Global Catholics – Witnesses to hope in Vietnam

I recently came across a painting of Agnes Le Thi Thanh, a figure about whom I knew very little. In reading up on her, it’s clear that her heroic witness to Christ warrants her inclusion not only in this series on Global Catholics, but also in wider discussions about the New Evangelization in our modern world.
In 1998, Pope John Paul II canonized 117 Vietnamese martyrs of various eras. Many in the Vatican at that time asserted that these men and women underwent persecutions and tortures which notoriously rank among the worst ever inflicted on Christians for their faith. And if you know anything about the brutality of the ancient Mediterranean despots toward the early practitioners of Christianity (then called The Way), that is a staggering claim.
Agnes was one of these virtuous believers who was “raised to the altars” for her unflinching commitment to God and his church.
She proves that models of sanctity need not be seen as other-worldly figures in stained glass windows with haloes and prayerful ecstasies far removed from the rest of us. Rather, many of the church’s greatest figures touch us because we can relate to and emulate them in their humanity. Agnes, the mother of six, had to endure not only beatings, insults and exposure to poisonous snakes for her participation in the sacraments and the refuge she provided to hunted clergy, but also the tearful entreaties of her own children and family to renounce her faith and thus be freed from imprisonment. Agnes refused, referring to her bloody scars as “roses” honoring Our Lady.
Because of her wounds and the primitive care she received for them, Agnes died in prison in 1841. Through all of her sufferings, her trust in God never wavered.
Although still a significant minority in their homeland, Vietnamese Catholics are today a sizeable demographic. One of the most prominent among them in the contemporary period is the late Cardinal Francois-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan. Like Agnes, Thuan was imprisoned for the bold proclamation of his faith. His smuggled letters while incarcerated form the basis of his autobiographical book “The Road of Hope.” Today his cause for beatification is underway and he is cited for his courage in Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe Salvi.
Like Agnes, Cardinal Thuan is credited with being a witness to hope “which does not wane even in the nights of solitude.” In their solitary confinement, both quietly transformed their countrymen and the world through their prayerful suffering and tireless trust in providence which discipleship in Christ demands.

Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., of Collingswood, is a Research Associate at Durham University’s Centre for Catholic Studies in Northeast England.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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