Letter of Bishop Trịnh Như Khuê, dated June 19, 1951, inviting the clergy, religious, and laity to participate in the Legion of Mary. The full letter could be read at https://www.legiomariaevn.com/chi-tiet-tin-tuc/21/duc-phanxico-nghi-gi-ve-quy.html

From the evidence I’ve seen, Marian devotionalism was strong among Vietnamese Catholics during the first forty years of the twentieth century. The first major festival at La Vang was held in 1901, then once approximately every four years from 1910 to 1939. During the 1920s and 1930s, faster and better communication in print and travel expanded the devotional imagination to Fatima and especially Lourdes. World War I brought Vietnamese Catholics to Europe to work for the French Army, and some later went on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. Vietnamese Marianism was globalized.

It was also the era of new political forms and organizations, including forms fitting for organized religion. Vietnamese Buddhists began a significant revival during the late 1920s and early 1930s. The Cao Đài formally organized in the mid-1920s. Among Catholics, several Vietnamese men organized or mobilized workers and farmers during the 1930s: the subject of a fascinating presentation by Claire Lien Tran at the AAS conference in Denver earlier this year. Mass organizations were a feature of the modern nation, and colonial Indochina was not an exception. The forms, however, could be different from one group to another. For Vietnamese Catholics, Catholic Action was increasingly the main venue and instrument for organizing a modern associational culture.

From this context, it isn’t a surprise that Marianism adapted new forms during late colonialism, the 1920s and 1930s. Nonetheless, I also think that decolonization–that is, revolution and warfare during the 1940s and early 1950s–spiked it up a notch or more. Uncertainty and anxiety typically accompany wars and revolutions, so heightened devoutness was not uncommon. In the Vietnamese case, though, the rise of communism in the 1940s contributed handsomely to a fueling (or re-fueling) of Marian devotion among the faithful.

Founded in Ireland during the early 1920s by the layman Frank Duff, the Legion of Mary provides a prominent illustration. In contrast to most sodalities founded by the clergy or religious orders, it was almost completely a lay apostolate. Inspired by Louis de Monfort’s classic Treatise on True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, it was also a product of its time, which saw enormous global transitions due in part to the rise of communism. Its constitution begins:

The Legion of Mary is an Association of Catholics who, with the sanction of the Church and under the powerful leadership of Mary Immaculate, Mediatrix of all Graces (who is fair as the moon, bright as the sun, and—to Satan and his legionaries—terrible as an army set in battle array), have formed themselves into a Legion for service in the warfare which is perpetually waged by the Church against the world and its evil powers. “The whole life of men, both individual and social, shows itself to be a struggle, and a dramatic one, between good and evil, between light and darkness.” (GS 13) The legionaries hope to render themselves worthy of their great heavenly Queen by their loyalty, their virtues, and their courage. The Legion of Mary is therefore organised on the model of an army, principally on that of the army of ancient Rome, the terminology of which is adopted also. But the army and the arms of legionaries of Mary are not of this world. (Emphases added.)

Inescapable are the militant language and images about spiritual warfare that could be easily taken to mean warfare against the communist enemy of the Church (“against the world and its evil powers”). The Legion’s Irish members initially focused on home visitation of the sick, the poor, and the marginalized. They also assiduously avoided political or material involvement. However, by the time that the Legion expanded to China, the first Asian country to establish praesidia, the threat of communism and the Soviet Union was more real and more substantial. The images and language were a perfect fit for anticommunists. At least, it was the case in China, where the national envoy, an Irish Columban missionary priest, spoke about the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima. Not surprisingly, after the establishment of the People’s Republic, theregime ferociously attacked the Legion, its leadership, and its members. Many Chinese Catholics suffered from arrests and worse things. The missionary priest himself was imprisoned for two and a half years then expelled from China. 

It’s not clear how the Vietnamese learned about the Legion, but by 1947 there were at least three small groups of Catholics in Saigon that expressed interest in the organization. There was also a French military physician and Legion member who was interested to spread it to Vietnamese. Because he was leaving Indochina, he asked another foreigner, a woman, to promote the Legion and Catholic Action. This foreigner in turn asked Marie Zoila, a member of the Congregation of Notre Dame then living in Hanoi, to help introduce the Legion to Vietnamese Catholics.  Sr. Zoila contacted the Legion’s headquarters in Dublin for training materials then organized an initial training session for over ten Vietnamese.

Zoila soon learned that Trịnh Như Khuê, pastor of a parish in Hanoi, was also interested in the Legion. She met the priest and “transferred” the trainees to his parish, which led to the first praesidium meeting in October 1947 and the consecration of the first Vietnamese members a year later. By 1950 Fr. Khuê had become Bishop Khuê. After a visit to Rome during this Year of Jubilee, he went on a pilgrimage to Lourdes and Fatima, then to Dublin to meet with the Legion’s leadership. Upon his return, he was perhaps the biggest promoter of the Legion in Vietnam. By 1952, there were five praesidia in Hanoi and six in Huế. Two years later, the number grew to thirteen praesidia in Hanoi and spread to nearly all mission dioceses in Vietnam.

The Hàm Long church in Hanoi, the first Vietnamese parish with a praesidium. ~ pc dulichtoday.vn

A different development was the Movement for the Reparation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Theological reparation has a long history as a concept. Its best known devotional form was the reparation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, whose roots go back to the rise of “affective piety” as propounded by Bernard of Clairvaux and Francis of Assisi, and whose contemporary form is credited to the seventeenth-century French nun Margaret Mary Alacoque. In comparison, the popularity of the reparation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary didn’t occur until the twentieth century, chiefly after the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima. This belief on reparation rests on the assumption that the sins of one’s own or others, including the sins committed by atheistic Soviet Russia, have offended or outraged the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which, therefore, should receive reparation through penance, mass attendance and communion (especially on the first Saturday of each month), and praying the fifteen mysteries of the rosary. 

During the 1940s, several priests heavily promoted this devotion in Indochina. Best known among them was a French missionary Dominican who went by the Vietnamized name Jeffro Đỗ Minh Thể. From Hanoi in 1948, Fr. Jeffro Thể began a movement that was similar to other movements of Marian reparation in Europe and North America but also independent from them. He called it the Movement for the Perpetual Reparation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Phong trào đền tạ liên tiếp Trái Tim Vô Nhiễm Đức Mẹ Maria) (emphasis added). Having received official approval in 1949, he also published a little magazine called The Immaculate Heart of Mary [Trái Tim Đức Mẹ] to promote the movement, which reached an estimated membership of 30,000 people, largely in Hanoi and other areas of northern Vietnam. 

Another promoter was the Vietnamese priest Nguyễn Minh Đăng from the northern city Thái Bình. In 1945, he published in Thái Bình a small book about the Fatima messages. During the next two years, he organized a group of the faithful to practice this devotion. In 1948, or during the early phase of the First Indochina War, one of these Catholics came to Hanoi and linked up to three other devotees and helped Fr. Jeffro Thể form the movement. 

Still, another priest-promoter from Thái Bình was Trần Đình Thủ, who, in 1941, conceived the idea of founding a Vietnamese congregation of men religious.  It took another seven years before the local bishop gave approval to the formation of his group. During that time, he served as faculty at the local major seminary, director of the diocese’s mission activities, and pastor at two parishes. He also actively promoted devotion to the Immaculate Heart and formed a number of Marian sodalities among parishioners and seminarians. In 1954, his group, now called the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix (CMC), moved to suburban Saigon. In 1960, it “inherited” both Movement and magazine from Fr. Jeffro Thể. By then, Fr. Minh Đăng had also joined the CMC. Fr. Thủ, his superior, appointed him the director of the movement, whose membership eventually grew to hundreds of thousand.  

But we’re getting ahead of the story. Back to the period of decolonization, was it a coincidence that Vietnamese Marianism reached a turn during World War II, the August Revolution, and the First Indochina War, especially in northern Vietnam but also elsewhere? Given the sharp anticommunist messages from Fatima, the spread of the Legion of Mary, and the appeal of the reparation movement among Vietnamese Catholics, I’m inclined to say that it wasn’t a coincidence at all. Marian devotionalism had taken different forms in Vietnamese history. It began to take another form at the juncture of decolonization.

Portrait of a CMC member. In South Vietnam, members who had taken vows wore this habit of dark cassock, rosary, and crucifix. ~ pc thoidiemmaria.net