By Dr. David McKalip
On Friday May 20, 2016 The socialist government of Vietnam released a religious prisoner on the eve of a visit by President Obama*. Father Nguyen Van Ly is a Vietnamese Catholic priest imprisoned for defying the government’s continued ban on religious freedom and promoting an end to tyrannical rule by the communists. The released religious prisoner is the uncle of local Catholic Priest Father Viet Nguyen at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, FL. Father Nguyen was also a religious prisoner, spending five years incarcerated for daring to stand up for freedom. While in prison, Father Nguyen actually converted other prisoners to Catholicism and decided to become a priest. The Nation refused to allow him to become a priest – a dream that was not realized until he came to America as a refugee several years ago.
As a parishioner as St. Paul’s Catholic Church, I have been blessed to get to know Dr. Viet. He has been an outstanding priest, ministering to the church, spread the Gospel and the good news of the saving power of Jesus Christ. Father Viet will soon be transferring to administer the Holy Martyrs of Vietnam Mission in Largo Florida and will be missed.
(*President Obama will be removing the US embargo on selling weapons to the communist, Tyrannical Vietnamese Government. It is hard to imagine that further arming these tyrants will help the oppressed people of Vietnam.)
Father Viet’s Homily on the Thirst for the Sacraments
Just over a year ago, Father Viet delivered a riveting homily describing the courage of local Vietnamese Catholics. These were average citizens who so thirsted for the sacrifice of the Mass and the Sacraments that they risked their freedom to achieve communion with Jesus through the church. As you read the story, ask this: how much do you take worshiping God for granted? How truly blessed are you to live in a free land where you can live as a Christian without fear of imprisonment? In america we can worship in grand buildings, with temperature control, sound systems, comfortable seats and running water. These days, many Christians and Catholics often take for granted the ability to go to Mass and participate in the church only rarely.
Vietnamese Bureaucrats Try to Stop Mass and Sacraments
In rural Vietnam, people from all over the region had been waiting for a chance to celebrate the Catholic Mass. However, the government had another idea – obstruct every attempt of these faithful Catholics to come together in the liturgy and participate in the Sacraments. For a Catholic, the Sacraments are a key ingredient toward salvation (and Catholics seek to unify all protestants back to the church to allow them to enjoy the benefits of the sacraments as well). The Catechism teaches that Communion is required at least once per year (when possible). The sacrifice of the Mass is the place where the real presence of Jesus Christ – His body and blood – comes to exist in the bread and wine (transubstantiation). Catholics also must confess their sins, do penance, seek absolution – and then seek to remove sin from their lives. They also look to the Church for the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Ordination and Marriage. When death or sickness comes, they seek an anointing of the sick.
Yet all these Sacraments were scarcely available to the remote peoples of Western Vietnam. Not because there were no Catholic clergy willing to minister to them, but because the government actively sought to interfere in the celebration of Mass or any religious activity. The Bishop of the Diocese was aware that many of the Catholic faithful living in remote Vietnam wanted to participate in the Mass and the Sacraments. He and others followed the normal process in Vietnam to gain approval of the Communist government to set up a temporary location for Mass in the area. Unfortunately, the Vietnamese government used the bureaucracy to prevent any approval to celebrate Mass or offer the Sacraments. Many appeals were made and it became clear that the government simply did not want the Mass to proceed.
The Bishop and a Local Priest organize Mass despite the Vietnamese Government
The Bishop and a courageous local priest decided to follow their higher authorities – The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. They proceeded to travel to the area and set up the Mass. People came from hours away, travelling over rough conditions often with no roads to bring themselves and their family to the Catholic celebration. They worshiped together and celebrated the liturgy. They confessed their sins through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. They received communion – the Body and Blood of Christ with the Real Presence of Jesus manifested in the bread and wine. There were lines hours long to access the clergy to fully enjoy the rare benefit of the physical presence of Priests.
Father Viet did not say if the Government punished the Bishop, priest or faithful Catholics who participated. However, given the authoritarian nature of communist dictatorships, it is certain that at least a few were marked for public reprisal to “set an example”. Yet Catholics know what Jesus instructed on the Sermon on the Mount:
“10 Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me.
12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Don’t take the Church and Sacraments for Granted
The next time you are “too tired” to go to Church, don’t “feel like it”, or would rather do something else, remember the people of remote Vietnam. Remember how these faithful Catholics have to fight for the right to celebrate the liturgy and to receive the Sacraments. We have so many blessings in America. We have ready access to food and water, work, the church and most importantly we have freedom. Even though there are those in government and the community who attack the church and seek to suppress it, we still have the freedom to worship as easily and as often as we desire. If we stop exercising our religious freedom, it too will be an easy target for those in government and other spiritual and political enemies who would seek a society that serves man rather than God.
Religious Liberty under Attack in America
Sadly in today’s America, new attacks against Christianity are coming regularly. The Little Sisters Of the poor face government fines and prison to force them to provide contraception and abortion drugs against their faith. Christian bakers and photographers face government fines and public boycott for seeking to maintain their loyalty to true marriage (between a man and woman). Prayer is driven from schools and the public venue as football coaches are fired by local governments for daring to lead a voluntary prayer group on the field after a game. Will you take advantage of your freedom and ability to worship and receive the Sacrament – or will you allow it to wither away until the day when you have to fight a government for that right again?