Because of Catholics Like Vincent Liem of Vietnam (1732-1773)

November is the month that we Catholics remember the dead. There’s the Feast of All Souls, and the Feast of All Saints, celebrated right after Halloween.  Here in the United States, as the Fortnight for Freedom enters its third day, the Archdiocese of St. Louis suggests we remember the martyrs of Vietnam, and St. Andrew Dung Lac. I don’t know much about Andrew, but I found a treasure trove worth of information about the Vietnamese martyrs, especially one named Vincent Liem.

Vincents’ feast day is in November, but he’s included with the Vietnames martyrs whose witness we honor today.  Vincent was put to death for being a Catholic in Hanoi in the year 1773. In case you were wondering, that is about 100 years before France arrived to colonize Indochina.

Frank, you may be thinking, all this talk of martyred saints lately is really getting me down man. Can’t you post about something else? To which I say, sure, but Vincent’s story is pretty compelling, as are all the stories of Christians persecuted for their faith. You can keep kidding yourself that people stopped being killed for the Faith in 313AD, you know, after Emperor Constantine the Great issued the Edict of Milan.

Of course, you would be deluding yourself if you thought that was the end of Christian persecution. Remember the Great Commission? That’s what they called it in my Sunday School class when Christ said before his ascension (Matthew 28:19-20),

Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.

Well, the world is a mighty big place, so there was a lot of room to spread the Gospel among the Gentiles, many of whom had (and have to this day) no historical idea about Christianity. Nor about the God of Israel, who is the God of all mankind. But the early Christians, especially after St. Paul came into the service, took The Word at His word and started spreading the Good News everywhere. Cardinal Wiseman is quoted as having said,

The world martyrs the Church, and the Church subdues the world. The words of our Divine Lord are always verified, ‘I come not to send peace upon earth, but a sword.’ The age of martyrs, as of miracles, never ceases. Martyrdom is a perpetual note upon the Mystical Body, which has the Stigmata of Jesus ever fresh upon it.

So what is so special about this guy named Vincent? Well, what caught my eyes were these words from the synopsis on Vincent’s feast day over at UCatholic.com,

At the Court the Emperor arranged a disputation between Vincent, a Buddhist, a Confucian and a Taoist. His reasoning, clarity and elegance, in defending the true faith, left a deep impression, so much so that an Imperial Prince declared the superiority of Christianity. However Vincent’s fate was decided after a stormy dialogue with the Queen Mother. He was sentenced to death and was beheaded on the 7th of November 1773.

That got my attention because my pal John C.H. Wu wrote that Confucianism and Taoism laid the groundwork for his own conversion to Christianity, and later to Catholicism too. So I went digging for more information on this “debate in the Court of the Emperor” to see what I could turn up.

I found Lives of Four Martyrs From Tonkin, a review of which you may read here. It is a history of the “Mission to Vietnam of the Dominican Province of the Holy Rosary,” headquarted in Manila in the Philippines. Written by Marie Bertrand Cothonay, O.P., it was published in 1911 after these martyrs had been canonized in 1906. In 1988, with the blessing of Pope John Paul II, Blessed Vincent became Saint Vincent Liem of Peace, along with Andrew Duc Lac and the rest of the crew.

Remember how I was surprised to learn that Dom Lou Tseng-Tsiang had been born to a Christian family in China in 1922? Well Vincent Liem was born to a Catholic family in Vietnam in the year 1732. Whoa.

Blessed Vincent Liem of Peace, of the village of Tra-lu, province of Nam-Dinh, Tonkin, whom the Church has placed on her altars, was born in the year 1732 of Christian parents, who brought him up as carefully as they could, until the twelfth year of his age, at which time, they offered him to the house of God. Shortly after his birth, he became so seriously ill, that his mother Monica lost no time in calling in a catechist, who baptized him privately, giving him the name of Vincent.

Look, I don’t know diddly squat about the history of the Catholic Church. But I keep bumping into these amazing stories of Catholics being born into the Church in places that I never thought it would have even been possible. Every history book I’ve ever read, especially those that concentrate on Western Civilization, never seem to mention neat little factoids like “Christian families lived in Vietnam before the birth of the United States of America.”

I’m sure there are plenty of learned historians up in their Ivory Towers clucking their tongues at me (secure in their knowledge of the Catholic Church’s history), but as a bona fide regular “Joe Six-Pack” Catholic guy, this is the kind of information that I want, and need, to know. Why keep hiding lights under bushels?

Yes! We should be preaching that Our Lord appeals to someone clear on the other side of the planet, from a completely different cultural background, 240+ years ago, just as much as he appeals to me right here and right now. True, Christ repels many clear across the planet as well. But either way, that is catholic with a small “c”, which means universal. How soon we forget.

Remember that little debate in the Court of the Emperor? Well, I couldn’t find a clear account of that where a definitive claim that “all recognized the superiority of the Christian Religion” was made. Instead, I did find this account in Cothonay’s book about the trial and execution of Vincent and his prison companion (arrested separately) St. Hyacinth Castañeda (a Spaniard) which brings the scene to life for us. Let’s take a look,

Receiving no support from the Mandarin of the chief town, the Sub-Prefect resolved to conduct his prisoners to the capital, Ke-Cho, the Hanoi of today, and there, personally, present them to the King. In order to produce more effect, and make his entry into the capital in a more imposing manner, he brought with him a great number of soldiers. He had the cages in which he placed his prisoners painted red; on top of each he placed a board on which he had written “Chief Master of the Portuguese Religion.”

What a “dog and pony” show, huh?! Bringing these scary Catholic priests to trial like he had two Hannibal Lectors on his hands. Showboat!

In this most uncomfortable and mortifying position the two Fathers were transported to the capital. The Sub-Prefect marching at the head of the cortege, gave all possible publicity to his entrance into the city, and he stopped at the public square before the Royal Palace. Informed of what was passing, the King gave orders to have the two missionaries put in prison.

Here is where the “debate” comes into the picture,

A few days later, they were taken out, and brought into the presence of a bonze and a disciple of Confucius. It was an old Christian princess who arranged the meeting, desirous to see her son, the prince Sau, uncle of King Trinh-Do-Vuong, embrace Christianity. She had herself organized this conference in the presence of the royal family. The King’s mother, on her side, employed all her fanaticism to bring it to naught.

The King’s mom wasn’t too happy about this idea as,

She asked the two religious the most insidious questions, such as the following: “Where do they go after death, who do not belong to your religion?”
Father Vincent answered: “They fall into hell.”

Give Father Vincent a break, as the development that lead to Lumen Gentium hadn’t occurred yet. On the other hand, the thing that always strikes me in these accounts is the absolute candor of the martyrs. And the effect was no less than it would be today,

Transported with rage, she sent them back to their cages loaded with chains. Another day the King made them both appear together before him, and he asked Father Castañeda,

“Why did you come into this country?”

“I have come,” he said, “to teach the law of the true God, in order that the inhabitants of this country may know Him and serve Him.”

Yeah but, the King (or was it the Emperor—same difference) then says,

“It would have been much better to preach in your own country.”

But remember the Great Commission? Castañeda says that this would have been neat, and all, but where I come from, see, everyone’s heard the Good News, so he explains,

“For many centuries, my Lord, in my country, the king and all his subjects, nobles and plebeians, have practiced it; that is why I was not so necessary in my own country. It was, therefore, more opportune to come to yours to announce the true God who wishes to be known by all men.”

The King then counters with,

“According to this, then, there was not great merit in preaching the law of your God in your own country?”

To which Father C says,

“Those who in my country have charge of souls, are not without merit, but without doubt, it is a nobler thing and of greater merit to abandon one’s country, in order to make known the truth to the nations that are living in error.”

Where is all this witty repartee leading us?

The King then ordered to untie the holy martyr, and to bring the vestments taken with him, saying to the Father, “that he would be most happy to see him clothed in these garments again, fulfilling his sacerdotal functions.” Father Castagneda obeyed, and taking in hand his crucifix, he knelt down kissing the feet piously, and reciting in a low voice in the Annamite language the act of contrition, the Creed and the Pater; then seeing before him a statue of the Blessed Virgin, he reverenced it, and recited the Salve Regina.

The King interrupted him to ask him the following questions:

“What does the king of your country look like? When he goes out of his palace does he hold a fan in his hand? and do they shade him with a parasol? Does he go in a sedan-chair or on foot? Has he soldiers? What do they call the mandarins down there? In your country do they pay tribute to the king? I have heard that the king of Portugal has a bath-tub of crystal, is this true? What are glass windows, and what is a loadstone?”

We do not know what reply our Blessed made to these childish questions. The two martyrs were sent back to prison happy to have confessed the faith of Jesus Christ before the princes of the earth.

Wow, the future is starting to look bright again for Vincent and Hyacinth, huh? Never fear, the bad guys are still here. But I’m sure they mean well.

The Sub-Prefect, fearing that the process would be prolonged, and seeing that it only brought him weariness, instead of the honors and riches he looked for, bribed the eunuchs and certain mandarins to present the King with some infamous memoirs filled with calumnies against the servants of God. They assured the King that the Christians had often conspired against his authority, and that if he allowed them to become more numerous, they would certainly dethrone him.

That did the trick. And don’t forget the still bubbling wrath of the Queen Mother.

This reason, which he did not even take the trouble to examine, joined to the influence of his mother, who detested Christianity, inclined the King to rigor. He gave orders to the tribunal to judge the prisoners definitely, and if the accusations had foundation to condemn them to death. Four days sufficed to terminate this process, at the end of which they were condemned to decapitation “because they were Masters of the infamous Portuguese law prohibited in the kingdom.”

Oh, did I forget to mention that the Way of Heaven was outlawed? Oops.

During the day of the 6th it was noised abroad, that on the morrow the two missionaries would be put to death. A last effort was made to ransom them, but it came to nothing.

Father Hyacinth, being informed of the sentence of his condemnation, asked for a priest from the city, who came and heard his confession, but believing himself recognized he dared not go near the cage of Father Vincent, which was at a considerable distance surrounded by a great number of people. A little later Father Vincent confessed in Latin to Father Hyacinth.

Keep this in mind: wherever there is a priest,  the Sacrament of Reconciliation can take place anytime, anywhere.

In the evening of this day, the catechists and some notable Christians came together and designated eight young people, who were to use all their efforts to get possession of the bodies of the two confessors of the Faith, after their execution. Two hammocks were prepared to transport them to the river, also two boats, on which they were to be conducted to their mission.

On the 7th of November, shut up in their cages, and loaded with chains, they were brought before the palace of the King, where their sentence was read to them; they listened to it with transports of joy.

We still find this amazing, don’t we? That’s what makes the saints so special. Just when the world is saying “game over,” these guys know the truth: “the game is just starting!” That is what a firm belief in the Gospel message of Christ does to you. I pray for faith like this,

At last they were touching on the term of their miseries; they were about to give to God the supreme testimony of their love, they saw Him holding out to them this palm of martyrdom that they had so ardently desired.

What’s that? You think this is a load of baloney? Think again.

A Christian woman, Hyacinth Tre, tells in her deposition, that she made her way to Father Castaneda, to see if there was anything she could do for him. “I am very thirsty,” he answered. At once, she went to buy two cups of water. On her return a soldier stopped her, menacing her with his sword. “Drink first, yourself,” said he.

He suspected the woman of an intention to poison the missionaries. “I drank a little,” she said, “and he let me pass.” She relates that she found the two Fathers very joyous. The expression of joy that beamed on their countenances up to the very moment of their martyrdom, is mentioned by the greater number of the witnesses.

You just never see the martyrs cowering in fear, sports fans. That’s not how true Christian martyrs die. And lest I forget to remind you, Christian martyrs don’t attempt to kill the whole world along with themselves either. Do you still think their joy at the prospect of being united with Christ in death is false? Read on.

What brought this out all the more vividly, says one of them, was the expression of terror painted on the faces of the two ordinary criminals, who were executed at the same time as our martyrs. The culprits were a father and son, condemned for having forged false titles to property. We have been assured that one of them cursed the martyrs, reproaching them for having been the means of having their execution advanced. Who knows whether the bad thief did not make the same reproach to the Divine Martyr of Calvary?

How is that for uncanny? I wonder if Vincent and Hyacinth noticed this too.

From this spot they were conducted directly to the place of execution, in the midst of a crowd of armed soldiers, and a multitude of Christians and infidels. They were praying fervently.

Makes sense to me. I’d be praying the publicans prayer non-stop right about then too!

It was near midday when they arrived at the term of their earthly pilgrimage. They were taken out of their cage, and their chains were broken. After mutually absolving each other(thank God for the Sacrament of Reconciliation and for priests!), and giving each other rendezvous in the bosom of God, at a sign from the executioner, they divested themselves of their outer garments, giving them away. Father Hyacinth, according to a witness wished to keep his scapular, but was not permitted to do so.

I always wonder, is this when the bad guys think that the Christians are going to grovel before them and plead for their lives? Beg them for mercy and scream “please, please let me continue to live!?” It must be really disappointing to the officials when this doesn’t happen.

They were attached to the stakes against which they were seated on the ground, their hair was caught up on the top of their heads; an instant after, the Mandarin who presided at the execution, gave the well-known signal, of opening and shutting his fan; immediately, two swords brandished by two soldiers fell at the same moment on the two heads.

That of Father Vincent Liem rolled on the ground at the first stroke, but that of Blessed Hyacinth was not detached until the third stroke. The executioner, seized with terror, fled away after he had given the first stroke. The soldiers were obliged to force him to complete his work.

As is always the case, both Christians and pagans disputed among themselves for the blood of the martyrs, all that had been impregnated with it, and everything that they had used. God was pleased to glorify His witnesses by recompensing the faith of the people with innumerable graces and supernatural favors.

You can read more of Father Cothonay’s fascinating book on the lives of these martyrs, and their mission to Vietnam, on the YIMCatholic Bookshelf. For more on the Catholic Church in Vietnam, see this website. Wikipedia has a good citation on Vincent and the Martyrs of Vietnam too. And visit the Vietnamese Dominican Friars while you’re at it!

  • Moses

    Hi Frank

    I came back from a two-month field work in Vietnam. I was based in the town of Ky Anh, in the province Ha Tinh, towards the northern central Vietnam. That region is generally an agricultural area, with rice-planting as the main crop.

    What struck me is that even though it is a prvoince just south of Nge Anh, which is the home province of Ho Chi Minh, there are quite a look of churches that I saw there, even in the rural area where I am based. And one more thing that struck me strongly is that that even in the various homes, we can see the Vatican colours of yellow (gold) and white being flown even in the compound of the houses. And it was very easy to identify that a house or building belong to a Catholic, because there is a life size statue of either Jesus of the Sacred Heart or Mary of the Immaculate Conception at the highest position in the house or the building. It is a full size statue like those found in churches.

    Just thought I share this observation.

    Regards

    • Frank Weathers

      Very interesting, Moses. Thanks for this.


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