By Jack Smith
CARTHAGE, Mo. — Marian Days has all the markings of a Midwest county fair. It’s crowded and hot. People carry around ice cream, Popsicles, funnel cakes and specialty foods. There are concessions, food stalls and bands playing loud music. And there are long lines.
Except at this fair, the specialty foods have names like phở, bún and bánh mì; the bands are singing to Jesus and Mary; the concessions are selling rosaries and CDs from singing priests, and the lines are for confession.
Marian Days is an annual gathering of Vietnamese Catholics from throughout the United States and Canada, which, since its inception in 1978, has grown to become the largest annual gathering of Catholics in the United States.
They come here for many reasons. Luat Tran of Arlington, Texas, summed them up, “God, Mary and family camp-out.” Tran told Our Sunday Visitor that Marian days “is a time for us to honor Mary for all the blessings God gave us. It’s a time to reconcile with God, and it’s a time for families to reunite.”
It’s also a time for mutual support. Tran and others from Vietnamese Martyrs Parish were running a large food concession to raise money for the construction of a new church. The community currently worships in a converted Food Lion grocery story, which seats 800.
Vietnamese Martyrs’ director of religious education, Sister M. Julianna, explained that with 4,000 people worshipping each Sunday, each of the four Masses is standing room only. A new, larger church is due to be completed next year at a cost of $7 million, she said.
Thang Tran of St. Andrew Dung-Lac Parish in Oklahoma City was also working at a food concession to help raise money for a larger church. Thang said his parish comes to Marian Days every year. While recognizing the cultural and social aspects of Marian Days, he said faith is the most important reason he comes.
“We are Catholic, and this is a very, very special event,” Thang said. “We really have a special love for the Virgin Mary. We come here to pray.”
Altogether this year, more than 60,000 Vietnamese Catholics traveled to Carthage, population 12,668, to pray, to be reconciled to God, to be reunited as a community and to honor Mary.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, tens of thousands of Vietnamese began to flee their country, and many found their way into one of four large refugee camps in the United States. Among them were 170 priests and brothers of the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix.
The Vietnamese religious were split between camps in Fort Chaffee, Ark., and Camp Pendleton in California, according to the congregation’s Provincial Secretary Father Phillip Do.
“There was no American family who could sponsor 170 people. They would have to divide up into small groups,” Father Do said, and that prospect could have meant “the termination of the congregation.”
Cardinal Bernard Law, then bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo., came to the rescue. He agreed to sponsor all 170 members of the congregation and gave them the use of a closed college within his diocese at Carthage.
The congregation was founded in Vietnam in 1952 with a charism to evangelize non-Catholic Vietnamese, Father Do told OSV. Now, in their new country, they would have to have a different focus.
At the time, the members of the congregation were unable to have contact with their provincial in Vietnam. The Vatican, at the behest of Bishop Law, created the group in Carthage as a new province with a new mission to serve Vietnamese Catholics in the United States.
In 1978, Bishop Law suggested to the new province that it organize a one-day retreat for local Vietnamese Catholics and fashion it in part to honor the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Father Do explained. That first event attracted 1,000 people, and although it did not yet have a name, it is counted as the inaugural Marian Days.
Like many at Marian Days, Father Do found his way to Carthage through the congregation’s Immaculate Heart of Mary magazine. With more than 10,000 subscribers, the magazine is an important way of sharing information with Vietnamese Catholics throughout the United States.
The popularity of the magazine has been instrumental in publicizing Marian Days. After the first event, Father Do said, attendance grew exponentially to 10,000 and then 20,000. It has now reached a stasis at about 50,000 to 55,000, although, this year more than 60,000 came.
While the first event was only a one-day retreat, Marian Days is now held over a span of four days on the first full weekend of August.
Most people who attend Marian Days stay in tents on the congregation’s campus, but hotels in Carthage and in nearby Joplin are also bursting with pilgrims. It is a family time and a time of prayer, and while there are a few police who monitor traffic and patrol the area, there is no need to keep the peace.
Each day, there is a large outdoor Mass celebrated by an American or visiting Vietnamese bishop and concelebrated by hundreds of priests. Nearly everyone attends, bringing their own lawn chairs.
During the day there are many conferences and workshops, and all day long, hundreds are lined up in the hot sun for about a dozen outdoor confessionals. Among the concessions are numerous religious orders and seminaries seeking vocations.
Father Martino Nguyen of St. Teresa of Avila Parish in Augusta, Ga., held about 5,000 teens and twentysomethings in rapt attention for an hour and a half as he discussed sex. His talk in English was punctuated with songs and joking asides in Vietnamese that had the audience in stitches.
“I’m here to tell you what to do with your sexuality, not what not to do. ... I want you to do it and do it right,” Father Martino said in a sometimes irreverent presentation that nonetheless got the point across.
“If sex is good, why is premarital sex bad?” Father Martino asked. “When you don’t use the gift right, it’s wrong — even in your marriage,” he said.
The young priest, who was engaged to be married before his fiancée insisted he test his vocation, laid much responsibility on young women in maintaining virtue in dating. “If I say I’m a virgin, I have to give 80 percent of the credit to my fiancée,” he said to howls of laughter.
Though there are many reasons Vietnamese Catholics travel to Marian Days, there is only one purpose for the congregation that puts it on.
“The spiritual purpose,” Father Do told OSV.
Marian Days is “a time for people to redirect their lives to God through Mary.” If it did not serve that spiritual purpose, the congregation would not sponsor Marian Days, he said. “That is the only reason — because of the spiritual benefit.”
A key indicator for Father Do that Marian Days is fulfilling its purpose is the large number of people who seek the Sacrament of Reconciliation. “Long, long lines of people go to confession,” Father Do said. “They want to meet God.”
Priests who hear confession report that “for some, it’s so long since they’ve been to confession — sometimes 30 years,” he said. “They’re Catholic, but they don’t practice their faith.”
There are many who end up deriving a spiritual benefit who, “perhaps, when they came they had no intention for that, but perhaps for a social gathering or entertainment or a weekend away,” Father Do said. “But when they come here, they’re drawn into that dimension.” As long as that keeps happening, Father Do said, he will consider Marian Days a success.
When asked why the communities of Vietnamese Catholics continue to grow and why Vietnamese are overrepresented among seminarians and priests in the United States, Father Do replied: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians. I really do believe that.”
Those words were echoed later that day by Lincoln, Neb., Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz in his homily for the Mass of the Holy Martyrs of Vietnam. Later, he honored “the great legacy” the many martyrs of Vietnam have passed on, “not just to Vietnam and people of Vietnamese origin and extraction, but that they have passed on, indeed, to the whole Catholic world and even beyond.”
Jack Smith is editor of The Catholic Key, the diocesan newspaper of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo.
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