Before Mass, the faithful draped in gleaming headdresses and silk garments turned to welcome an ancient symbol of their modern faith: the bones of three saints who sacrificed their lives for their religion, cementing Roman Catholicism in Vietnam.
Pope John Paul II canonized the martyrs and 114 other saints in 1988 — in the largest ceremony of its kind in church history. On Sunday, the celebration of their deeds drew more than 3,000 Catholics to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown L.A., as one family after another spilled from 20 buses, representing 14 parishes from throughout the region and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Organizer Lu Bui noted his mission: "To honor our predecessors, to remind us of our strong faith and to preserve culture. Hand in hand, we show ourselves as human beings who share special beliefs."
Behind him, actors on the colorful stage rehearsed for a skit bringing to life the martyrs' selflessness and sacrifice. After Jesuit missionaries introduced Catholicism to Vietnam, rulers there banned foreign missionaries. The martyrs, who were killed between the 16th and 19th centuries, included Asians and Europeans, priests and laypeople who were persecuted for refusing to denounce their faith.
"I'm so happy I'm here," says An Hoang, a freshman at Cal Poly Pomona and member of a Eucharistic youth movement staging an outdoor procession. "This is really a reunion. It's a chance for us to pray for those who gave their lives for us so we can benefit. That's why we are free to do what we feel."
"One faith, one celebration. That's unity and that's what today is," said Father Brian Castañeda, secretary to Archbishop Jose Gomez, who led the Martyrs' Mass, featuring lilting songs in praise of heroes. Worshippers hailed from Los Angeles, Orange, Santa Barbara, San Diego and Ventura counties. Many wore traditional costumes, pausing to take snapshots on their iPhones to send to friends in their homeland.
The gathering also marked the 35th anniversary of the birth of the Vietnamese community in Los Angeles. Television cameras whirled, filming the spectacle, including the relics of the three saints — two priests and a soldier — to air to more than 1 million Vietnamese American immigrants nationwide.
Mai Pham, an eighth-grader at St. Catherine Laboure School in Torrance, lined up with dozens of dancers at the start, ready to strut. Her group of girls and women would use candles, flowers, flowing red scarves and bowls to illustrate grace and presence in a performance dedicated to Mary, mother of Jesus. "It makes us happy when we do this because we're not doing it for ourselves," she said. "We're expressing our love for someone beautiful at a beautiful event."
"If we didn't have this day, the Vietnamese kids born in America wouldn't even know about it," says Khoa Chu, a mechanical engineer from Alhambra and member of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Altadena. "The martyrs gave their lives for people who followed them — and they should be remembered."