Editor’s Note: This is the first story in a series about the relationship between the Diocese of Orange and the Catholic community in Vietnam.
La Vang, Vietnam – Heads bowed, the pilgrims sat in wooden pews and quietly prayed.
They had traveled for many miles. Some had crossed oceans.
Together, they celebrated Mass at a small outdoor chapel at the Our Lady of La Vang Shrine in central Vietnam’s Quảng Trị Province. Among the country’s holiest sites, the shrine pays homage to a Marian vision shared by Catholics fleeing persecution. It is visited by more than 250,000 pilgrims each year.
Among those gathering at the shrine on a warm afternoon in December was Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange Auxiliary Bishop Thanh Nguyen, a former farmer who fled his native Vietnam in 1979. The highest-ranking Vietnamese Catholic cleric in the U.S., Bishop Thanh Nguyen spent his one-year anniversary as auxiliary bishop visiting the shrine and celebrating Mass alongside Most Rev. Kevin Vann, Bishop of Orange. It was a simple ceremony highlighted by history and symbolism.
Bishop Nguyen’s homily focused on suffering and grace.
“Human suffering and divine grace is at the center and the essence of the story of Our Lady of La Vang,” Bishop Thanh Nguyen said. “It’s a story that continues today and why so many people flock here – to seek divine grace so they can rise above their suffering.”
The shrine represents a Marian apparition shared by a group of Vietnamese Catholics in the late 18th century. Hiding in the dense jungle, much of the group fell ill. As death crept close, they gathered at the foot of a banyan tree to pray the Rosary, imploring the Virgin Mary to rescue them from distress.
She appeared with two angels at her sides. She encouraged the group by telling them their suffering was not in vain and to loyally keep their faith. She instructed them to gather leaves of Jasmine to make medicine to heal their ailments.
Today, the spot in the jungle where the apparition appeared is among the world’s most important Marian shrines. A large statue of Mary holding an infant Jesus stands under a towering banyan tree. Fresh lilies, red and gold, lie at the base of the statue. Incense smoke drifts through the air. Candles flicker.
Several hundred yards away, a massive blue-tiled basilica, currently under construction, rises from a sea of green. The new basilica is scheduled to be completed in 2020 and sits near the original Our Lady of La Vang Church. Much of the red-brick church was destroyed in 1972 during the height of the Vietnam War. Today, only the belfry remains.
A shrine to Our Lady of La Vang is being built on the Christ Cathedral Campus. The shrine will be the center of Marian devotion for Vietnamese-American Catholics in the U.S.
Bishop Thanh Nguyen’s journey
During his homily during Mass, Bishop Thanh Nguyen recounted his own journey fleeing Vietnam.
“Without Mary’s intercession, I may not be here with you celebrating Mass as a Bishop,” he said.
After suffering religious persecution, Bishop Thanh Nguyen, along with 26 members of his extended family, boarded a small motorboat and slipped out of Cam Ranh Bay headed for safety. The family was soon engulfed by a violent tropical storm and spent 18 days at sea, several with no food or water. The family prayed the Rosary together each morning and evening. They all arrived safely in the Philippines. After 10 months in a refugee camp, the family left Manila in June 1980 for their new life in the U.S.
Bishop Thanh Nguyen was ordained as a priest in 1991. Prior to being named auxiliary bishop in the Diocese of Orange, he served as pastor at St. Joseph parish in the Diocese of St. Augustine, Fla.
Bishop Thanh Nguyen traveled with Bishop Kevin Vann to Vietnam for a pilgrimage to the shrine and to attend the installation ceremony of Hanoi’s Archbishop Joseph Vũ Văn Thiên. The Diocese of Orange is the sister diocese of the Archdiocese of Hanoi. Orange County is home to the largest Vietnamese population outside Vietnam.
“Our two communities share a strong spiritual connection,” Bishop Vann said. “Travelling to Vietnam and visiting the Our Lady of La Van Shrine hold special significance.”
The trip marked the third time Bishop Thanh Nguyen has travelled back to Vietnam since fleeing the country, and the first time he was able to travel inside the country freely as a priest and celebrate Mass.
Although the country’s ruling Communist Party has appeared to make strides in creating a spiritually-open society, religious persecution, especially against Christians, remains high, according to Open Doors USA, an Orange County-based nonprofit tracking religious freedom across the globe. Outspoken Catholics are targeted, arrested and sentenced, and Catholic congregations have had their land taken by the government for development and financial gain, according to the non-profit. About 7 percent of the nation’s population is Catholic. For Bishop Thanh Nguyen, the Mass at the shrine and pilgrimage marked a historic, and personal, highlight in his journey as a priest.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to travel Vietnam, visit the Our Lady of La Vang shrine with other pilgrims and help strengthen the relationship between the Catholic communities in Orange County and Vietnam,” Bishop Thanh Nguyen said. “For the first time since I originally left Vietnam, it feels like I have returned home.”