This article is sixth in a series of articles about the religious life and customs of Southeast Asian Catholics in the United States and how the Church might better serve their needs. It is in two parts, adapted from the following articles: (1) "A Historical Sketch about the Vietnamese in the United States" by Msgr. Dominic M. Luong, director of Vietnamese National Pastoral Center, and (2) "Characteristics of Asian Culture in the Liturgical Life of Vietnamese Catholics" by Rev. Joachim Hien, director of Vietnamese Federation for Clergy and Religious.
Vietnam is a long, narrow Southeast Asian country located along the Pacific Ocean and separated from the rest of the peninsula by mountain ranges and hill country. It is surrounded by China on the north, and by Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia on the west. Early inhabitants came from China or migrated over the mountain ranges from India.
Catholicism came to Vietnam in the form of European Catholicism during the sixteenth century. Before Christianity was introduced, Vietnamese worship centered on several religions. Animism, a form of natural religion, taught that nature is filled with spirits, who are most evident in natural phenomena--rivers, mountains, oceans, and celestial bodies. The arrival of Buddhism from India in the sixth century B.C., subsequently mixed with Taoism, a religious-philosophical system, and finally with Confucianism in a reformed mode. This form of syncretic religion was ingrained in the Vietnamese culture for almost two millennia before Christ.
In modern times, the French gained control of Vietnam as well as Cambodia and Laos by 1887, establishing the federation of French Indo-China. During and after World War II, the country was invaded successively by troops from Japan, China, and France. Finally, during the 1960s the country was divided into North Vietnam (supported by the Communists from Russia and China) and South Vietnam (supported by the United States). After the Vietnam War, during which U.S. forces aided the South Vietnamese army, the country was united as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1976.
In the aftermath of the Communist takeover of South Vietnam on April 30, 1975, the world witnessed an outpouring of refugees in small makeshift vessels, even oil drums strung together--none considered sea-worthy. The first wave of Vietnamese refugees numbered about 160,000 persons. Between 1970 and 1987, the number of so-called "boat people," was estimated to be approximately 600,000. They defied death and risked their lives on the high seas to escape the unimaginably brutal and inhuman treatment of the Communists. An estimated forty-five percent died at sea; many women were captured by pirates who molested them. The official U.S. policy regarding the first Vietnamese refugees was to disperse them throughout the fifty states. But the second and third resettlements brought Vietnamese to warmer climates, along the West Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. According to the 1990 Census, over fifty percent of Vietnamese refugees were settled in California, and 100,000 went to Texas. Arizona, Illinois, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Louisiana, Colorado, New York, and Washington, D.C. have populations of approximately 25,000 Vietnamese. In these Vietnamese enclaves, Vietnamese Catholics have formed communities among themselves for the sake of friendship, security, and religious practices.
By 1989, the Orderly Departure Process (ODP) was initiated, which decreed that only immediate family members--spouses, parents and unmarried children--were qualified to enter the United States. Also, the Amerasian Children Program allowed children of GIs entrance to this country. Finally, under the Humanitarian Program (HO) former political prisoners were admitted. It is estimated that as a result of these programs, one million Vietnamese now live in the United States. Of this number, approximately twenty-seven percent or 270,000 Vietnamese are Catholic.
Among the refugee population many are priests, religious, and brothers. Among the first wave of refugees, approximately 200 priests and 250 sisters who escaped were able to minister with their people. These priests and religious were a great benefit to the refugees because as they moved out of the transit camps, the priests and religious went with them to take care of their spiritual needs. Vocations to the priesthood from the Vietnamese-American communities grew rapidly so that by 1995, 300 more priests were ordained and 450 sisters entered the Vietnamese religious orders in the United States to minister in their communities.
The proudest moment for Vietnamese Catholics in diaspora was the canonization of 117 Vietnamese Martyrs in Rome on June 21, 1988, an event which drew 10,000 Vietnamese from around the world, although their fellow countrymen in the homeland were forbidden to attend. The feastday of the Vietnamese Martyrs is November 24, when Catholics show their great devotion to their Ancestor Saints. Another popular Vietnamese devotion is that of the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title of Our Lady of La Vang--the Madonna of Vietnam--celebrated during the second week in May. This devotion dates from the persecutions in 1798, when a group of Catholics saw a beautiful lady who consoled those who had been persecuted, calmed their fears, and strengthened their faith. They named her Duc Phat Quan Am, after the female goddess of Buddhism. Daily praying of the rosary and observance of Marian feastdays are cherished family devotions of Vietnamese Catholics.
In 1980, at the first convention of Vietnamese Catholics, the Vietnamese Catholic Federation was formed with Rev. Joseph Tinh as its first president. The Vietnamese Community of Clergy and Religious, formed earlier in 1968, was merged with the federation. Fifteen thousand Vietnamese from thirty states attended the second Vietnamese Catholic convention in 1984. At the third Vietnamese convention, Bishop Enrique San Pedro, liaison between the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Vietnamese clergy, announced the establishment of the National Pastoral Center for Vietnamese Apostolate, with Monsignor Dominic M. Luong as its first director.
Since that time, some dioceses have responded to the pastoral needs of the Vietnamese by creating personal parishes, of which there are now thirty-four in the United States. Many dioceses established Vietnamese Apostolate Centers, many of which have now been phased out. Other dioceses have recently created six multicultural parishes. All of these pastoral models have been organized for the care of seventy-five percent of Vietnamese Catholics; the remaining twenty-five percent or 70,000 Catholics live and worship in small scattered communities.
Like other people who have migrated to the United States, the Vietnamese bring with them special characteristics of their own culture. These characteristics help them preserve the foundations of their family and spiritual life and contribute to making the American culture more beautiful. In their liturgical life, these characteristics also help Vietnamese Catholics preserve and practice their faith in a stable way while adjusting to life in this new land.
Until now, although living in the United States, most Vietnamese have continued to adhere to the structure of the extended family to form one family unit. Each person must respect and obey his or her elders, staying together and supporting one another. This way of life has a permanent effect on the liturgical life of Vietnamese Catholics.
Vietnamese have a number of complex rituals in their traditional celebration of weddings, which are not strictly followed in this country. But the major elements are still observed starting with the parents, or eldest among the relatives, having a prominent place in the marriage of their children. Wedding ceremonies have three stages: a formal announcement between the two families, a formal rite of engagement, and the solemn celebration of the wedding.
After the wedding, a banquet is held at the groom's house or in a restaurant. At the reception the parents guide the newlywed couple to each table to thank the guests and to receive their congratulations. All those who attend the reception bring gifts or money for the couple. Everyone wishes the newlyweds "100 years of happiness." The ancestors of the Vietnamese people believed that these complex and solemn rituals would help the newlyweds realize the importance of forming a family. Some parts of the Marriage Rite of the Catholic Church have been adapted to the Vietnamese customs enabling them to preserve the family spirit and to be more closely united.
Funerals are an important time for expressing filial love for parents and grandparents. When someone dies, all members of the immediate family try their best to return home to see the loved one for the last time. They listen to the last words, and if possible, stay close during the last hours. Often they invite the parish priest and members of parish organizations for the celebration of the last rites to prepare their loved one for a holy death. After the person has passed away, all family members in the direct line openly mourn, and according to their relationshop to the person, wear different types of mourning clothes.
The funeral is well organized according to national custom, beginning with the carrying of the casket into the church for a solemn Mass, and ending with interment in the cemetery. Seven days after interment, closest members of the family must ask for a memorial Mass of the seventh day (le ky). Subsequent Masses are arranged for forty-nine days, and one hundred days. Then a year later, another ceremony is held called "long mourning" (dai tuong) or "completion of mourning" (le gio het). Finally, after twenty-seven months of mourning, the mourning garb is discarded at a special ceremony.
Vietnamese celebrate ancestral commemorations such as memorial day, which is a time of perpetual remembrance of parents and grandparents by their children. Each year the family of the oldest son or first grandson organizes a memorial or anniversary of the death of the loved one. On this memorial day, all relatives and friends are invited to attend a memorial Mass for the deceased and to share a meal with the family.
All the liturgical rites for Vietnamese funerals and weddings reflect their family spirit. Parents, in addition to raising and educating their children to adulthood, have an obligation to help them establish a career, marry, and get a place to live. Grandparents are obliged to care for grandchildren. The whole family shares in the joys and successes as well as troubles of members of the family. This family spirit is an excellent kind of "social security," helping the Vietnamese to hold together their family foundation and to build up a good life. The family bond is strengthened through liturgical rituals, especially funerals, weddings, and the memorial feasts mentioned above.
The Vietnamese have several national holidays and religious feasts which are celebrated according to their customs. The most important of these is Tet (Lunar New Year) in late January or early February. Catholics have transformed this national event into a religious celebration with a penance service on New Year's Eve to ask forgiveness for sins of the past year and to thank God for blessings received. On New Year's Day, Catholics go to Church to ask God and the Blessed Virgin Mary for blessings in the New Year, and then go from house to house offering good wishes to clergy, family and friends. They may give children small amounts of lucky money in red envelopes (li xi), as most Asian people do. The celebration of Tet may last for three days or a week or month.
Vietnamese Catholics also celebrate feast days of national saints and local patron saints, such as Our Lady of La Vang, Our Lady of Tra Kieu, and the Martyrs of Vietnam. They also have special liturgical rites for the major feasts of the Church, such as Christmas, Holy Week, and for the month of Mary, and the month of the Rosary.
While adjusting to U.S. culture, Vietnamese Catholics have preserved their faith and made significant and steady progress in evangelization because of the development of pastoral activities that embrace their own culture. This has resulted in strong family unity and sound academic achievement by their children. More and more, they are participating in and contributing to the life of the local community.