It is not often that ethnic Hmong Catholics in remote mountain villages in northwestern Vietnam have a priest who visits them for Mass. But recently, they were surprised not only to have two priests but also a bishop. Auxiliary Bishop Alfonse Nguyen Huu Long of Hung Hoa and two priests were there to celebrate Masses during the Easter season for ethnic Hmong Catholics in seven villages. At each village, in Phu Yen district of Son La province, they heard people's confession and baptized dozens. Participants sat or stood during services held at homes or in the open-air. The visiting clergy also gave out rosaries, medicine and loaves of bread. Children were given balloons and candy. The district is home to 1,000 ethnic Hmong Catholics, most of whom were relocated from neighboring provinces decades ago. They live in remote villages that lack electricity, good roads, schools and pharmacies.
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The recent pastoral visit was the third Bishop Long has paid to this area since August 2016. In his earlier visits, he was prevented by the authorities from performing Mass there. "Our first priority is to evangelize to ethnic minority groups, especially Hmong people who have not received any pastoral care from the church for decades," Bishop Long said. Hung Hoa Diocese covers nine provinces and is Vietnam's largest in terms of territories. It is home to over 30 ethnic minority groups but only Dao, Hmong, Muong, Tay and Thai people have Catholics among them. There are about 20,000 Hmong Catholics living in remote and mountainous areas of Vietnam. The prelate said foreign missionaries introduced Catholicism to the Hmong people in Sa Pa during the 1850s and established Sa Pa Parish in 1902. Hmong Catholics then moved to other places and founded more mission stations. Bishop Alfonse Nguyen Huu Long talks with Hmong women at Giang La Pan on Feb. 24. (Photo supplied)
Since Father Idiart Alhor Jean, the last foreign missionary in Sa Pa, was killed on May 18, 1948 by communists, Hmong Catholics had to flee subsequent fighting. They went to new locations where they had no churches and priests and practiced their faith independently, taught catechism and baptized one another until parishes were restored in 1995. Bishop Long, who regularly pays pastoral visits to Catholic communities in remote areas, said the diocese tries to support them by encouraging the government to recognize them, sending priests and nuns and building worship places and facilities. Bishop Long, who was ordained in 2013, said the government has recognized Catholic communities, including Hmong ones, in provinces that were considered to have no religion. "One mission station was recognized in 2015 in Lai Chau and one parish was established in 2016 in Dien Bien province," Bishop Long said adding that some 5,000 Catholics live in the two provinces. He said communities in Son La province, which is home to 6,000 Catholics, have not been approved yet. However, the bishop said, many unofficial communities in the three provinces hold services at people's houses and six priests have been sent to give pastoral care to them. Father Joseph Nguyen Trong Duong, head of Nghia Lo Deanery, said that due to Bishop Long's intercession with the government, religious freedom has improved in remote areas. "Six priests have been assigned to remote Hmong villages in the deanery for the past two years. We will send two other priests to them in the near future," he said. Father Duong, said he has visited Hmong communities in Mu Cang Chai District of Yen Bai Province after Bishop Long visited them for the first time in August 2016. The local government prevents local Catholics from working with priests, threatening to dismiss them from their jobs, withdraw farmland or cut off social welfare. Father Duong said priests build and repair churches, offer bells, Catholic statues and books to parishes and build roads connecting villages and churches. Bishop Alfonse Nguyen Huu Long hears confession from a woman at Lang Giang mission station in Lao Cai province March 16. (Photo courtesy of laocaichurch.org)
The diocese, with 116 parishes and 600 subparishes and mission stations, builds and repairs dozens of churches, chapels, parish houses and other facilities every year. Old facilities are in poor condition and many places have no churches. Father Joseph Vu Quoc Hoi, who has served in Giang La Pan Parish with its 2,200 Hmong Catholics since 2014, said he can celebrate liturgical services in Hmong language and integrate into village life. Father Hoi, the first parish priest, said most local people live in poverty, are illiterate and have 5-14 children each family. He tries to strengthen their faith, offer them basic education and teaches them to abandon unsound customs such as child marriage. Joseph Ho A Trang, a member of the parish council, said "We are very happy to have daily Masses at our church. Children are given faith education and couples have marriage courses. God loves us very much." Trang said in the past priests visited them on Christmas and Easter. However, for the rest of the year, couples had no wedding blessings and the dead had no funerals. During February visits to Hmong communities in Yen Bai provinces, Bishop Long encouraged them to gather at their homes to pray for evangelization work because "God loves us as much as others." He said solving the lack of priests is a problem for the diocese that has a mere 114 priests serving 240,000 Catholics. On average, one priest gives pastoral care to 2,000-3,000 people in one or two districts. "To meet urgent needs for priests, we have called on other dioceses to lend us their priests. So far only one priest has come to work in the diocese," he said.