Thousands of Vietnamese American Roman Catholics on Sunday celebrated and mourned the memory of their ancestors who were martyred more than two centuries ago.
The ceremony at Cal State Long Beach’s Pyramid mixed 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.
For many of Orange County’s 60,000 Vietnamese Catholics, the annual commemoration is one of the most significant events of the church calendar.
Dominic Luong, an auxiliary bishop in Orange County, said the martyrs “gave themselves readily in defense of their beliefs and faith. The Vietnamese martyrs serve as an inspiration to live one’s faith completely and give without reservation.”
The community event has taken place for more than 30 years and coincides with the martyrs’ feast day, Nov. 24. Each year, it draws thousands of parishioners from throughout Southern California, but especially from the 14 Orange County parishes that commemorate the event.
The daylong event required two months of planning and featured drums and gongs that traveled from Vietnam.
Many of the women were dressed in the traditional ao dai, a long, flowing silk garment, and merchants sold banh mi sandwiches.
Mary Le of Yorba Linda showed up with a dozen family members. “All of us are here, young and old. There is something for everyone,” she said. “It’s a very happy day.”
Catholicism was introduced to Vietnam in the late 1600s by French, Spanish and Portuguese missionaries.
Those who had adopted the religion in traditionally Buddhist Vietnam were targeted and tortured after the Vietnamese monarchy issued anti-Catholic edicts in the late 1700s.
The government directly attacked 37 parishes and seminaries, demolishing structures and killing parishioners.
Sunday’s event included theatrical reenactments that highlighted some of the martyrdom, and it featured a special tribute to the late Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan.
Nguyen spent 13 years in a Communist reeducation camp after the Vietnam War, many of them in solitary confinement. During that time, a number of fellow inmates and guards were inspired by his example and converted to Catholicism.
Nguyen died in exile in Rome in 2002. In 2007, the Roman Catholic Church began the process that could lead to his beatification, a step toward sainthood.
“We pray for the memory of Nguyen and all of the martyrs, and we thank god for our faith,” said Quang Chu, pastor of St. Polycarp Church in Stanton.