Catholics in Vietnam are praying that two French-born bishops will one day be declared saints.
On January 13, some 20,000 people attended a Mass in the Diocese of Phan Thiet, near Ho Chi Minh City, formally opening the beatification process of Bishop Pierre Lambert de la Motte (1624-1679). Bishop Lambert, along with Bishop François Pallu (1626-1684), founded the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris (MEP, for Société des Missions Etrangères de Paris). They are considered to be among the founders of the Church in Vietnam.
If they are eventually canonized, they would not be, of course, the first Catholics affiliated with Vietnam to be recognized as saints. In 1988, Pope St. John Paul II canonized St. Andrew Dung-Lac and Companions, otherwise known as the Vietnamese Martyrs. This group of saints includes 10 French members of the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris, the same order Bishops Lambert and Pallu founded.
Although Bishop Lambert died in Ayutthaya, the capital of the Kingdom of Siam, now in Thailand, the Archbishop of Bangkok, with the consent of the Holy See, transferred canonical jurisdiction over the beatification process to the Diocese of Phan Thiet.
In a statement, the bishops of Vietnam said that Bishop Lambert “sowed the Gospel and bore fruit in communities that kept the faith alive despite the many difficulties they experienced over the centuries.”
In a homily at the opening ceremony, Archbishop Joseph Nguyen Chi Linh of Hue said: “In a life of only 55 years, including 19 years as a bishop, although he was only able to visit Vietnam three times, Bishop de la Motte made significant contributions to the Church in Vietnam. The Catholic Church in Vietnam would not have grown and developed as it is today (27 dioceses with more than 50 bishops, 4,000 priests and 10,000 religious) without Lambert’s contribution.”
Lambert (in photo above) was born January 16, 1624, in Normandy and was ordained a priest on December 27, 1655. He was recruited to become a missionary in Asia, together with Pallu and Ignace Cotolendi.
In 1658, Pope Alexander VII appointed him as the first Apostolic Vicar of Cochin – the term then used for Vietnam – and he was consecrated bishop. Lambert, Pallu and Cotolendi left to go to their respective missions, actually crossing Persia and India by foot, because Portugal would have refused to take non-Portuguese missionaries by ship, and the Dutch and the English refused to take Catholic missionaries.
Lambert reached Mergui in Siam in 1662, and Pallu joined Lambert in Ayutthaya after 24 months overland. Cotolendi died on the way, in India.
Lambert and Pallu founded a seminary in Ayutthaya. Lambert went to Tonkin, the northern region of Vietnam, together with two secular priests to establish a church. There, in 1670, he founded the congregation of the Lovers of the Holy Cross, which is dedicated to contemplative prayer and active apostolate, such as teaching catechism and visiting the sick and poor.
An early chronicle tells of two miraculous events in Lambert’s life in the East: bringing back to life a 10-month-old girl who had died and freeing a possessed woman.
Fathers of martyrs
Meanwhile, the diocesan investigation into the cause of canonization of Bishop Pallu was opened on October 29, 2023, in Hanoi in the presence of the bishops of Vietnam and the Apostolic Delegate representing the Holy See, as well as Fr. Vincent Sénéchal, the Superior General of the Society for Foreign Missions in Paris.
“We wish that this missionary be declared a saint so that we can follow his example of evangelization and call on him to give us inspiration and passion for the proclamation of the Gospel,” said Archbishop Joseph Nguyen Nang, president of the Vietnamese Episcopal Conference.
Pallu, born in Tours in 1626, was ordained a bishop in Rome in St. Peter’s Basilica and appointed Vicar Apostolic of Tonkin and administrator of the provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou, Hou Kouang, Sichuan, Guangxi in China and Laos.
“Bishop François Pallu was very concerned about the mission entrusted to him. He tried several times in vain to get to Tonkin,” said Joseph Vu Van Thien, Archbishop of Hanoi. Though he got as far as Ayutthaya, Pallu was unable to set foot in the Vicariate of Tonkin due to severe persecution. He concentrated his mission in Ayutthaya, where he trained candidates for the priesthood from China, Siam and Vietnam to lead local churches.
Msgr. Joseph Do Manh Hung, Secretary General of the Vietnamese Bishops’ Conference, said that Pallu worked to establish ties between the Holy See and Vietnam. “Thanks to him, the local Church is still united today,” he told Fides, the information service of the Pontifical Mission Societies.
Pallu died on October 29, 1684, in China’s Fujian Province and was buried in a place known to Christians as the “Holy Mountain.” In August 1912, with the permission of the Seminary of Foreign Missions and the Vicar Apostolic of Fujian, his ashes were transferred to the Nazareth retirement home in Hong Kong. They were returned to Paris on March 4, 1954.
The seminary built by Bishops Pallu and Lambert was moved from place to place over the years and finally moved to Malaysia in 1809. In 1979, the MEP missionaries handed over management of the seminary to the local Church. Now known as the College General, it has trained more than 1,000 priests. It is also known as the “College of Martyrs,” as 47 seminarians trained there have suffered martyrdom, including five saints and one blessed.
Religious freedom today
The 2023 annual report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom said that religious freedom conditions in Vietnam worsened in 2022, even for government-registered groups such as the Roman Catholic Church.
“Harassment of Catholic communities also increased, the report from USCIRF said. “In February, officials from Vu Ban, Hoa Binh Province, disrupted a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Joseph Vu Van Thien of Hanoi and other priests. The Hanoi Archdiocese delivered a formal letter of complaint to the provincial government, protesting the local authorities’ frequent harassment and urging them to respect the religious freedom of Catholics in that province. Additionally, land disputes between Catholics and local governments persisted.”
Unlike the People’s Republic of China, the Vietnamese regime has never cut ties with the Holy See, and an episcopal hierarchy has been maintained, though the appointment of bishops requires an agreement with the communist government.
But the Holy See clearly wishes to engage the Vietnamese government and has been working for years to upgrade the status of relations between the two entities. Two days before Christmas, Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Marek Zalewski, the papal nuncio in Singapore, as the first “pontifical resident representative” in Vietnam. Creation of the position was announced last July. Vietnam does not have an apostolic nunciature.
Vietnam has a population of over 100 million people and the vast majority, around 86% according to 2019 estimates, do not identify with any religion. Catholicism is the religion with the largest number of faithful, representing some 6% of the population.
In December, President Võ Văn Thưởng formally invited Pope Francis to visit Vietnam. In early January, the pope received a delegation from the Communist Party of Vietnam, led by Lê Hoài Trung, who chairs the party’s Commission for External Relations.
With a trip to Vietnam planned for April by Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, Vatican Secretary for Relations with States, and a visit to the country by the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, by the end of the year, there has been more and more talk of an eventual papal visit.
“We will do things gradually,” Archbishop Gallagher said, according to Asia News. “I think there will be a visit. But there are a couple of steps to take before this is appropriate.”
“I think the pope is keen to go,” he added, saying, “Certainly the Catholic community is keen for the pope to go and thinks it would be a very good message for the whole region.”