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Vietnamese Martyr Teaches Quiet Lessons
By Judy Ball


Many of us were introduced to the saints through books we read as children. In their pages we encountered holy people whose stories were gripping and whose contribution to the Church and world stirred our hearts. With youthful zest, we resolved to become another Francis of Assisi, Thérèse of Lisieux or Martin de Porres.

But another Andrew Dung Lac? Unlikely—but not because the story of one of Vietnam’s first saints lacks for drama or his legacy holds little meaning. Sadly, so few details are known about him that we are left to fill in many blanks. That said, Andrew Dung Lac is probably the best known of the 117 Martyrs of Vietnam, canonized by Pope John Paul II in June 1988. Indeed, the group is referred to in the liturgy as St. Andrew Dung Lac and Companions.

This much we do know about him: Named Anh Tran at his birth around 1795 in northern Vietnam, he moved south with his family to Hanoi when he was 12. Though his parents were not Christian, they saw the benefits of having their son instructed by a Christian lay catechist. The boy received an education often denied the poor.

Some time later he was baptized a Christian, taking the name Andrew. In time, he himself became a catechist and was ordained a diocesan priest in 1823. Surely Andrew knew that, in embracing the faith and in choosing the priesthood, he was making a fateful decision. Christianity had often been under siege since it was introduced in Vietnam in the mid-16th century, though it also experienced periods of growth as thousands were baptized.

But persecution was particularly virulent between 1820 and 1840 during the reign of Ming-Mang. Christians were commonly required to renounce the faith and demonstrate their change of heart by trampling on a crucifix. Catholic churches were destroyed and believers often had their property confiscated and were exiled from their home regions. Family members were commonly separated from one another. Though efforts by the French to secure religious freedom for Catholics in 1833 helped alleviate some persecution, they were not enough to halt the martyrdom of Andrew Dung Lac and others.

Following imprisonment and repeated torture, Andrew Dung Lac was beheaded on December 21, 1839, in Hanoi. His crime: being a parish priest.

Martyrdom has been central to the history of the Church since the earliest centuries. Each martyr has offered the same simple—and profound—lessons: Be not afraid. You are not alone. Your faith is your greatest treasure. Embrace it, celebrate it, live it openly. Trust in God. These are the lessons we draw from the life of Andrew Dung Lac.

But one need not live in 19th-century Vietnam to appreciate the costs that can come with proclaiming oneself a follower of Jesus. Just ask 21st-century Christians struggling to proclaim their faith openly in Pakistan, Algeria or elsewhere.

Wherever we live, we are all called to witness to the faith we proclaim. Surely we can turn to Andrew Dung Lac to intercede for the courage and perseverance we may need.

Eight bishops, 50 priests, one seminarian and 58 laypeople make up the 117 Martyrs of Vietnam. Almost two dozen martyrs, however, were born in Spain and in France, missionaries who cast their lot with the people of Southeast Asia during the troubled 19th century. They met their deaths between 1820 and 1862, joining the many martyred during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Though these martyrs were beatified at four ceremonies between 1900 and 1951, Pope John Paul II elected to canonize them en masse in 1988. Just over a decade later, in his apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Asia, the Holy Father noted that Andrew Dung Lac and other martyrs stand as “indomitable witnesses to the truth that Christians are called always and everywhere to proclaim nothing other than the power of the Lord’s Cross.” Today, Vietnam is 67 percent Buddhist while only 6.4 percent Catholic.

Judy Ball is managing editor of Every Day Catholic, a monthly newsletter. She edits the print and audio Saint of the Day segments on this Web site.

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