New Pilgrimage Center Dedicated To Martyrs Of Vietnam

2005-11-30 00:00:00

A new church dedicated to the 117 Vietnamese Martyrs has been opened as the cornerstone of a pilgrimage center in central Vietnam aimed at inspiring Catholics with their ancestors´ faith witness.

Bishop Paul Nguyen Van Hoa of Nha Trang blessed the Church for Vietnamese Martyrs on Nov. 24 in the coastal city of Nha Trang, 1,278 kilometers south of Ha Noi. About 100 priests joined the dedication Mass for the new church of Phuoc Hai parish. In attendance were 1,300 Catholics -- laity and Religious -- as well as Buddhist monks and local government representatives.

"The new church will serve as a diocesan pilgrimage center dedicated to all the martyrs of Vietnam. The center aims to raise among Catholics the spirit of witnessing the Good News," Father Joseph Nguyen The Thoai, the parish priest, told UCA News Nov. 25.

Pope John Paul II canonized the 117 Vietnamese Martyrs -- 96 Vietnamese, 11 Spanish and 10 French -- on June 19, 1988. The canonization was the largest number of martyrs canonized in a single ceremony up to that time, surpassing the 103 Korean Martyrs that Pope John Paul canonized in South Korea in 1984. In 2000, however, the late pope canonized the 120 Chinese Martyrs.

Father Thoai, who teaches at Stella Maris Major Seminary in Nha Trang, observed that "Catholicism is still alien to the Vietnamese people" even though it was introduced in the country more than 450 years ago.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, feudal authorities massacred local Catholics and Western missioners, often accusing them of collaborating with the French, who were vying with other colonial powers for regional influence.

Intermittent periods of persecution occurred after the introduction of Christianity in the mid-16th century, but repression escalated after 1798, when the Nguyen Dynasty banned Catholicism. More than 130,000 Vietnamese Catholics died during these persecutions before the French ultimately conquered the country in 1886.

According to Father Thoai, the new church is the first Catholic church dedicated to the Vietnamese Martyrs in Nha Trang, a city popular with foreign and domestic tourists.

The Phuoc Hai parish priest noted that the center´s location in central Vietnam would allow a great number of Catholics from southern Vietnamese dioceses to visit on their way to or from the shrine of Our Lady of La Vang near Hue, 620 kilometers to the north. Some groups of La Vang pilgrims had visited his parish in recent years, he noted.

He also expressed the hope that the center would help government authorities understand correctly the phrase "cac thanh tu dao" (martyrs). Father Thoai explained that the government fears the words would cause friction between Catholics and others, since Catholics suffered persecution in the past. However, he said, the martyrs provided witness to the Good News and were not against the nation. He believes the government´s impression will change when "they see we live in harmony with others."

In the future, he said, the martyrs´ center would provide pilgrims with accommodations and conduct prayers, retreats and talks on the life of the Vietnamese Martyrs, local Church history and social issues. Facilities would also be constructed to conduct pastoral and charitable activities, he added.

Most importantly, Father Thoai said, the center would help raise awareness about vocations among Catholics. He cited concerns that priestly and Religious vocations might fall short in the future, especially since Catholic families often have only one or two children nowadays.

The center would offer training courses for lay leaders so they could cooperate with clergy and Religious in pastoral activities and thus serve the Church better, he added.

The new church, which has a curved red roof, has a seating capacity of 1,300. Its front features seven bas-reliefs. The one on the door depicts the Vietnamese Martyrs as a group, while the other six depict the martyrs in the categories of bishops, priests, catechists, lay leaders, women and youth.

Under the reliefs are six Chinese characters in red, indicating that the Church is dedicated to people who were killed for their faith. The Vietnamese language was written in Chinese characters until the French colonial period started in the last half of the 19th century.

The sanctuary of the church is decorated with stained-glass images depicting the history of evangelization in Vietnam. The ground floor also includes rooms for teaching catechism, a reading room and a vocational training center.

Father Thoai said the parish has collected relics of 25 martyrs from dioceses and would continue to collect relics from as many of the other martyrs as possible.

According to local Church records, information on more than 10,000 potential Vietnamese martyrs has been submitted to Rome.

Dominic Trinh Kim Ngan, head of the parish council, told the congregation at the dedication Mass that construction of the church, which began in November 2002, cost 4.8 billion dong (about US$300,000) and the parish still owes 671.5 million dong. Ngan expressed gratitude to domestic benefactors who financed the roof, statues, bas-reliefs, altar, bell, drum, gongs and other items.

According to the lay leader, the parish launched a savings project in 1992 to collect funds for the new church by asking families to keep wooden donation boxes in their home. Every month lay leaders would collect these savings and deposit them in a bank. The parish had collected 806 million dong by the time construction of the new church began.

Father Thoai recalled how students who attended catechism also used their own moneyboxes to save for the new church. He added that his parishioners would continue saving to pay off the contractor and to build a new parish house and other facilities. Phuoc Hai parish, founded in 1960, has 2,148 Catholics.

A man told UCA News after the dedication Mass, "I am very proud of the new church since I contributed my energy and money to the construction."


(Accompanying photos available at here)

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