St. Andrew Dung-Lac and companions: vanguards of the faith in a time of persecution

martyrs Vietnam This work of art was displayed at St. Peter's on the occasion of the Vatican's Celebration of the Canonization of 117 Vietnamese Martyrs on July 19, 1988. | Credit: Public domain

Today, Nov. 24, is the feast day of St. Andrew Dung-Lac and companions, a group of 117 martyrs, led by Father Andrew, who died for the Catholic faith in Vietnam during a 19th-century persecution. 

The group was made up of 96 Vietnamese, 11 Spaniards, and 10 French. Roughly half were clergy and half were laypeople, including a 9-year-old child. Some of the priests were Dominicans; others were diocesan priests who belonged to the Paris Mission Society.

According to the Vatican, Father Andrew Dung-Lac was born with the name Dung An-Tran to a poor family in northern Vietnam around the year 1795. When his family moved to Hanoi to find work, the 12-year-old Dung met a Christian catechist who shared the faith with him and baptized him with the name “Andrew.” 

The climate at the time was very dangerous for Christians in Vietnam under the Emperor Minh-Mang, who banned foreign missionaries and commanded Vietnamese Christians to trample on crucifixes in order to publically renounce their faith in Jesus Christ. (Japanese authorities had for years forced Christians to do something similar, a practice that is dramatized in the film “Silence.”) 

Later, in 1823, Andrew was ordained a priest, and his preaching and simplicity of life led many others to baptism, despite the young priest needing to be hidden by the faithful in order to keep him safe from the emperor. He was imprisoned multiple times and each time was ransomed by the Catholic faithful. Many Christians during this time were suffering brutal martyrdoms — strippings, torture, beheadings — and the priest changed him name to Lac in an attempt to avoid detection. 

It’s estimated that from 1630 to 1886, between 130,000 and 300,000 Christians were martyred in Vietnam, while others were forced to flee to the mountains and the forests or be exiled to other countries.

In 1839, the Vatican recounts, he was arrested again along with another Vietnamese priest, Father Peter Thi, to whom Dung-Lac had visited in order to go to confession. The two were ransomed, then arrested again, tortured, and finally beheaded in Hanoi on Dec. 21, 1839. He is the patron saint of Vietnam. 

Described as the “Nero of Indochina” for his harsh persecutions, Minh Mang’s reign ended the next year. 

Pope John Paul II canonized the 117 martyrs together on June 19, 1988. At the time, the Vatican said, the communist government of Vietnam did not permit a single representative from the country to attend the canonization. But 8,000 Vietnamese Catholics from the diaspora were there, “filled with joy to be the children of this suffering Church.”

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