Thuc funeral of niece
Paris, April 1967: Archbishop Thục officiating the funeral of his niece Ngô Đình Lệ Thủy, who was killed during an auto accident. On the right are Madame Nhu and her son. ~ pc manhhai on flick

I have been looking into Marian devotionalism in South Vietnam, and one figure that has emerged large is Ngô Đình Thục, the Archbishop of Huế and older brother of Ngô Đình Diệm. It is well known that Thục was intent on building a national Marian center at La Vang, the site of apparitions to persecuted Catholics in the late eighteenth century and the nineteenth century. (In Misalliance, Ed Miller notes this development in passing and mentions that Buddhist leaders were “dismayed” by Thục’s decision.)  Nonetheless, reading about the late prelate’s involvement with La Vang made me see more fully the scope of his desires and designs.

There were, of course, many things about Marian devotion in South Vietnam, and one should be careful not to overplay Thục’s role. That said, it is clear that he occupied a unique position in the Vietnamese Church during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Thục’s training and preparation was as good as any Vietnamese cleric could have received at the time. After minor and major seminaries in Indochina, he underwent further studies in Rome that yielded top honors in four subjects and doctorates in theology and Canon Law. His main sponsor, Bishop Eugène Marie Joseph Allys (called Lý among Vietnamese), had high hopes for the young priest and he did not disappoint. After stints of teaching at Catholic high schools and co-editorship of the first journal for Vietnamese clergy, Thục was appointed by the Vatican to lead one of the southern vicariates. At forty years old and merely twelve and a half years after priestly ordination, he became the third Vietnamese bishop.  The year was 1938, which is another way of saying that Thục independently made his marks long before his younger brother became the first president of the Republic of Vietnam. In fact, as detailed in Miller’s book, Thục’s influence and connections played a crucial role in helping Diệm gain support abroad during the early 1950s. 

Turning to a different book, this blog had praised Charles Keith’s monograph on Vietnamese Catholicism for its wealth of information about the associational culture during late colonialism. I wish to praise it again, this time for locating some very interesting information about Thục’s life. Notably, as bishop of the apostolic vicariate (later diocese) of Vĩnh Long, Thục was, in Keith’s words, “one of most important figures in the spread of Catholic youth and worker associations in Cochichina.” He also pushed for greater involvement among the laity and later became one of the biggest supporters of Catholic Action in Vietnam. From all appearances, he was an able builder and, possibly, a solid administrator. Vĩnh Long might have a smaller player in the Catholic landscape during late colonialism and the early independent period. Thục’s performance, however, meant that he was destined for greater roles.

Thục’s ambition, indeed, was to be the leader of the Archdiocese of Saigon, the largest and wealthiest of all dioceses in Vietnam during 1954-1975. This seat also offered the likeliest route to the cardinalate. Given the structure of ecclesiastical hierarchy and the postcolonial context, one could hardly blame Thục for wanting to be the first Vietnamese cardinal. But it was not meant to be for the simple fact that his younger brother was occupying the government seat in Saigon. Diệm himself did not want Thục to be the Archbishop of Saigon, not wishing for further suspicion and accusation of family rule. The Vatican must have agreed, and Thục was assigned to Huế, where he had begun his life and ecclesiastical career.  (In 1976, Pope Paul VI made Trịnh Như Khuê, the Archbishop of Hanoi, the first Vietnamese cardinal. In a twist of sorts, Thục’s own nephew Nguyễn Văn Thuận became the fourth Vietnamese cardinal in 2001.) 

Undated photo of Thục among Catholics in South Vietnam.

Now in his sixties, Thục immediately put himself to work in Huế. Among his priorities was the upgrading of the La Vang site, especially because it was scheduled to host the triennial pilgrimage festival only four months after his arrival to the archdiocese. Long story short, the site received a makeover of sorts then welcomed tens of thousands of pilgrims, including most bishops in South Vietnam, for nearly a week of prayer and celebration. Thục presided over the opening and closing masses, and led the dedication of the La Vang shrine, which Pope John XXIII had raised to the status of a minor basilica. It was probably the zenith of public glory for the Vietnamese prelate. 

This festival was also a site of anticommunist nationalism: a complex topic deserving its own blog post at some other time. For now, it suffices here to say that the success of the festival gave credence to the proposition that the Archbishop was, as Phi-Vân Nguyen calls him in an article published two years ago, “the country’s leading anti-communist.” I’d offer the qualification that he was South Vietnam’s leading anticommunist Catholic (or, if you prefer, leading Catholic anticommunist). In any event, Thục must have pulled all kinds of strings–including his clout as older brother of the president and “first among equals” of all bishops–to get the site remodeled in record time, then to organize, I think, the largest festival up to that time. 

In some respects, Thục was essentially an institutional builder. La Vang was only the most publicized and most ambitious among his projects, but there were more. He led the construction of a minor seminary and the remodeling of Saint Sulpice Seminary of Hue, the archdiocese’s offices, and the archbishop’s residence. In 1962, he unified five or six groups of the Lovers of the Cross–different sources give different numbers–under his jurisdiction into one institute called the Lovers of the Cross of Huế.  (Some members of this group became refugees in the U.S. after the Fall of Saigon. Click here for a recent post of mine about one of them.) They were impressive accomplishments, especially because his tenure in Huế was short: just a little over two years. Then the Second Vatican Council took him to Europe and permanent exile. Had it not been for the dramatic events of 1963, which were facilitated by Thục’s public and triumphant Catholic display of anniversaries, it is reasonable to think that he would have kept building a lot more, literally and figuratively, for the Archdiocese of Huế and the Vietnamese Church.

The problem, of course, is that Thục’s ambition was carried out in the most Buddhist region of Vietnam, which also happened to be the historical center of  Vietnamese Buddhist revival and Buddhist nationalism. He did not seem to demonstrate the kind of sensitivity towards Buddhist leaders that his younger brother Ngô Đình Cẩn, the unofficial governor of the region, had done. He addressed his announcements and speeches about La Vang to Catholics and non-Catholics alike–đồng bào lương giáo–as if thinking that non-Catholic Vietnamese would support the center because it was “national” and overlook the fact that it was “Marian.” What exactly led him into this line of thought should make for some interesting research or speculation.

Counter-factual history usually ends in futility, yet I can’t help wondering how things would turn out had the Vatican appointed Thục to Saigon instead of Huế.  

Click here for my post on the last years of Thục’s life.