PART V

DID ANYONE WITNESS

THE MADONNAS APPARITIONS IN LA VANG

 I/  UNDER WHAT CIRCUMSTANCES WAS

THE PAGODA TURNED INTO A GODS HOUSE

 A)  DOCUMENTS:  

 

             In his article Tinh-Thần La Vang (The Spirit of La Vang) published in Thằng M (The Town Crier) Magazine, No. 832 on 28 Mar 1998, Mr. Trần Văn Tr wrote:

             At the beginning of the 19th century, rumor about the Sacred Lady spread wide everywhere.  During the first years, 1820-1840, the Catholics of Ba Trừ, Cổ Thnh and Thạch Hn Villages made contributions among themselves to build a pagoda [NB: a pagoda is a Buddhist temple, with its specific structure, and of course with at least one statue or picture of the Buddha] right at the place where the Madonna had appeared, called the Ba Lng (Three Villages) Pagoda.  But later they discussed with one another and all agreed that the Lady who had appeared there belonged to the Catholic side, so they yielded the pagoda to the Catholic side, and the Catholic families modified the pagoda into a Gods house (Fr. Hồng Phc: The La Vang Lady, page 35).

 

B)  REMARKS:

 

             1-  Let us find out about the situation in which the pagoda was modified into a Gods house.  In the weekly Thằng M Magazine, No. 852 on 15 Aug 1998, there was the article Sự-Kiện La Vang: Trang Sử Tử-Đạo (The La Vang Event: The Martyrs History) by Mr. Nguyễn Văn Thng, in which we read the following paragraph:

             Bishop Tabert wrote:  About the South Church, when King Minh Mạng ordered a ban on Catholicism, there were hundreds of believers jailed, tortured, and exiled or executed...

                    a.  In 1832, Tống Viết Bường, the chief of Minh Mạngs guards, together with officers and soldiers under him, was obligated to sign pledges to quit the religion...  Mr. Bường and 12 others did not sign.  They were ordered to be yoked and lashed...  The lead-covered end of the whips tore the flesh off...  Six soldiers could not endure such barbarous punishments...  Mr. Bường and the 6 others were imprisoned and tortured to the utmost and then decapitated in the evening of 23 Oct 1833 at Thợ Đc, Huế (Bi Đức Sinh: The Catholic Church in Vietnam, vol. III, pg.  46-47).

                    b.  On 8 Sep 1835, Fr. Marchand was captured in Gia Định [Southern Region], caged like an animal and brough to Huế [Central Region] together with 7-year-old L Văn Vin, son of L Văn Khi...  He was accused of plotting with L Văn Khi to rebel against Minh Mạng royal court...  The executioner used red hot pincers to squeeze his hips, the flesh got burned sizzlingly and smoking...  He and three others were indicted as accomplices and sentenced together with little Vin to dissection.  All their clothes taken off, they were tied to the stretches and sent to the former church now turned into the execution ground at Thợ Đc...  One executioner used pincers to pinch out each piece of flesh for another to cut it off with a cleaver.  They began with the condemneds penis, then the two breasts, the two shoulder blades, the two hands, the two thigh muscles, calves... until what remained was only a skeleton stuck with blood-red bits of flesh.  After that, the executioner cut the priests head off... undid the ropes for the body to fall face down to the ground, used an ax to cut it horizontally into four chunks, then each chunk vertically into two pieces...  Priest Marchands head was sent to the provinces to be hanged in display at the markets, then put into a mill to be ground (Phan Pht Huờn: Louvet: La Cochinchine Religieuse (The Religious Cochinchina), v. II, pg. 92) and many other cases.

 

             2-  The period 1820-1840 mentioned above by Mr. Trần Văn Tr was exactly the span of King Minh Mạng reign, and the persecutions of Catholics had been so terrible.  And historian Trần Trọng Kim wrote in his Việt Nam Sử Lược:  At that time, not only King Minh Mạng hated Catholicism, but most mandarins were of the same feeling, so the ban on Catholicism was more cruel.  L Văn Khi and his fellow-rebels (among them priest Marchand) were strong enough to have taken six provinces in one month and defended the Gia Định citadel against the Imperial Court for three years long, and they were down in the Southern Region so far from Huế; but Minh Mạng could finally crush and punish them so horribly.  Then, how a group of bare-handed Catholic refugees in La Vang could avoid being tracked out, since La Vang was only about 60 kilometers from the king and his influence*1, and, moreover, dared openly modify the pagoda (Buddhist temple) into a church (Gods house) while the persecutions were still continued for 4-6 more decades (until the French domination began in the 1880s)? 

 

             *NOTE 1a:

             RememberRumor about the Sacred Lady had spread everywhere and the La Vang inhabitants (including the non-Catholics) living upon the fire-wood still could take it for sale to the non-Catholic villages outside of La Vang.

             *NOTE 1b:

             Bishop Tabert wrote about events happening in 1820-1840 in a Vietnam already unified since more than twenty years earlier (Gia Long became King in 1802), but he still called the area the South (Miền Nam) as if there still existed the Gianh River which devided the country into two parts under the old period of Trịnh-Nguyễn conflict.  Moreover, Tabert could not remember the place-name Phường Đc and called it Thợ Đc.  How could people believe him?

 

             3-  If the Virgin Mary did really appear in La Vang in 1798, why must those Catholics have waited until 22-42 years later (1820-1840) to hear the rumor, to build a pagoda, and then to discuss and come to an agreement that the Lady*2 who had appeared belonged to the Catholic side, and then to modify the pagoda into a Gods house?  Besides, they had been the Catholics from the villages of Ba Trừ, Cổ Thnh and Thạch Hn, who built the cha (Buddhist temple), why did they not simply state (e.g. that now it is time for us to officially declare it the Gods house, because the Lady who had appeared was indisputably the Virgin Mary), and notify it to the non-Catholics, instead of having to wait until long, long later to discuss (between the Catholics themselves) the idea that the Lady belonged to our side*3?  In a word, all was merely rumor, and there was nobody who did witness the Ladys alleged apparitions in La Vang!

 

             *NOTE 2:  With the Buddhists, there has also been a Lady:  Đức Qun-Thế-m Bồ-Tt (Kouan Yin).

             *NOTE 3:  The term side means that there were at least two sides involved in the case; and such honest use of the term indicates that the non-Catholic side had previously recognized that the pagoda was a Buddhist site.

 

II/  IN WHAT CIRCUMSTANCES DID PEOPLE

BEGIN TO HEAR THE RUMOR OF

THE MADONNAS APPEARANCES IN LA VANG?

 

A)  DOCUMENTS:

 

             In his article The La Vang Sacred Land printed in Mother Vietnam Magazine, issue #102 dated 15-8-1998, Mr. Nguyễn L Tưởng wrote:

             1-  In 1797, while Nguyễn Phc nhs naval forces could come so far from the Southern Region as up to Thừa Thins Tư Hiền seaport, Ty Sơns mandarin L Văn Lợi suggested the kings order to arrest all Catholic followers and priests, on the pretext that Catholics supported Nguyễn Phc nh...  King Cảnh-Thịnh secretly ordered the local authorities to arrest and kill all Catholic followers as well as priests, not to miss anyone, beginning in 5-1798.  Bishop Jean De Labartelle was then hiding in Di Lun Village (Quảng Trị)...  That news spread among the Catholic circle, and believers from Tr Bưu, Thạch Hn, Hạnh Hoa Villages fled into the La Vang mountainous area as a refuge.  And it was at this time that the Virgin Mary appeared to them.

 

             2-  The legend spread that the Virgin Mary had appeared at the foot of the old banyan tree.  The woodcutters used to get there to pray.  Later on they heard say that a Sacred Lady had appeared there, so they made a platform at the foot of the banyan tree, called the kowtow platform, and raised a fence around it.  Towards the beginning of Minh Mạngs reign, 1820, inhabitants of the three villages Thạch Hn, Ba Trừ and Cổ Thnh teamed up with one another to create there a joss-house (miếu) [miếu is a place where the non-Catholics burn incense to pray to other dieties than the Catholic God]; afterwards, they heard say that in the old times a Lady on the Catholic side had appeared at that site; therefore, people of the three villages agreed to yield that site to the inhabitants on the Catholic side.  The Catholics of that time reported the incident to the vicar*4 of Tr Bưu (Cổ Vưu) Parish, and the local vicar had that site modified into a thatch-roofed church.  This was the first church ever in La Vang.

 

             3-  Đồng-Khnh became king (in 1885, towards the end of 19th century); he sought for peace...  Also at this time the Tr Bưu (Cổ Vưu) Parish priest asked the local old-aged believers when these were on their deathbed, awaiting exoneration and anointment*5:  You must swear to say the truth, did you hear your parents, grand-parents, in the past mention something concerning the Virgin Marys Apparitions in La Vang?  All those persons answered Yes and The event happened nearly 100 years ago.  The Virgin Mary had appeared about 100 years earlier.  The evidence is that in 1886 Mgr Caspar (Lộc) in Huế decided to build a temple for the La Vang Lady, and the Tr Bưu parishioners at the end of the 19th century said that the Madonnas Apparitions, as told by their parents, grandparents, had taken place some 100 years before, i.e. at the end of the 18th century, under the Ty Sơn reign.

 

B)  REMARKS:

 

             1-  Pigneau was both a bishop (high-ranking among the forbidden Evangelists) and a French (alien aggressor); he also was a supporter of Nguyễn Phc nh, the enemy, and a leader of the local believers;  however, King Cảnh-Thịnh only aimed at the faithful (mere followers) prior to the ringleaders?  Besides, bishop Jean De Labartelle, a dignitary (the kings much more-wanted adversary, because bishops are more important than priests and followers), could still remain safe in Di Lun Village (Quảng Trị), the vulnerable zone, not far from the La Vang hide-out?  And he had not written anything to Roma about the apparitions just at that time (1798) in La Vang, his operational area?

 

             2-  More strange is that even the very Catholics who came from the villages of Tr Bưu (yes, Tr Bưu or Cổ Vưu), Thạch Hn and Hạnh Hoa to La Vang as refugees and who, according to the legend, had allegedly seen the Madonna appear and heard Her promise to protect them, at the very time of her apparitions in 1798, did not build even a small altar for Her; and people had to wait for more than two decades later (1820-1840) for inhabitants of various religions from two other villages, Ba Trừ and Cổ Thnh, to come there and join the Catholics of Thạch Hn Village in La Vang to build a pagoda, naming it Cha Ba Lng Three Villages Pagoda (even though called miếu, joss-house, in some articles) to worship a Lady that they initially considered not to be the Catholics Lady (only until later they heard say that it was the Virgin Mary and then yielded it to the Catholic side).

 

             *NOTE 4:  Is it believable, that under King Minh Mạng, while the ban on Catholicism was getting more and more cruel, and hundreds of Catholics (including Priest Marchand brought up from as far as Gia Định in the Southern Region) had been captured and killed, there still was a vicar in charge of Tr Bưu (Cổ Vưu) safely living near the refuge of La Vang (Quảng Trị) for the followers from in there to come out to him to report on the situation?  

 

             *NOTE 5:  Is it believable, that there was the presence of a vicar in the parish of Tr Bưu (including La Vang, which was the refuge for Catholics from the three above-mentioned villages and from many other areas such as 60 kilometers away namely Huế), but that vicar had not heard the rumor already spread since 1798, and had waited until more than two decades later (1820-1840) for him to be able to learn the apparitions of a sacred lady only four kilometers from him, and for the villagers to come to report to him that they themselves had just agreed to yield that site to the Catholic side?

 

             3-  Bishop Caspar decided to build a temple for the Blessed Virgin in 1886 (after the French colonialists had established their domination over Vietnam since 1884), that means he had enjoyed freedom in the new situation (the Catholics gained the upper hand), he could of course have carefully studied the La Vang event, but he finally did not leave any written document (either an official report to the Vatican or a simple phrase in his personal diary) on the Ladys apparitions in La Vang:  is it not that he himself considered it unbelievable?  

 

             4-  The readers can see right away that the Tr Bưu Vicar only took advantage of the critical time when the old-aged believers were going to die and were eager to have their souls received into Paradise (which they had been promised to, and afraid that the vicar would not allow them to go there) to insist that they must swear*6 that they had heard parents and even grandparents mention the Virgin Marys apparitions, some 100 years in the past.  Only one simple word Yes without any details.  Why did not this swearing take place before 1885, since the La Vang Catholics had already been able to publicly turn the Buddhas temple into the Gods house during 1820-1840, more than 40-60 years earlier?  And why did not the vicar ask the young and healthy believers for such an answer?  Surely the reason was that this initiative only just arose in 1885 (pro-French Đồng Khnh enthroned king); they saw that there were no more living people so aged as 100 years old at that time to know and say anything against the alleged event about nearly 100 years before.

 

             *NOTE 6:  The purpose of the vicars forcing the followers to swear so was to base on it to set up files on the apparitions; and he had to do so because from 1798 to 1885 (when Đồng Khnh was crowned king), during those 87 long years, there had been no documentation of the Virgin Marys apparitions, although it was later said that the apparitions happened in 1798, the pagoda was yielded to the Catholic side in the period of 1820-1840.  And why had there been no related documents, since at least one letter by Fr. Lrens Lu about his visiting Cổ Vưu (Tr Bưu) could have already been sent to Roma in 1691 (more than one hundred years earlier than the apparitions), and since the Vatican could have already been able to directly resolve the La Vang internal problems during the period of 1717-1739 (more than half a century before the apparitions)?

 

             Let me answer:  Because the truth is that there had been no apparitions of the Catholics Virgin Mary in La Vang. 

             About this, I had read a document before 1975; but, after the Vietnamese Communists controlled South Vietnam (April 30, 1975), they launched a campaign to destroy all so-called slavish and depraved cultural works, I lost my bookcase. 

             At the beginning of 1998, especially on June 19, 1998, when Pope John Paul II publicly recognized the importance of Our Lady of La Vang and expressed desire to rebuild the La Vang Basilica in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the first vision, I published an article on some Internet newsgroups, including, as I remember, the English-language vnforum@vnforum.org moderated by Dr. Trần Đnh Honh, to reject the Yes answer of the dying old-aged believers on which the Tr Bưu Vicar based to report about the apparitions.

             Subsequently, Pope John Paul II himself, two months later, through LOsservatore Romano, on August 12, 1998, was really honest and straightforward to confirm that: Unfortunately, there is no written documentation of these apparitions (of the Virgin Mary in La Vang). (The Vatican's weekly took some time to reach Vietnamese readers.)

             By chance, engrossed in zealously contributing to the coming Bicentenary, one of the involved Catholic personages, Mr. Nguyễn L Tưởng frankly wrote and published, on August 15, 1998 as quoted above:  The Tr Bưu (Cổ Vưu) Parish priest asked the local old-aged believers when these were on their deathbed, awaiting exoneration and anointment: You must swear to say the truth, did you hear your parents, grand-parents, in the past mention something concerning the Virgin Marys Apparitions in La Vang? All those persons answered Yes and The event happened nearly 100 years ago. The Virgin Mary had appeared about 100 years earlier. Afraid of not being allowed to go to the paradise, those witnesses had to answer Yes to things supposedly happening long, very long even before they had been born. They themselves did not see (witness) anything. This explains why the Vatican negated it.              

             

             However, they still defended themselves by saying that such documents were perhaps kept in the Hu church archives, which were destroyed during two local wars: in 1833, under King Minh Mang, and in 1861, in the reign of King Tuduc*7.  They pretended to assume that nobody had been able to send anything out of Hu and Vietnam during 42 long years (from 1798 to 1840 when Minh Mạng died); and they forgot about the period of 18 years (1802-1819) in the reign of King Gia Long, who did not lay emphasis on the ban on Catholicism because he owed the French a debt of gratitude; moreover, they turned away from the fact that the French did dominate Vietnam during 61 long years (1884-1945) and considered these Catholic colonialists as not knowing how to serve the Madonna right in their own colony, especially after the apparitions in Lourdes, France, in 1858, and in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917!

 

             5-  We also met with a strange imagimation:  While the other writings affirmed that only until 1820-1840 the Catholics in La Vang could hear the rumor of Our Ladys apparitions in the old days, Trần Văn Tr in his article The La Vangs Spirit published in The Crier Magazine No. 832 wrote:  Suddenly (in 1798) they saw a beautiful overcoated lady appearing near a big banyan, whom they recognized right away to be the Virgin Mary.

             Those witnesses had recognized right on the spot in 1798 that the lady was the Virgin Mary, yet the Catholics must wait until 22-42 years later (1820-1840) to hear the rumor, to build the pagoda, while still not to discuss the Sacred Ladys belonging to our side; and at that very time (1798) Bishop Jean De Labartelle himself was present in the local province, but he did not gather either evidence or written documents relating to this matter to keep as archives.  That sole detail suffices to nullify all the other details of the apparitions.

 

             The same as in the other writings, everything was merely hearsay, rumor, legend, and each time with certain different and contradictory details.

 

             6-  Moreover, we have got a precious foreign source of history, not of Our Lady but of the Banyan Tree:  Fr. Pierro Gheddo, when writing about the Virgin Marys apparitions in La Vang and the persecutions of Catholics in Vietnam, entitled his book The Cross and the Bo-Tree.

             Fr. Pierro Gheddo was so exact to call the great and old tree by its name, Bo (Bồ Để) Tree instead of Banyan Tree.  Bồ Đề Trees are usually trees of pagodas, of the Buddha; and, obviously, the Catholics Virgin Mary never wanted to approach it, let alone used it as a meeting place to appear before her believers!

             Anyhow, the banyan tree here undoubtedly belonged to the non-Catholic side, at that time as well as at present; and those La Vang inhabitants who came there to pray were polytheists (even worshipping ghosts and devils, the flickering silhouettes now and then appearing at the banian trees), very long before the Catholics came to take refuge there, and only much later did they hear the rumor of the Sacred Lady...

 

             7-  Trần Văn Tr in The La Vangs Spirit in The Town Crier Magazine No. 832 dated 3-28-98 wrote: The Bishops of South Vietnam [then divided from North Vietnam], on April 13, 1961, assembled in Hu, made a vow to the Immaculate Heart of Mary to consecrate the La Vang Temple to the Blessed Virgin, and recognized it as a national Marian Centre.  But the Vaticans LOsservatore Romano on August 12-19, 1998 wrote:  In their joint Letter of 8 August of the same year (1961), La Vang was recognized as a national Marian Centre.  

             Then, was it on 4-13-61 or on 8-8-61 that La Vang became a national Marian Centre?

 

             *NOTE 7:  They said that the written documentation of these apparitions were perhaps kept in the Hu church archives, which were destroyed during two local wars:  in 1833 under King Minh Mang, and in 1861 in the reign of King Tu Duc.  But, in truth, in 1833 the royal court only had to quell Nong Van Vans revolt at Lang Son and Cao Bang far in the Northern Region, and Le Van Khois revolt at Gia Dinh far in the Southern Region; and in 1861 the French and Spanish troops came to Quang Nam Province, far from Hu and Thua Thien Province, and incited Ta Van Phung to rebel at Quang Yen, far in the Northern Region.  During those times, Hu, the capital, was quite safe:  how could the documents kept in the Hu church be destroyed?  

 

             Besides, the written documentation of these apparitions, if any, should have been preserved in many other places than only in the Hu church.  

             Even Nguyễn Văn Thng wrote:  About those historic documents, we have so many to collate with... such historic documents as handwritten letters, lists of fellow-believers..., reports from each evangelizing areas sent to the Evangelization Ministry in Roma, to Paris, to the Jesuit and Dominican Monasteries with branches in Macao, Penang, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand...

             And, as Nguyễn L Tưởng wrote:  Fr. Stanilas Nguyễn Văn Ngọc quoted a passage in Fr. Lrens Lus letter about his visit to Cổ Vưu (Tr Bưu) in Dinh Ct (Quảng Trị) area, dated 2-17-1691 that was sent to Roma, this shows obviously that reports from Dinh Ct area (including La Vang) had definitely been sent to and evidently reached Roma, more than one century (1691-1798) before the so-called Our Ladys Apparitions in La Vang event.  

             Additionally, Trần Văn Tr also wrote:  A Few Historical Features of La Vang: 1717-1739: there happened certain disorder that the Vatican had to directly interfere...:  This, once more, shows patently that the Vatican had already had a thorough grasp of the situation in La Vang since more than half a century (1739-1798) before the so-called apparitions.

 

             In short, evidence of the Virgin Marys Apparitions in La Vang, if any, must have been present in the Vatican about one and a half century (since 1691), before the first of the two wars in 1833 and 1861, which LOsservatore Romano blamed for destroying written documentation (Ref Part VIII).

 

             8-  Finally, people might say that the French colonialists, and also the Chirstian dignitaries of various nationalities, during at least one-and-a-half centuries long (1798-1945) were indeed so honest as to not recognize the La Vang Apparitions, merely because it was groundless, nobody ever eye-witnessed the Virgin Mary appearing.  And only until Catholic Ng Đnh Diệm had been made Premier then President of the Republic of Vietnam (1954-1963) could this issue be brought to the highlights.           

            

             Irrefutably, the Vaticans stand on this issue mainly depended on the reports and proposals from its local servers and representatives who were at that time mostly influenced by President Ng Đnh Diệm and his brother, Archbishop Ng Đnh Thục, of South Vietnam.

 

ĐỨC CỐ L

LaVang                                                 Chapter VI