For many of us, our attention to the country of Vietnam was largely known by the Vietnam War with America in the 1960’s. Our image of Vietnam was formed by the images on the nightly news of jungles that had the Viet Cong who posed a threat to the American troops sent to South Vietnam.
The same jungles were lifesaving places of refuge for our Catholic brothers and sisters in the late 1700’s. At the end of the 18th century, the country of Vietnam was divided into two kingdoms, the North with Ha Noi as its capital, ruled by the Trinh family dynasty and the South, with Hue as its capital, ruled by the Nguyen family dynasty. As the Southern rulers attempted to conquer the North, the South sought the help of France. A group in South Vietnam called the Van Than opposed the help of the French intervention and move to have South Vietnam ruled by a new empire under Quang Trung. The new emperor proceed to conquer North Vietnam, however, he died soon after his conquest of the North and left his ten year old son, Canh Thinh, to rule. The advisors of Cahn Thinh feared the spread of Catholicsm in the country and had King Thinh to issue an anti-Catholic edict in which persecution of the Catholics was the order. More than 100,000 Vietnamese Catholics died. All Catholic churches and seminaries were ordered to be destroyed.
The edict resulted in the fleeing of many families to the rain forest of La Vang in the Quang Tri Province in central Vietnam. Many suffered from the bitter cold weather, jungle sickness and starvation and fell ill. While hiding, the Catholics gathered nightly at the foot of a banyan tree to pray the Rosary to seek courage and find comfort in their distress. One night an apparition appeared. It was a woman dressed in the traditional Vietnamese áo dài dress, holding a child and surrounded by two angels. Those present interpreted the vision as the Virgin Mother and the infant Jesus. They said that the Lady comforted them and told them to boil leaves to provide medicine to cure the illness. She assured them that their prayers were being heard and promised them her protection and relief from their plight. Additional apparitions were said to have occurred, although no written documentation has been found, fearing lost in subsequent wars and destruction of the churches in Hue.
In the early 1800’s, the Catholics began to return to their villages, passing on the story of the apparition in the La Vang forest and its messages. As the story spread, the site became a pilgrimage site where many came to pray and offer incense. In 1820, a chapel was built, later destroyed and rebuilt. Though there is no official Vatican recognition of this event as a Marian apparition, in July 1999, Pope John Paul II publically recognized the importance of Our Lady of La Vang in his message for the conclusion of the Marian Year in La Vang, Vietnam.
“I commend the whole Vietnamese Catholic community to the intercession of Our Lady of La–Vang. She is the loving Mother who appeared in 1798 to console the Christians persecuted by the Van-Than.” St. John Paul II, August 15th, 1993