The Martyrs of Vietnam, whom we commemorate today, were a whole panoply of Christians, bishops, priests, Franciscans, Dominicans, lay men, women and children, put to death in the most horrific of ways in the series of persecutions in that troubled country in the 17th to 19th centuries. There were thousands, 117 of whom have been officially canonized by the Church (by Pope John Paul II in 1988), amongst them Andrew-Dung Lac and Theophane Venard, both priests, the latter inspiring the vocation of a young French girl, Therese of Lisieux, who is patroness of the missions, even though she spent almost all of her brief 24 years in a convent.
The accounts of missionary work in the Church provides an invaluable window into what cultures are like before Christ and His truth. There is always a certain nobility in every culture, even the most pagan, for Man, even far distant from Christ, never loses his dignity, nor his awareness of the most basic principles of the moral law, or some of them, we may hope. But in a culture without Christ, there is also much devilry. The Asiatic people in particular in their long history brought the art of torture and execution to a whole new level. The accounts of the martyrs of Japan were bad enough, displayed in the novel and film Silence, but in Vietnam the martyrs suffered things almost beyond imagining. You may have heard the phrase ‘death by a thousand cuts’, which we use metaphorically (as in, the incremental and inexorable tax increases), but was all too real in many of these victims, slowly sliced to death before the eyes of on-lookers.
But we need not belabour the point, for one with eyes fixed on heaven, bodily torment is of little account. As one of the martyrs put it in today’s Office of Readings:
In the midst of these torments, which usually terrify others, I am, by the grace of God, full of joy and gladness, because I am not alone – Christ is with me.
And if Christ is with us, who can be against?