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St. Andrew Dung-Lac and the martyrs under a Vietnamese Nero

Most American Catholics have probably never heard of St. Andrew Dung-Lac, whose feast day is celebrated Nov. 24. He represents the suffering and persecution of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese Catholics who died for the faith over the past three centuries, as well as the many Catholics who continue to face persecution as they attempt to practice their religion in communist Vietnam.

Spanish, Portuguese and French missionaries brought Catholicism to Vietnam in the late 1500s. The religion spread throughout the country, but by the 1800s, Catholics began to be tortured and killed for practicing their faith. From 1820 to 1841, Emperor Minh-Mang – known as the Nero of Vietnam – ordered the persecution of thousands of Christians. In 1847, Minh-Mang ordered another round of persecutions when he suspected foreign missionaries and Vietnamese Catholics of supporting his son, who was leading a rebellion against him. Even after Minh-Mang’s death, persecutions continued in his name until the late 1800s. Some records estimate that between 100,000 and 300,000 Catholics were killed or tortured within a 60-year period of the 1800s.

One of those who suffered martyrdom was Andrew Dung-Lac, a native Vietnamese priest. Born in 1795, Dung An Tran was introduced to the Catholic faith when he was 12 years old. After three years of education in Christianity, he was baptized and took the name Andrew Dung. He learned Chinese and Latin, and became a catechist, teaching others in the Vietnamese countryside about Jesus. He furthered his studies, and in 1823 was ordained a priest, serving in a parish in Ke Dam.

In 1835, Father Dung was imprisoned by Emperor Minh-Mang, but his parishioners raised money to pay for his release. After leaving prison, he changed his name to Andrew Lac, and moved to another area to continue his preaching and teaching. But he was captured again in 1839, along with another priest, Peter Thi, to whom he had gone to receive the sacrament of reconciliation. They were ransomed, but recaptured after only a few months. Both priests were taken to Hanoi, where they were tortured and finally beheaded on Dec. 21, 1839.

Andrew Dung-Lac and Peter Thi were beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1900, but it was not until 1988 that they and 115 other martyrs of Vietnam were canonized by Pope John Paul II.  The group – who came from Vietnam, Spain and France – includes 50 priests, eight bishops, 42 lay people, 16 catechists and one seminarian.