It is always tricky writing about “the best” or “the most XYZ” song. But this year marks the centenary of the Marian apparitions in Fátima, and more Vietnamese Americans travelled to Portugal than any previous year. It made me think of the song Lời Mẹ Nhắn Nhủ [Words of Our Lady], better known by its informal title Năm Xưa Trên Cây Sồi [Years Ago on an Oak Tree]. I’m not very keen on awards, especially awards of recent productions. But I’m more open to retrospective awards. Were there an award for the category “the most devotional Marian song or hymn written in Vietnamese in the twentieth century,” I’d vote for this song.
Before getting to NXTCS, it is imperative to state that there are many worthy candidates among hundreds of Vietnamese songs and hymns written about Mary. Here are a few other possibilities for the top spot.
On any short list should include Xin Vâng [Saying Yes] by Mi Trầm. In this song, the singer appeals to Mary to “teach me to say yes” to the will of God. A priest of the Diocese of Nha Trang, Mi Trầm was ordained a few months after the Fall of Saigon. I am not completely certain, but I think he wrote this song after his ordination. If true, it’s the only one in my short list that was written after 1975.
Other candidates should include Kìa Bà Nào [Who Is That Lady?] and Nữ Vương Hòa Bình [Queen of Peace], both composed during the Marian Year of 1958. Authored by the Redemptorist priest Hoàng Diệp, the first song was clearly inspired by Our Lady of Fátima because some of the lyrics are taken directly from the testimonies of the three Portuguese children. The first line is, Kìa Bà nào đang tiến lên như rạng đông: Who is that Lady, moving forward like a sunrise? And also rực rỡ như mặt trời: (she is) as bright as the sun.
The second song was written by Hải Linh, rare for being a layman in a field dominated by priests. Nữ Vương Hòa Bình is also one of the most sophisticated compositions in Vietnamese Catholic music, most appropriate for large choirs and/or solemn Marian feasts.
Faster and easier to memorize than both of the above is the tuneful Cung Chúc Trinh Vương [Praising the Immaculate Queen]. It begins with a praise of the doctrine of the immaculate conception and rhymes “Maria” and “Fátima” in the refrain.
Another tuneful number is Dâng Mẹ [Honor Our Lady], and it also opens by referencing two other Marian doctrines, Mother of God and the Virgin Birth. So tuneful and popular is this songs that I think it’s the closest rival to my nomination.
Why, then, is NXTCS? The author of this song is the priest Giuse Nguyễn Văn Ký, better known by his pen name Huyền Linh (1927-2003). (There is another musician of the same name that was born in the same year and, I believe, is still alive in Vietnam.) This song was his first published composition, and he wrote in 1946 when still in the seminary. Besides its appealing musicality to Catholic villagers and urbanites alike, I think there have been at least two reasons for its popularity: directness of lyrics and an underlying anticommunism.
First are the lyrics. Take the opening verse, which are short, simple, direct, and easy to remember. The eight lines of the verse follows a pattern of “five vowels then six vowels.”
Năm xưa trên cây sồi
Làng Fatima xa xôi,
Có Đức Mẹ Chúa Trời
Hiện ra uy linh sáng chói,
Mẹ nhắn nhủ người đời
Hãy mau ăn năn đền bồi,
Hãy tôn sùng mẫu tâm,
Hãy năng lần hạt mân côi.
Years ago on an oak tree
In the distant village of Fátima,
Our Lady, Mother of God,
Appeared brilliant and holy,
She urged humanity
To hasten repentance,
To revere her immaculate heart,
To pray the rosary often.
The verse ends “boom, boom, boom”: repent, revere, rosary! Vietnamese Catholicism has been heavily hierarchical, and the first verse reinforces the constant preaching of priests, and pleading from important lay men and women, on the Fátima messages.
With the refrain, the song shifts from order to pleading. The last lines of the refrain also shifts from Marian universalism to nationalist particularism.
Mẹ Maria ôi, Mẹ Maria ôi.
Con vâng nghe Mẹ rồi,
Sớm chiều từ nay thống hối.
Mẹ Maria ôi,
Xin Mẹ đoái thương nhậm lời,
Cho nước Việt xinh tươi
Đức tin sáng ngời.
Oh Mary, Our Lady!
I have obeyed you,
I repent day and night from now on!
Oh Mary, Our Lady!
Have mercy and listen to our prayer,
Make the Vietnamese country beautiful,
Its faith [in God] shining.
The sequence continues from Marian order (verse 1) to promise of obedience (refrain) to hope for the future (verse 2).
Đôi môi như hoa cười
Mẹ Maria vui tươi.
Có biết bao lớp người
Từ xa đua nhau bước tới,
Lòng trút khỏi ngậm ngùi,
Mắt khô đôi suối lệ đời,
Ngước trông về mẫu tâm
Sống bên tình Mẹ yên vui.
Her lips like smiling flowers,
Our Lady is joyful.
So many people
Coming to her from afar,
Their sorrow relieved,
Their eyes dried,
Looking to the immaculate heart,
Living in the love of Our Lady.
The song isn’t perfect, as the first line of the second verse is a false note. How often have you seen Vietnamese representations of a smiling Our Lady? But let it pass because it is relatively minor.
Better is the image of the faithful, anguished by human sinfulness, reaching Our Lady in masses. The devotional revolution of the nineteenth century saw a shift from an emphasis on reparation to an emphasis on love and mercy. I think there was quite a bit of “reparation” from the Fátima messages, especially in relations to the communist threat during the last century. By and large, though, the song is in line with the devotional revolution thanks to the second verse.
While the song is still widely sung and appreciated today, its historical popularity should be understood also in the context of Catholic anticommunism, at least until the fall of the Soviet bloc in the early 1990s. It is something of a consensus among academic historians that the far-reaching popularity of twentieth-century devotion to Our Lady of Fátima had a lot to do with the rise and growth of communism in Europe and Asia.
Starting with Portuguese during the 1930s, they noted the relative peacefulness of their country in comparison to the brutal civil warfare in neighboring Spain, especially regarding the deaths of priests and nuns at the hands of the USSR-supported Republicans. Half a million of Portuguese travelled to Fátima to thank the Virgin Mary for protecting their country from communism. The fact that the country was largely spared from the devastation of WWII further reinforced their belief during and after the 1940s.
Outside of Portugal, the Fátima messages also influenced the anticommunism of Catholics in North America and other Western European countries. Fulton Sheen, the television bishop, made ten pilgrimages to Fátima (in addition to thirty trips to Lourdes). Members of the worldwide organization Blue Army of Our Lady of Fátima – their color provided a perfect visual contrast to the redness of Soviet and Chinese communism – prayed for the conversion of Russia to the Immaculate Heart. The founding of the organization began in the U.S. in 1947 illustrates the intense overlapping between Catholicism and anticommunism during the first years of the Cold War era.
In divided Vietnam, the highlight of Vietnamese Catholicism and the Fátima messages was the visit of one of a few official statues of Our Lady of Fátima to South Vietnam in 1965. Originally scheduled for a three-month visit, this particular statue came from the Blue Army chapter in Australia and ended up traveling the country until 1967. It was known as the “immaculate heart” statue because it puts her heart on the outside.
The Blue Army itself was not as popular in South Vietnam as most other global associations, probably because there were already a number of well-established sodalities and devotional associations, especially Legio Maria that began in Ireland. But the Fátima lore was very well propagated and its devotion heavily promoted among the Catholic faithful. Songs such as NXTCS – I’d even say especially NXTCS – played a significant role in the promotion and perpetuation of this particular devotion. It continued well after 1975 in both Vietnam and the diaspora.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that Xin Vâng is probably the most oft-sung Marian song today. Nonetheless, for reasons both musical and historical, I think that NXTCS has been the most significant devotional song about Mary in the Vietnamese language.