AUGUST 20, 2019: The grounds of the Basilica of Our Lady of La Vang in central Vietnam was vast and flat. It was serene and quiet when we were there in 2017 and as we walked past the construction site for a new church building. Beside it was one that was destroyed in 1972 during what we call the Vietnam War (the Vietnamese refer to it as the American War).
We kept walking and we came to the shrine of Our Lady of La Vang which has a large statue of the Mother and Child and the hum got louder. A group of pilgrims were reciting the rosary and singing soulfully. There were at least 100 people in the area but all we heard were the rosary recital and songs. The day was hot day with a slow deliberate breeze but no one seemed bothered about it. They walked about the grounds, walked around the shrine, burnt candles. And burnt joss sticks. Which was unusual for us to see because back home in Malaysia the joss stick is associated with non-Catholic Chinese worship practices. But we saw that this was the norm in Vietnam in just about all the churches we visited. So, when in Rome.
By the side of the Shrine of Our Lady of La Vang was a chapel and a prayer room. In that prayer room, there would be round-the-clock prayers and adoration, all year long. Each of the thousands of churches in Vietnam will send a team to pray.
Right at the end is a long gold wall with carvings of the 117 Vietnamese Catholic martyrs who were canonised in 1988. The names of these saints are on a plaque by the side.
We had only heard of the Shrine and the Basilica of Our Lady of La Vang just a few weeks before our trip to central Vietnam in February 2017. We had no idea just how big the Catholic community in Vietnam was and that the Catholic church had strong roots and history in this communist country.
Vietnam has more than five million Catholics, which is almost 7% of its population. It has 26 dioceses, including three archdioceses. And it also has the Basilica of Our Lady of La Vang which is a minor basilica. This is one of the four basilicas in Vietnam. The others are in Hanoi (Basilica of So Kien), Ho Chi Minh City (Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception), Nam Dinh (Basilica of Immaculate Conception, Phu Nhai). The only other country in Southeast Asia with basilicas is the Philippines which has 15 basilicas.
HISTORY – Our Lady of La Vang
In the late 18th century, the Vietnamese emperor was afraid the fast increasing number of Catholics in the kingdom would threaten his throne. He then started persecuting Catholic Vietnamese and the Catholic priests who were mainly foreigners. All 37 parishes in Dinh Cat were destroyed – the churches were burnt down and over 100,000 Vietnamese Catholics died as martyrs.
A good number of Catholic Vietnamese hid in the rainforest in La Vang. Many died from bitter cold, being attacked by wild animals, starvation and sickness but every night they all gathered around a tree, saying their rosary.
One night up in the branches of the tree, they saw a lady wearing the traditional Vietnamese ao dai dress with a child in her arms and two angels beside her. They believed it was the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus. They said she comforted them and told them to boil the yellow striped leaves called la vang from the trees and drink it to cure them of their illness. Which they did and they were.
A few years later, a new emperor ascended the throne and he allowed Christianity to flourish. So the Catholics returned to their villages and the story of the apparition spread. Many came to pray at the site and years later a chapel was built. A new wave of persecution followed and the chapel was destroyed but a new one was later built and this chapel was consecrated in honour of Our Lady.
In 1954, the Vietnamese Bishops Conference made the church of Our Lady of La Vang a national shrine in honour of the Immaculate Conception. In 1961, La Vang became the National Marian Center of Vietnam and later that year the Pope John XXIII elevated the Church of Our Lady of La Vang to the rank of a minor basilica.
There is no official Vatican recognition of this Marian apparition but in 1998, Pope John Paul II publicly recognised the importance of Our Lady of La Vang and expressed desire to rebuild the La Vang Basilica in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the first vision. Ten years earlier, in 1988, Pope John Paul II canonised 117 martyrs Vietnamese Catholic martyrs.
In the Philippines, the chapel of Our Lady of La Vang is now the Roman Catholic parish church and national shrine in Puerto Princesa City in Palawan and Our Lady of La Vang has become a patroness of Puerto Princesa and patroness of Palawan.