One of the opportunities I have as Assistant Director of Certification for Ecclesial Ministry and Service at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), is to record video reflections on the readings of the Scriptures proclaimed at daily Mass. I do so as part of larger group of colleagues at the Conference, along with lay and ordained leaders from around the country. I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of the readings for the life of faith today and to share them here, along with the written text of the reflections. To view these video reflections for past and upcoming celebrations of the Eucharist, visit the USCCB website.
Reflections on the Word | Memorial of the Martyrs of Vietnam | November 24, 2018
What a remarkable and intense story from today’s first reading from the book of Revelation! This last book of the Bible is always the source of a lot of speculation, since it seems to speak about our future and the final end of the world. And it does speak of the final end of the world – not as history, but as mystery, as the promise of God to reconcile all people and all of creation is affirmed as a guarantee. The book itself doesn’t give a history of the future. It is a product of its time from the late first or early second century, written in the midst of a persecution by a representative of a small Christian community – John, possibly one of Jesus’ original disciples – that needed to remember its martyred witnesses, and be filled with renewed hope in God’s promise of redemption and eternal life.
The victory over death of which our first reading speaks is not simply a victory over natural death – but a victory over a death brought about by severe persecution. The writer reminds us of how the witnesses who are martyred in the vision compares to the suffering and death which Christ endured at the hands of political and some religious leaders. The beast and the people who follow him try to destroy the power of the testimony of the two saints. Instead, God has the final word – just as he did in the life of Christ – to overturn the death sentence and raise these witnesses from death. And this resurrection is not just a restoration to life, but – as the Gospel reminds us – is a whole new way of living – an eternal presence rooted in the love of God who rescues from death and whose truth will always be heard.
These readings are fitting for today’s memorial commemorating the martyrdom of St. Andrew Dung Lac and 116 other Vietnamese martyrs killed for their faith, between 1820 and 1862. During those 42 years of persecution, 8 bishops, 50 priests and 59 lay Catholics were put to death for their faith: 96 Vietnamese, 11 Spaniards and 10 French. The living memory of these witnesses is a special one in the minds and hearts of the 30% of the Vietnamese American community who are Catholic – about 300,000 people – along with the estimated 6 million plus Catholics in Vietnam.
It is a special day for me as well, since in the 1990s, I worked in a parish in my hometown of Utica, New York that was 40% Vietnamese – an intercultural parish even before we were using that term! That area of New York State became a home to a number of refugees from the Vietnam War in the 1970s, and many remained in the area, and are now, with their families up to a second and third generation, an integral part of the life of my hometown community.
The Vietnamese community was an integral part of our parish life, and whether it was sharing their beautiful music or the readings of Scripture in their own language at our 11 a.m. Sunday liturgies, building the ‘cave’ for the tomb of Christ at Easter or the ‘creche’ at Christmastime, holding community recitations of the Rosary in each others’ homes in May and October, or sharing their wonderful food at our annual parish festival, these brothers and sisters in faith were the spiritual descendants of Fr. Andrew Dung Lac and the other martyrs. Remembering them now, I am reminded of what a blessing it was to be a part of a parish community that was renewed and re-vitalized in part because of their presence. And while they were not persecuted in the same way as the Vietnamese martyrs, the unique challenges of coming to a new country after having to flee violence, establishing a new life, learning a new language and culture and, at times, dealing with discrimination or prejudice were very real challenges – ones which we know refugees and those in great need who come to our nation these days also endure.
Any number of difficult things in the lives of those original Vietnamese refugees could have led them to, if not lose their faith, to perhaps abandon the practice of it – just as St. Andrew Dung Lac and the martyrs of Vietnam could have perhaps had an easier time if they had renounced their faith. But those martyrs didn’t; and those active Vietnamese families in my parish didn’t. They let is shine for all to see. Those who killed the Vietnamese martyrs, probably like those who killed the witnesses to the Gospel in today’s first reading, thought that by doing so they would erase their influence. In fact, it has made their witness eternal.
As we look at the many ways Catholics and Christians throughout the world seek to live faithfully to the Gospel – often times in very hostile and dangerous situations – it is the promise of victory over death which is at the heart of our readings, that reminds them, and us, of their, and our, true purpose. We are blessed in these recent months with new groups of saints alongside the Vietnamese martyrs whose faithfulness unto death can be an inspiration for us. Alongside St. Andrew Dung Lac and his companions from the 19th century, we think of other martyrs: St. Oscar Romero from 1980, canonized last month, and the Trappist monks of Tibhirine, Algeria from the early 1990s, who will be beatified on December 8. These witnesses gave testimony to the God of mercy and justice in their lives, offering even their own lives in commitment to a compassionate and living faith.
Let us pray together today that we will be as faithful to the witness of the Gospel as these blessed martyrs!
God give you peace! Or, in Vietnamese:
Chúa ban cho bạn bình an!