Engagement between precolonial and colonial Vietnam and global Catholicism has been one of the major themes in the historical scholarship about Vietnamese Catholics. In addition to Charles Keith’s ground-breaking monograph Catholic Vietnam, George Dutton’s recent book on the Jesuit Philiphê Bỉnh has made much of this point. Other publications in the last fifteen years may or may not claim this point, but their findings indicate nearly as much. It is further related to the theme of inculturation among scholars of religious studies, including Peter Phan’s Mission and Catechesis and Anh Q. Tran’s brand new Gods, Heroes, and Ancestors.
Intuitively sensible and historiographically exciting, this “global turn” also reflects the broader global turn among historians in the last two decades. There is the global turn in the history of science. There is the global turn in art history. There is the global turn in the Philippine historiography. Everywhere you look, it seems, the global turn is the rage in the new millennium.
But there is plenty of criticism of the global turn, as it should be of any scholarly trend. See, for instance, this even-handed take by David Bell at Princeton. Reviewing the edited volume A World Connecting: 1870–1945, Bell points out the good and the bad of the global turn, but especially the bad. One example is commodities. “For all its copious statistics on commodity flows,” writes Bell, “the book also has surprisingly little to say about how commodities were actually used, and about daily life in general.” Another is the subject of war, “the single greatest absence from the volume.” Bell singles out the book’s surprising lacuna on the two world wars, criticizing as if turning “the bad” into “the ugly.” (The review provoked a response from Marc-William Palen at University of Exeter, with Bell given a chance to respond to the response.)
My concern here is the global connections of the devotional and associational culture among Catholics in Vietnam and the diaspora. Except for some terrific information and analysis in Charles Keith’s book, much of this topic remains unexplored. Yet it is remarkable to look at the parish level today and note the global origins of sodalities, confraternities, and other organizations.
Within a typical parish, mission, or community, the most visible organization is the choir. These choirs are rooted in the European tradition of choral sacred music, but developed their own features since at least the 1940s. Besides the choir are the activities of some of the following sodalities and confraternities. Most of these organizations could be traced to European Catholicism: a result of the ultramontane and Catholic Action movements during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
- Hội Các Bà Mẹ Công Giáo: Confraternity of Christian Mothers. Begun in Lille, France in 1850 and approved by the Vatican only six years later, this organization was formalized in South Vietnam during the late 1950s. It is somewhat unique among Vietnamese Catholics because its patron isn’t the Virgin Mary but St. Monica. All the same, Mary is featured prominently in prayer and devotion among its members.
- Thiếu Nhi Thánh Thể (originally Nghĩa Binh Thánh Thể): Eucharistic Youths (originally Eucharistic Crusade). Rooted in mid-nineteenth-century French Catholicism and introduced to colonial Vietnam in the late 1920s, this movement is probably the most visible organization in a typical community in the diaspora today. (Its revitalization in Vietnam has been significant too.)
- Liên Minh Thánh Tâm: League of the Sacred Heart. The French-born Quebecois Jesuit Édouard Hamon founded the men-only Ligue du Sacré-Cœur in Montreal in 1883. In the mid-twentieth century, a European Redemptorist introduced it to Vietnamese Catholics in northern Vietnam then passed it on to a Vietnamese Redemptorist that helped to popularize it in southern Vietnam after 1954.
- Hùng Tâm Dũng Chí: Valiant Hearts, Valiant Souls. In strict chronology, this organization for Catholic youths probably saw the quickest connection between Vietnam and the country of origin. Coeurs Vaillants, Âmes Vallantes was the product of the French cleric Gaston Courtois in the 1930s and came to Vietnam in the 1940s. Among Vietnamese Catholics, this organization was also somewhat atypical for having started in the southern part of the country rather than the northern part. (As noted on top, Danang was a stronghold of this movement during the 1960s and 1970s.)
- Legio Maria or Hội Legio or Đạo Binh Đức Mẹ: Legio Mariae or the Legion of Mary. Started by an Irish layman in 1921, this sodality came to Vietnam a little over thirty years later. Perhaps because of the centrality of the rosary, it has proven very popular among Vietnamese Catholic adults.
- Cursillo: Cursillos. This movement is unique because of the structure of “small course” retreats for its lay members. Started on the island of Mallorca by lay Catholics, it spread to mainland Spain and then to Columbia and other countries in South America. In Vietnam, the movement “arrived” to Saigon in 1965 and the first retreat occurred two years later. Its history in the U.S. is pretty fascinating due to the origin among Spanish-speaking Catholic communities in the Southwest before spreading to other communities. Vietnamese cursillistas (as Cursillo participants are called) have formally participated in American Cursillos since 1981. Their number grew to the point that the official website of National Cursillo Movement maintains a Vietnamese-language section in addition to those in English and Spanish.
- Đạo Binh Xanh: The Blue Army of Fátima (or the World Apostolate of Fátima). Founded shortly after World War II, this U.S.-based organization saw a chapter in South Vietnam during the mid-1960s. While priests (who were usually European) had introduced most other devotional organizations to Vietnamese Catholics, it was the layman Đỗ Sinh Tứ that began to organize the first chapter in Vietnam. Anticommunism was a feature of devotion to Our Lady of Fátima, and it was no exception in the South Vietnamese case.
Once in Vietnam, of course, any of these movements might have taken on a life of its own. And there is the fact that some organizations have either diminished significantly or no longer exist: e.g., Hội Con Đức Bà (Association of Children of Our Lady); Thanh Niên Công Giáo (Catholic Young Adults); Thanh Lao Công (Young Christian Workers); and Thanh Sinh Công (Young Christian Students). (Hùng Tâm Dũng Chí appears to be active only in Danang today.)
But the Vietnamization of these movements and associations isn’t my concern here. Rather, it is notable that they saw global origins in several countries in Western Europe and North America – France, Ireland, Spain, Canada, and the U.S. – that came up in different times. In addition, they “came” to Vietnam at different junctures during the twentieth century and collectively reflected global Catholicism even in a country where Catholics were a decided minority.
I’ve already named two specific criticisms of the global turn by David Bell; here is a third from the same review:
[The book] does not do a much better job with the transmission of religious ideas,
and on the ways new forms of “global connection” sometimes built on older ones developed by that most successful of international organizations, the Roman Catholic Church.
I am inclined to agree with Prof. Bell. I am a supporter of the global turn, but I also think that it may become reductionistic. Thus far, reductionism hasn’t been the case among historians of Vietnamese Catholicism because they have shown global connections while demonstrating an enormous amount of human agency. I hope this situation will remain so for the foreseeable future in Vietnamese Studies. Last but not least, I think that the history of Vietnamese Catholic devotional and associational culture may be a good case study to improve the scholarship on the global turn, if a little.