On this day each year, the Church celebrates the memory of the Vietnamese martyrs. Though the first Christian missionaries arrived in Vietnam in 1533, it was not until 1615 that the Jesuits were able to establish a permanent mission in the central region of the country, around Vinh. In 1627, a Jesuit went north to establish another mission, the same year the first martyr was beheaded. More were executed in 1644 and 1645. The persecution of Christians followed for another 150 years or so. However, it was in the first half of the 19th century, in 1833, that all Christians were ordered to renounce the faith, and to trample crucifixes underfoot. That edict started a an intense persecution that was to last for half a century. In 1855, rwholesale massacres began. It is estimated that between 1857 and 1862, 115 Vietnamese priests, 100 Vietnamese nuns, and more than 5,000 of the faithful were martyred. As many as 40,000 Catholics were dispossessed of their lands and exiled from their own regions to starve in wilderness areas. The martyrdoms ended with the Peace of 1862, brought about by the surrendering of Saigon to France
St John Paul 2 canonised 117 of these martyrs on June 19,1988. The canonized group includes 96 people who were from Vietnam and 21 missionaries from Spain and France; eight were bishops, 50 were priests, and nearly 60 were lay people. Amongst them was Andrew Dung-Lac a diocesan priest, born in 1795 in North Vietnam. When he was 12, he moved to Hanoi with his family so his parents could find work. A catechist offered him food and shelter and helped him receive an education. He was baptized, and chose the name Andrew, becoming a catechist himself, and eventually chosen to study for the priesthood, being ordained in 1823.
The suffering of the Vietnamese in the face of such opposition is one of the most remarkable witnesses to Christian faith in the extraordinary litany of testimony that marks our Tradition. We know that this litany is not simply a memory; it continues to be chanted now in the situation of so many in such diverse parts of the world. All over the world Christians are marginalised or persecuted for their belief in the power of life over death, for their resistance to submit to regimes and political and social mores that are antithetical to the liberating, healing, and reconciling power of the Gospel. They are those who live what the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, termed “costly discipleship.” They have recognised that the profession of faith is not without its price, and they have been prepared, through grace, to pay that price.
It is vitally important that we attend to this suffering. As another writer, Edward Schillebeeckx would say “any theologian who claims history as the starting point for speech about God must grapple with the realities of senseless suffering and the multiple ways in which history is laced with the non-sense of evil.” “Salvation cannot . . . be found outside suffering,” he would claim. When we keep before us the suffering of another, then begins the emergence of a solidarity. And memory and solidarity are at the very heart of our Christian experience. It is our “living memory of Jesus . . . embod[ied] in scripture and encountered in concrete experiences of suffering” that remains for us always the pivotal point of reference. For “[in] the life story of Jesus, human suffering is not theoretically resolved, but practically resisted, and ultimately defeated by the power of God. The life-praxis of the followers of Jesus who stand in solidarity with the crucified of the contemporary world is an active remembrance and retelling of the story of Jesus.
I opened this reflection with the experience of Vietnam. But to conclude I turn to a completely other culture and time: Algeria in the 1990s. Just two days ago, the last surviving member of the Trappist Tibhirine community in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria, Br Jean-Pierre Schumacher, died aged 97. His community of monks had refused to leave Algeria during the civil war of the 1990s out of solidarity with the local Muslim community. In 1996, seven of the monks were kidnapped and then beheaded. They were my brothers when I was a member of the Order at the time, and I vividly recall following the details of their anticipated arrest, and their eventual kidnap and discovery.
When Francis met Br Jean-Pierre he talked of the Church as “a living sacrament of the dialogue that God wants to initiate with each man and woman.” It was a theme that had been encapsulated by the spiritual vision of his Superior, Dom Christian de Cherge. Prior to the capture of the monks, Dom Christian, wrote a testament on 1 January 1994 to be opened and read if he died by violence. The text was opened on the feast of Pentecost, 26 May 1996, shortly after the monks were killed. It was entitled, Facing a Goodbye. Allow me to share some extracts. May we unite with his prayer on this day as we hold the memory of all those who suffer for their faith.
If it should happen one day – and it could be today –
that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to engulf
all the foreigners living in Algeria,
I would like my community, my Church and my family
to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country.
I ask them to accept the fact that the One Master of all life
was not a stranger to this brutal departure.
. . . .
I ask them to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones
which are forgotten through indifference or anonymity.
. . . . .
I should like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity
which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God
and of my fellow human beings,
and at the same time forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.
. . . ..
Obviously, my death will appear to confirm
those who hastily judged me naïve or idealistic:
“Let him tell us now what he thinks of his ideals!”
But these persons should know that finally my most avid curiosity will be set free.
This is what I shall be able to do, God willing:
immerse my gaze in that of the Father
to contemplate with him His children of Islam
just as He sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ,
the fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit
whose secret joy will always be to establish communion
and restore the likeness, playing with the differences.
For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs,
I thank God, who seems to have willed it entirely
for the sake of that JOY in everything and in spite of everything.
In this THANK YOU, which is said for everything in my life from now on,
I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today,
and you, my friends of this place,
along with my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families,
You are the hundredfold granted as was promised!
And also you, my last-minute friend, who will not have known what you were doing:
Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this GOODBYE to be a “GOD-BLESS” for you, too,
because in God’s face I see yours.
May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both. AMEN ! INCHALLAH !
 Mary Hilkert, “Edward Schillebeeckx, op (1914- ): Encountering God in a secular and suffering world.” Theology Today 62 (2005), 380.
 Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ: The experience of Jesus as Lord, translated by John Bowden, (New York: The Seabury Press, 1980), 769-770.
 Elizabeth K Tillar, “Critical Remembrance and Eschatological Hope in Edward Schillebeeckx’s Theology of Suffering for Others,” Heythrop Journal 44 (2003), 26.
 Mary Hilkert “Hermeneutics of History in the Theology of Edward Schillebeeckx,” The Thomist 51 (January 1987), 134.
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