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 – some estimates say up to 300,000 – who witnessed so for the Faith, 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.
As Theophane wrote to his family back home in France, not long before his own martyrdom, words which spoke to the heart of the idealistic Therese:
We are all flowers planted on this earth, which God plucks in His own good time: some a little sooner, some a little later . . . Father and son may we meet in Paradise. I, poor little moth, go first. Adieu
The accounts of missionary work in the Church provides an invaluable window into what cultures are like before the arrival of Christ and His salvific truth. True enough, 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, and fear transformed by love, a point to ponder in our own troubled days. As one of the martyrs, Paul Le-Bao-Tinh, put it in today’s Office of Readings:
The prison here is a true image of hell: to cruel tortures of every kind – shackles, irons chains, manacles – are added hatred, vengeance, calumnies, obscene speech, quarrels, evil acts, swearing curses, as well as anguish and grief.
But as he goes on to conclude, with hope and even some level of interior happiness which only the fullness of the Catholic Faith can offer:
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?
Holy Martyrs of Vietnam, orate pro nobis!