Our Lady of Lavang: A symbol of strength and vitality

June 18, 2013

In his report on the state of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston last year during his ad limina visit with Pope Benedict XVI, Daniel Cardinal DiNardo made a special mention of the vibrant Vietnamese Catholic Community in the greater Houston area.

He noted the intensity with which Vietnamese Catholics practice the faith as the reason for the growing number of new faithful entering the Church through their community, many as converts from Buddhism.

An essential aspect of Vietnamese spirituality is the devotion to Our Lady of Lavang. She is to the Vietnamese what Our Lady of Guadalupe is to Mexican and other Hispanic Catholics — a culturally unique expression of the universal love of Mary for all God’s children.

For Father Thomas Thien An Tran, O.P., parochial vicar of Our Lady of Lavang Parish in Houston, the virgin who appeared as a beautiful Vietnamese maiden holding the infant Christ is a reminder of the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese martyrs who sought her intercession during two centuries of violent persecution. 

“She never allows me to take it easy and reminds me to hold onto my faith and be a good Catholic,” Father Tran said. 
Since the late 16th century, when Dominican and Franciscan missionaries first introduced the faith to the Vietnamese, believers experienced periodic persecution at the hands of the ruling families who feared the encroaching influence of European powers. 

The fears escalated in 1798 during pitched conflict between the warring Nguyen and Trinh dynasties. The latter declared that Catholicism, a religion of foreigners, was being used to influence the people and foment rebellion against the king. 

In a move to stamp out the threat, an edict was issued ordering the destruction of all Catholic missions and seminaries. More than 100,000 Vietnamese Catholics were martyred. During this time, many fled deep into the rain forests seeking refuge. 

It was in the dense jungle in central Vietnam outside of the village of Quang Tri that Our Lady appeared to a frightened community gathered in prayer. They were scared, sick, starving and awaiting martyrdom. 

Our Lady of Lavang appeared in a tree wearing a traditional dress, holding the Christ child and flanked by angels. She encouraged the people in their trials and promised them her intercession. 

She also advised them to boil the leaves of the surrounding Lavang trees to cure their ailments. Many people were cured and many had their prayers answered. 

She appeared several times at the site where a humble, thatched chapel was built in her honor. As families began to leave the forest when the persecutions abated, word of the miraculous apparitions spread and soon a devotion to the lady bathed in light developed among the people. Believers also began making pilgrimage to the hidden site. 

Over the years, as more Catholics suffered persecution and martyrdom, they turned to Our Lady of Lavang for help and consolation.

Several shrines were built over the years, only to be destroyed by persecutions and war and later rebuilt. Today the shrine stands about 40 miles west of the city of Hue, surrounded by lush tropical trees.

While the apparitions at Lavang have not been officially recognized by the Church, partly because no written records of them exist, the Vatican has encouraged the devotion to Our Lady of Lavang. In 1961, the Bishops of South Vietnam named the church in Lavang a national Marian center. Later that year, Pope John XXIII raised it to the level of a minor basilica. 

In 1988, Pope John Paul II canonized 117 Vietnamese Martyrs and in the day’s Angelus addressed Lavang as one of the most important Marian shrines in the world, with hopes that it would become a symbol of the Church’s new vitality and national reconciliation. 

In the U.S., where many Vietnamese settled as refugees following the war, many parishes around the country took the name Lavang to honor the mother who gave strength to them, as she did to their ancestors, to endure in the faith.