effort to respect the traditions and practices of other faiths.

When I attend a Buddhist funeral, I offer incense sticks before Buddha's altar although I am a Catholic, he said, adding that he considers Buddha a venerable man.

Interestingly, the Catholics in the villages share the same cemetery as people of other faiths.

Today we have no problem with people of other faiths because we try to respect their faith and live in harmony with them, Thuan said.

His family converted to Catholicism in 1959. Back then, local people were in great conflict with Catholics because they declined to eat food offered to the dead as it was considered the food of idols.

Catholics were also falsely accused of supporting French troops. The first Catholic President John Baptist Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated in 1963.

According to government statistics in 2019, Thua Thien Hue province had a population of 1.12 million with 680,290 Buddhists and 65,997 Catholics, while the rest followed Protestantism, an indigenous faith called Cao Dai, ancestral worship, and atheism.

Rose Tran Thi Mac Ta from Duong Son parish said local Catholics respect the memory of their ancestors as do their relatives who follow other religions. The parish, which dates back to 1696, serves 1,265 Catholics.

We decorate and repair our ancestors' graves in the parish cemetery, have meals by the graves to celebrate our family reunion in the daytime, and offer incense sticks, recite prayers, and sing hymns for our ancestors at night, the 58-year-old mother of four said.

Ta said they also visit and pray for the dead at the cemetery in November, the month of remembrance of the dead.

We believe our ancestors need our prayers to be saved by God, as they also follow our worldly journey and support us, she said.

However, Father Dominic Pham Quang Nam, pastor of Dien Huong parish, said local Catholics, though living among followers of other faiths, should steer clear of some superstitious practices that go against the Catholic faith.

Gerard Phan Canh Du from Phu Luong parish agreed. It is important that Catholics stick to practicing their own faith although they may show respect for practices of other people to ensure harmony, the 70-year-old said.

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