By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published November 22, 2012
At a time of suffering and martyrdom, an apparition of the Virgin Mary encouraged the people of Vietnam.
Hundreds of years later, in a new country, Vietnamese Catholics still celebrate the feast of Our Lady of La Vang. And the celebration has become tied with the immigrant experience of the community in Atlanta and across the United States, said Deacon Joseph Nguyen, who assists at Our Lady of Vietnam Church, Riverdale.
People “pray and express our gratitude to the Americans who opened widely doors for our freedom and all opportunities to grow in the new land,” he said in an email.
At the same time, even as Vietnamese Catholics in the United States do not face religious persecution, the Virgin Mary reminds the community to stay true to the faith. In America, there is the temptation to walk away from the church, but parents and grandparents are encouraged by the Virgin Mary and the death of the martyrs “to go back to the roots” of the faith, he said.
Starting in the 1700s, rulers of Vietnam persecuted Christians. The faithful hid, some escaping to the jungle in central Vietnam during the great persecution of 1798-1801, according to The Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute, University of Dayton. Hungry and sick, expecting to be martyred, the group prayed together. One day the Virgin Mary, holding the Child Jesus in her arms, appeared, promising them her protection and relief from their afflictions, according to church history. She pointed out a fern in the jungle, whose leaves could be used to treat their ailments. The title, La Vang, is derived from the name of the fern. In depictions of the apparitions, Mary is wearing the traditional Vietnamese clothing, called “áo dài.”
According to Deacon Nguyen, the Virgin Mary is believed to have offered consolation and said, “My children, what you have asked of me, I have granted you, and henceforth whoever comes to this place to pray to me, I will listen to them.”
She appeared on several occasions at the same site. The place of the apparitions was honored, first with a hut, followed by many chapels. In the 1930s, the custom of a national pilgrimage every three years to the site began. In the 1960s, the shrine was enlarged. Pope John XXIII granted the title of a minor basilica to the National Shrine of La Vang. During the Vietnam War, it was destroyed.
Catholics in the country suffered greatly for their faith over several centuries. The church believes the number killed for the faith reaches into the hundreds of thousands. Recognizing the uncountable sacrifice, Blessed John Paul II canonized 117 martyrs of Vietnam in 1988, among them eight bishops, 50 priests, one seminarian and 58 laypeople and he spoke about the Marian shrine at La Vang. The feast of the Holy Vietnamese Martyrs is Nov. 24.
Deacon Nguyen said the feast, along with the martyrdom of many Catholics, shows how loyal the Vietnamese Catholic community is to the church and Jesus. He called them “faith hero ancestors.”
The feast day of Our Lady of La Vang is on Nov. 22. But this year, the celebration at Our Lady of Vietnam Church was held in October, the anniversary of the dedication of the parish in 1998. Deacon Nguyen said the annual event is an opportunity to praise God and offer thanksgiving for “God’s grace through Our Lady of La Vang.” It is also a time to celebrate the parish’s patron saint.
Oftentimes, the parish is joined in worship by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory or Bishop Luis R. Zarama, which “reinforces Catholic unity and love in the Archdiocese of Atlanta,” the deacon said.
In 1999, Blessed John Paul II wrote to the Vietnamese Catholic community. “In going to the Shrine of Our Lady of La Vang, so dear to the hearts of the Vietnamese faithful, pilgrims entrust to her their joys and their sorrows, their hopes and their sufferings. In this way they turn to God and make themselves intercessors for their families and for their entire people, asking the Lord to instill sentiments of peace, brotherhood and solidarity in the hearts of all men and women, so that all the Vietnamese will be every day more closely united, in order to build a world in which it is pleasant to live, based on the essential spiritual and moral values and where each person can be recognized in his dignity as a child of God, and turn freely and with filial love to his Father in heaven who is ‘rich in mercy’ (Eph 2:4).”
Our Lady Of La Vang
Patroness Of Vietnam
- Our Lady of La Vang is the patroness of Vietnam. The devotion is rooted in the tradition that the Virgin Mary appeared to Catholics in 1798 as they fled from persecution, hiding, awaiting martyrdom in the jungle, and offered words of hope and healing. She was holding the Child Jesus and was dressed in traditional Vietnamese garments.
- A primitive chapel to Our Lady of La Vang built there in 1820 became over the years a national shrine and was declared a minor basilica by Pope John XXIII. It was destroyed during the Vietnam War.
- The feast day of Our Lady of La Vang is Nov. 22.
- Catholics in Vietnam have suffered greatly for the faith over many centuries. The church believes the number killed for the faith reaches into the hundreds of thousands. In 1988, some of the innumerable martyrs were canonized as a group, called the Holy Vietnamese Martyrs.
- In the Archdiocese of Atlanta, churches are named for Our Lady of Vietnam (Riverdale) and the Holy Vietnamese Martyrs (Norcross).