1934 Sách_tháng_rât_Thánh_Trái_Bình_François 2nd printing
From a devotional text published in 1934. The caption reads, “This is my Sacred Heart that loves humanity so much that it doesn’t refuse them anything.” The implication is that it is up to people to believe and petition the Sacred Heart for their needs.

I have been posting about Vietnamese devotionalism to Marian apparitions and the Immaculate Heart, but there were of course other devotions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. European missionaries, for example, promoted the devotion to St. Anne that appears to be well received among the Vietnamese in many missions and parishes. At the turn of the twentieth century and thereafter, French missionaries expectedly and eagerly promoted the devotion to Thérèse of Lisieux. Given the fact that the Sacred Heart of Jesus was integral to ultramontanism, it isn’t a surprise that it too became central to the Vietnamese Catholic devotional landscape. 

Before getting to the Vietnamese, it is important to stress the influence of missionaries about ultramontane devotions. I’ve recently read a book of thirty homilies about this devotion that was published in southern Vietnam in the 1930s. I think the author-priest of these homilies was a missionary, but it is possible that he was a native Vietnamese. In any event, the homilies make many references to saints and notable Catholics, especially French ones. There isn’t a single reference about Vietnamese Catholics, not even the martyrs, over ninety of whom had been declared venerable by two popes during the 1910s. 

Turning to a different aspect of this devotion, I was struck by certain changes in music. In addition to the homilies, I examined a collection of hymns about the Sacred Heart that was published in the 1920s. This collection include thirty hymns on various themes related to the devotion: adoration to the Sacred Heart, praise to the Sacred Heart, praise to Jesus the King, calling the faithful to adoration, etc. As a nod to Marian devotion, one of the hymns is about the Immaculate Heart. The lyrics of this music appear standard of nineteenth-century ecclesiastical language about these devotions. 

Jump, however, to twenty decades later and we find a different set of language in perhaps the most popular Vietnamese hymn about this devotion: Thánh Tâm Giêsu Vua Nước Việt [The Sacred Heart of Jesus, King of Vietnam], usually shortened as Thánh Tâm Giêsu Vua. The lyrics below are remarkable because they are about the Sacred Heart and also the collective nationalist identity among Vietnamese Catholics.

This recording features the California-based singer Mai Thiên Vân. The arrangement is expectedly sentimental, even more than the choral versions at the end of this post.

The hymn opens with piety but quickly acknowledges the realities of warfare and the desire for national peace. 

1. Giêsu chúng con tới đây sấp mình.
Chân thành dâng Chúa tấm lòng thờ kính.
Ðoàn con mong ước tháng năm sống đời an ninh.
Chúa ơi, hãy ban xuống cho Việt Nam thanh bình.

Jesus, we come and prostrate before you,
Lifting our hearts to our Lord.
We long for lasting safety in our lives.
Lord, please grant peace to Vietnam.

The refrain is similarly divided into two interrelated parts. The first two lines remind the traditional belief that the Sacred Heart is full of compassion and mercy for humankind. The last two lines, which are really a small variation of the the last two lines of the first verse, shift to the Vietnamese, who pray to and declare the Sacred Heart the spiritual ruler of their nation. It is an example of efficacious fusing between the theological and the political. 

ĐK. Thánh Tâm Giêsu từ bi vô ngần.
Không bao giờ chê chối lời ai nài van.
Giờ này đoàn con dâng lên lời nguyện xin tha thiết.
Thánh Tâm Giêsu làm Vua đất Việt muôn đời.

Refrain: The Sacred Heart of Jesus is forever merciful,
It never turns down any pleas.
We now raise our sincere petition.
The Sacred Heart of Jesus is forever King of Vietnam.

The last line of the first verse is also the last line of the remaining verses, reiterating the theme of asking the Sacred Heart to give the Vietnamese their national peace. 

2. Giêsu chúng con tới đây sấp mình.
Uy quyền năm tháng che chở Hội Thánh.
Ðoàn con Công Giáo luôn vui sống đời hy sinh.
Chúa ơi, hãy ban xuống cho Việt Nam thanh bình.

Jesus, we come and prostrate before you,
Asking your power to protect the Church for long.
We Catholics gladly live a life of sacrifice.
Lord, please grant peace to Vietnam. 

Only the second half of the verses is about Vietnam. The last verse, however, is all about Vietnam.

3. Giêsu chúng con tới đây sấp mình.
Ước nguyện Nam Bắc chung lòng sùng kính.
Toàn dân chung tiếng hoan ca, chung lời tôn vinh.
Chúa ơi, hãy ban xuống cho Việt Nam thanh bình.

Jesus, we come and prostrate before you,
Wishing North and South worship you together.
We join voices to sing our praise of you.
Lord, please grant peace to Vietnam. 

The author of this hymn belonged to the golden generation of Vietnamese hymnists: the diocesan priest Lê Đức Triệu (1922-2007), who went by the pen name Hoài Đức. Remarkably, this hymn was his first, written when he was a seminarian at St. Sulpice Seminary in Hanoi. It was followed by the Christmas hymn Cao Cung Lên [literally, Raise the Octave but better translated as Raise Your Voice], which he co-authored with Nguyễn Khắc Xuyên (1923-2005), another seminarian and future priest (laicized in 1968). Cao Cung Lên is possibly the second best-known Vietnamese Christmas carol after Hang Bê Lem [The Bethlehem Cave, or, better, The Manger in Bethlehem]. He wrote both hymns in that eventful year of 1945, when seminarians had to leave St. Sulpice temporarily due to the occupation of the building by Chinese Nationalist troops (shortly after World War II was over).  According to an interview, he wrote the song wishing for the return of peace so that, among other things, he could return to the seminary to continue the studies. (Interestingly, he recalled that the priests at the seminary didn’t want seminarians to write music and enforced strict regulations against it.)

Had Hoài Đức not written another song, his place in the history of Vietnamese Catholic music would be secure thanks to this pair of very different hymns. In fact, he wrote many more, including the popular Marian hymns Dâng Mẹ [Offering to Our Lady] and Cung Chúc Trinh Vương [Praise to the Virgin Queen], both of which are still widely sung today. He moved to the south in 1954 and was ordained a priest in 1959. Among his responsibilities during the divisional period was director of Caritas, the international Catholic charity organization, in the central province Buôn Mê Thuật. After the Vietnam War, he was arrested and incarcerated for ten years in reeducation camps. He was neither allowed to return to Buôn Mê Thuật nor formally assigned to a position in the Vietnamese Church due to the imprisonment. He lived with family members before moving to a retirement home for northern priests in Saigon. 

Of Hoài Đức’s ouevre, Cao Cung Lên has tended to draw the most attention from writers, interviewees, and others. It is universalist rather than nationalist, as the lyrics are completely devoid of any specific references to Vietnam. It could have been written in the 1920s or earlier and no one could tell the difference. In comparison, this hymn about the Sacred Heart reflects the national experience of revolution and warfare since the 1940s, and, more broadly speaking, Vietnamese nationalism that cohered during late colonialism. The devotion to the Sacred Heart began as an ultramontane import. As seen from this example, however, it gradually took a life of its own among Vietnamese Catholics, to the point that they proclaimed the Sacred Heart the ruler of their nation.

The hymn is still widely sung at churches and other settings in Vietnam and the diaspora. The videos below come from Sydney and Vietnam, respectively. Judging from the uniform áo dài, the women in the first video were likely members of  one or more devotional societies within the associational culture of Vietnamese Catholicism.