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 and food stalls and bands playing loud music, and there are long lines.
Except at this fair, the specialty foods have names like pho, 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 the sacrament of penance.
Marian Days is an annual gathering of Vietnamese Catholics from throughout the US and Canada, which since it’s inception in 1978, has grown to become the largest annual gathering of Catholics in the US.
They come here for many reasons. Luat Tran of Arlington, TX, said.
“God, Mary and family camp-out.” Tran says 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 re-unite.”
It’s also a time for mutual support. Tran and others from his parish of the Vietnamese Martyrs 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 which seats 800.
Vietnamese Martyrs’ parish Director of Religious Education, Sr. 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, who was married just three weeks ago, 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 attends.
“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.”
This year, an estimated 75,000-plus pilgrims, mostly Vietnamese Catholics travelled to Carthage MO, population 12,668, to pray, be reconciled to God, re-unite as a community, and to honor Mary.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, tens of thousands of Vietnamese began to flee the country and many found their way into one of four large refugee camps in the US. 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, AR and Camp Pendleton in California, according to the Congregation’s Provincial Secretary Fr. Phillip Do, CMC.
“There was no American family who could sponsor 170 people,” Fr. Do said. “They would have to divide up into small groups,” Fr. Do said, and that prospect could have meant “the termination of the Congregation.”
Card. Bernard Law, then Bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, 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.
A portrait of a young Bp. Law hangs in a place of honor in the Congregation’s main building adjacent to a portrait of Congregation’s founder, Most Reverend Dominic Maria Tran Dình Thu, CMC.
The Congregation was founded in Vietnam in 1952 with a charism to evangelize non-Catholic Vietnamese, Fr. Do explained. 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 Bp. Law, created the group in Carthage as a new province with a new mission to serve Vietnamese Catholics in the US
In 1978, Bp. 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, Fr. 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”.
Growth and purpose
Like many at Marian Days, Fr. Do found his way to Carthage through the Congregation’s Immaculate Heart of Mary magazine. With over 10,000 subscribers, the magazine is an important way of sharing information with Vietnamese Catholics throughout the US.
Young Phillip Do came to the US with his family from Vietnam in 1972. From a very young age “I had the desire to become a priest or religious, but I did not have that opportunity in Vietnam.”
After attending high school in the US, Do continued to have a desire to be a priest. “The only magazine I had was from this Congregation,” Fr. Do said. So he went to Carthage and was accepted. He made his first profession in 1996 and was ordained to the priesthood in 2008.
The popularity of the magazine has also been instrumental in publicizing Marian Days. After the first event, Fr. Do said, attendance grew exponentially to 10,000 and then 20,000.
While the first event was only a one-day retreat, Marian Days is now held over a span of four days. It originally took place in winter, but people “complained it was too cold,” Fr. Do said. Then it was celebrated on and around the Feast of the Assumption on Aug. 15, but many were unable to attend because some school districts were already in session. Marian Days is now celebrated on the first full weekend of August.
Tent city, workshops
Most people who attend Marian Days stay in tents on the Congregation’s campus, but hotels in Carthage and in nearby Joplin also burst with pilgrims. One of the rules on campus is no liquor. 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 generally 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.
Fr. Martino Nguyen begin_of_the_skype_highlighting end_of_the_skype_highlighting of St. Teresa of Avila Parish in Augusta, GA, held about 5,000 teens and twenty-somethings 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 which had the audience in stitches.
Fr. Martino repeatedly referred to the Vietnamese word “suong”, which he defined as the highest great feeling, physically and spiritually. Sex results in suong, he said, but only when used in the right context does it lead to lasting suong for both partners. Outside of marriage, sex can lead to slavery and not suong, he said.
The young priest who was engaged to be married before his fiancé 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 fiancé,” 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,” Fr. Do said.
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 Fr. Do that Marian Days is fulfilling its purpose is the large number of people who utilize the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. “Long, long lines of people go to confession,” Fr. 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,” Fr. Do 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,” Fr. Do said, “But when they come here, they’re drawn into that dimension.” As long as that keeps happening, Fr. Do said, he will consider Marian Days a success.
A reporter asked Fr. Do why the communities of Vietnamese Catholics continue to grow and why Vietnamese are overrepresented among seminarians and priests in the US. Without hesitation, Fr. Do said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians. I really do believe that.”
Those words were echoed later that day by Bp. Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, NE, 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.”