Several thousand Vietnamese American Roman Catholics turned an Irvine arena into a makeshift church Sunday for a service commemorating the struggle and sacrifice of their martyred ancestors in Vietnam more than two centuries ago.
The bilingual ceremony at UC Irvine’s Bren Events Center mixed ancient Catholic rites with Vietnamese-inspired dance, music and theater to recount the story of 117 martyrs slain during the persecution of Catholics in Vietnam between 1798 and 1861.
The martyrs, canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1988, were among more than 100,000 Vietnamese Catholics killed because of their religious beliefs.
“The martyrs are the foundation for our church,” said Auxiliary Bishop Dominic Luong of the Diocese of Orange, the highest-ranking Vietnamese Catholic cleric in the United States. “The Vietnamese always consider the martyrs who tried to build up the Catholic church as their ancestors.”
The annual commemoration is considered one of the most important events for the 60,000 Roman Catholic members of Orange County’s Vietnamese American community.
“Being Catholic doesn’t just mean you go to church on Sundays,” said Ken Cao, 43, who was raised as a Catholic in Vietnam and came to the United States in the early 1980s.
“To be Catholic is to show your love and to take actions in the community that help people. Faith is action,” said Cao, who brought his 2-year-old son to the Irvine ceremony. “Just like today, with us honoring the martyrs. They were brave enough to die for their faith.”
Catholicism was introduced to Vietnam in the late 1600s by French, Spanish and Portuguese missionaries. Those who adopted the religion in traditionally Buddhist Vietnam were targeted and tortured after the Vietnamese monarchy issued anti-Catholic edicts in the late 1700s.
Sunday’s commemoration included theatrical reenactments that drew parallels between the stoning death of the martyr St. Stephen and the killing of the martyrs in Vietnam 18 centuries later.
“The martyrs accepted to be killed to show their faith in God, showing honor and sacrifice,” said Father Michael Hoan, director of the Vietnamese Catholic Cultural Center in Santa Ana. “The martyrs’ struggle is a reflection of how we need to follow their example of strong faith in God.”
The event also showcased how Catholicism has mixed with Vietnamese culture, as when statues of Jesus and Mary were carried to the stage on flower-laden platforms carved with dragon heads.
Sunday’s service included a prayer for Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, who spent 13 years in a Communist re-education camp after the Vietnam War. Nguyen died in 2002 and the Roman Catholic Church in September began the process that could lead to his beatification, a step toward sainthood.
“When I see thousands of people coming together every year through this gathering, I can see the power of faith in our community,” Hoan said. “Remembering the martyrs is powerful in keeping our faith alive for generations to come.”