Journeys in Vietnam

Dom Jean-Pierre Longeat , President of the AIM


paysagevietnamThis year a particular stress in the work of the AIM has been Vietnam. In May I went to the north of this country, to Hanoi, and in July to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and the territory round about. In the course of these two journeys I visited a dozen monasteries.

To the Sources of Beliefs and Religious Ideas

From the religious point of view, Vietnam is above all a crossroads, and important meeting-point between the Chinese and the Indian world. In every age in the course of its tragic history this people has been upheld by moral and spiritual forces. These forces have their roots in Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism which interpenetrate the thought, customs and morals of the country. Buddhism represents only 10% of the population, but Confucianism penetrates family spirit and the cult of the ancestors throughout the country. In Vietnam the image of the pagoda is highly familiar. The word ‘pagoda’ indicates a place where the relics of a sage are venerated; it is also a place of cult for Buddhist believers, looking like a tower in several storeys, round, octagonal or square. Normally the place is occupied and given life by a community of Buddhist monks or nuns. Communism is still very present in the country, and especially in the north. Religious minorities remain closely controlled, even if the state is less pressing than it was in past decades.


Visit to North Vietnam

There is only one monastery in the north, the Abbey of Chau Son, in the region of Ninh Binh, south of Hanoi. There lives a community of the Cistercian Order, belonging to the local congregation of the Holy Family. Contacts with the clergy of the diocese of Hanoi allowed me to understand the context better. At Hanoi some 150 priests are
active and in the diocesan seminary there are 300 seminarians!


ChauSonThe Abbey of Chau Son

After visiting several features of the city I finally came to the monastery of Chau Son, about 120km from Hanoi. The person who drove me was a gentleman of about 40 of the Cathedral parish who kept a little shop of liturgical vestments. To reach the monastery a region of forests and gentle mountains must be crossed. It took two and a half hours to get to the monastery. Chau Son means ‘mountain of pearl’ because of the neighbouring mountain which is a  pilgrimage goal for the surrounding population. Founded in 1936, the abbey survived the vicissitudes of the two Vietnam wars.

There were up to 200 monks, with 2,000 Catholics dwelling in the surrounding countryside. After the Geneva Accords in 1954 only one monk remained as guardian of the whole place. He died in 1998 at the age of 85. The other monks had fled and founded Southern Chau Son in South Vietnam. After the fall of the Berlin Wall a few vocations appeared, but a much more massive renewal made itself felt after the year 2000, as in the other monasteries of South and Central Vietnam. North Chau Son is in fact the monastery of the Cistercian Congregation of the Holy Family which has the most vocations. The community has now 150 monks, of whom only 25 have made solemn profession. The other brothers are simply professed, novices or aspirants. Only about 100 monks live there, the 50 other being absent for formation or for pastoral reasons.

The immense Abbey Church was built between 1939 and 1945, from bricks made on the premises. The four large square pools of water around the monastery were constituted by the clay-pits required for the bricks. At the moment they are used as fish-ponds. The superior of the monastery is Fr Dominique Savo. He speaks good French, having done four years of theology at Toulouse. The monks have enlarged the monastery, huge though it already was. The ground-floor galleries are impressive, and topped by two more storeys. At present the monks are constructing a new building to accommodate candidatesfor monastic life.

Their work consists in the fabrication of water-bottles and water-containers, rice-planting, raising pigs, chickens and fish, making liturgical candles, all good employments for monks. At the weekend whole coachloads of visitors and retreatants arrive from Hanoi. Mass is celebrated regularly in a grotto of the neighbouring hill, fairly difficult to reach but containing a large statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. Apart from visiting the monastery, participating in the life of the community and meeting the monks, I had a long conversation with Mgr Joseph, the former Archbishop of Hanoi, who has lived in the monastery since he retired. He told me how central was the formation of the young. Supplementary means have to be found to achieve this, especially in view of the considerable number of young monks in formation.

The Divine Office is celebrated in the great church with great devotion. My meeting with the community had special interest, and questions were fired off in all directions. I was particularly struck by the breadth and frankness of the questioning. One of the great difficulties for this community is in the end to find an occupation for everyone within the context of community life, both on material and spiritual grounds. It would be most important that the monastery should receive regular visits from monks coming from other parts of the country or from abroad in order to keep broadening the horizons of the monks.

Returning to Hanoi, I again met priests and Christians of the diocese as well as the archbishop himself. This aged gentlemean (he is 78 years old) has a marvellous simplicity, with a limpid glance full of vitality and irresistible goodness. He explained to me that he came from South Vietnam, and had needed considerable time to adapt to the mentality of North Vietnam, so different from his own country. He was appointed at Mgr Joseph’s retirement and quickly made a Cardinal. We covered many subjects with great ease. Suddenly he asked me why I had come to Vietnam, and as I spoke of my visit to Chau Son in the framework of the AIM he mentioned to me a young foundation of Thien An in his diocese, Hoa Binh. I expressed to him my surprise, because I had never heard of it. He immediately picked up a telephone and made contact with the prior for me to make an unprepared visit of this little community.


HoaBinhVisit of the monastery of Hoa Binh

On the day after the feast of Pentecost – at which I presided at the cathedral for the Francophone community – I was met by the prior of Hoa Binh to visit his monastery. After two hours on the road we arrived in a mountainous area and entered upon roads which became narrower and narrower. A church came into view, the church of the village where the priory is located. We went through a simple gateway and along a relatively modest building. A brother came out to meet us. Fr Francis was sent for a reconnaissance by the Abbot of Thien An. Then three other monks arrived two years later to help him set up the community. Everything is still very simple and there are plenty of well-planned projects. We visited the property which spreads over five hectares, but could still grow. The monks are engaged in several kinds of cultivation, with good yield. The fields are well kept and the land is surrounded by a sturdy enclosure-wall. The future of this embryo seems positive and open, and I was sorry I was not able to stay longer.

The balance-sheet of this journey is very positive. The contacts were fraternal and deep. The monastic ambitions of all are very real, and require on-going formation, to which the AIM can contribute. The Church of North Vietnam is seeking to free itself and develop. Any support will be welcome, but needs discernment.


Visit to South Vietnam

In July I was off again to Vietnam, but this time to the South. I journeyed with Fr Minh, a priest of Vietnamese origin who has been in France for 37 years, and is incardinated in the diocese of Poitiers. He has kept lively contact with his own country and done a valuable job in France for the accompaniment of seminarians, religious and Vietnamese priests and religious. He was to be a precious guide for me in order to understand better the issues which I was to encounter.

ThuDucAs soon as we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) we went by car to the monastery of Thu Duc, about 15km away. It is an impressive community of about 80 sisters, including about 30 postulants and novices. The whole liturgy is of course sung in Vietnamese, a beautiful office, a warm welcome and very generous meals, with all kinds of exotic dishes. The monastery covers two hectares, with a remarkable lay-out and splendidly kept. The atmosphere is tranquil and contacts are both simple and joyful. The sisters make the hosts for two dioceses, including Saigon, and liturgical ornaments. The kitchen is well managed. The sleeping-quarters of the novices and postulants are very simple, the beds being covered simply with a sheet. Each sister has a very rudimentary box. The chapter-room, the space for community meetings in the open air, the guesthouse, the workshops – all is well thought out. It is an airy monastery, in which one can feel the simple vitality of the Gospel circulating and being applied in accordance with the Vietnamese interpretation of the Rule of St Benedict.

I met the community in a truly simple and beautiful atmosphere. The sisters put many questions with great spiritual depth, interest being chiefly on the concrete experience of monastic life: what is most important, what most difficult, what most beautiful?

ThienPhuocNot far from Thu Duc, but on the other side of Saigon, is the monastery of Thien Phuoc. I left to visit it one morning after Lauds (at 4.30am), Mass which followed and breakfast. We were received by the prior, sub-prior and a young brother who speaks excellent French. There again I was struck by the extent of the buildings within a relatively restricted property, simply a few hectares. After the normal courtesies, we visited the property, which contains an important coffee-factory, two fishponds, various plantations and a cattle-farm, pigs and a farmyard. In the course of the visit we came across a couple of monkeys who amused us.

The brothers number about a hundred, and are constructing a supplementary building; it was begun two years ago, but funds were lacking to complete it. As everywhere, the spread had been extremely rapid, particularly since the year 2000. As in every period of growth, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that vitality consists not in spread of strength but in deepening of roots.

LocNamIn the afternoon a meeting had been arranged with the young professed monks and nuns of Vietnam, assembled at the monastery of Thu Duc. It was a lovely moment of exchange, with many questions on the experience of monastic life. On Sunday 17th July, after the morning Mass and breakfast, we left for an expedition of five hours on the road to the north of Ho Chi Minh to arrive in the mountains at the foundation of Loc Nam, which Thu Duc had made. The bus was full of young sisters who had taken part in the session at Thu Duc and were now returning to their monastery of Loc Nam. When we arrived we found ourselves in a fabulous countryside on the edge of a broad stretch of water, with abundant vegetation and all kinds of water animals, including a lot of noisy ducks. The monastery was founded 17 years ago, and there are some 40 sisters. The AIM has been a great help to the community. A short meeting with the  community took place that first evening.

Next day we spent the morning visiting various features. Because of the amount of water all round the buildings there have been several landslips, despite the building of reinforcements by the community. They were in the course of blocking part of the river by huge blocks of stone manipulated by an impressive crane. To remedy the situation, the sisters have constructed a new building two storeys higher than the existing ones.

The sisters still use a part of the first, very primitive buildings, both kitchen and refectory. The guesthouse consists of little houses scattered over the property above the water-level, on the hillsides. This looks charming, but is not too practical to run! By now the community is well integrated into the region. It can welcome about a hundred lay people to the daily community Mass presided by the parish priest. On Sundays there are 400-500 people, rising to 1,000 at Christmas and Easter. The parish also has plenty of catechumens and baptisms. The sisters help in teaching the chant, especially for the parish choir.

On the occasion of a conversation with the prioress of Loc Nam, Mother Agnes, I raised the following points:

• To the question, ‘What seems to you most useful nowadays in helping other monasteries of the world?’, she replied unhesitatingly, ‘to pray for one another.’
• ‘What is the greatest difficulty for monastic life in Vietnam nowadays?’ – ‘The confrontation with modern life, which completely changes mentalities.’
• The monastic superiors of Vietnam hold a two-day meeting every alternate year on shared concerns. These meetings are much valued.
• Formation is helped by such means as inter-monastery sessions for formators and for the young. These are promoted by outside leaders.

During the afternoon we had a meeting with the whole community to share views on the meaning of monastic life, for sharing experiences and mutual enrichment. I am gradually adjusting to the context, and find the nights better. Mass is always celebrated very early, after Lauds, which begins at 4am.

This stay at Loc Nam after Thu Duc was particularly striking. We discovered just how thirsty the Catholics of Vietnam are for spiritual life. They grant great importance to personal prayer, but also to the community dimension as a prolongation of family life, which has a fundamental importance in Vietnam. It is rooted in traditional wisdom. Even if modern life is in increasing danger of losing it, it remains a point of reference to which all are strongly attached.

At the beginning of the afternoon Brother Vincent Liem (Doanh) of Thien Binh came to fetch us to accompany us to the property for which he is responsible and which belongs to his monastery. It is a place of 15 hectares called Thien Loc, on which three monks work the land to provide supplementary resources for their motherhouse and also to prepare for an eventual foundation in the future. It was set up on the initiative of Thien An, and in fact almost all the monasteries of men in Vietnam have this sort of initiative.

ThienBinhI am impressed by the simplicity of their houses and even their poverty, but at the same time surprised that the buildings for these three monks are relatively large. Having drunk an excellent avocado-juice, I took the road for Thien Binh, three and a half hours away. We arrived at about 17.30 and were welcomed by the prior, Fr Philip Minh Vu Ngoc Tuy and the Vietnamese Visitor of the Subjaco Congregation, Fr Andrew Quang. I was glad to see them again, having already met them in France, both of them having been students at la Pierre-qui-Vire.

Next morning we made a visitation of the monastery. The property extends over 23 hectares. One part is at the disposition of an eventual monastic Studium for the monasteries of the country, for which the course of studies would initially be organized for the monks and could later be extended to the nuns. This, however, remains a project for the future. We then visited the plantations, fishponds, farm and dispensary. The dispensary is at the service of the local people. They make pretty elaborate use of traditional medicines, including acupuncture and all kinds of massages, and serve many people. I was very impressed by the quality of life in the monastery, both in the matter of prayer and work and welcome and in the attention paid to the surrounding population.

After two days at Thien Binh, where I had long meetings with the Prior, the Visitor and the whole of the community, we left in the early morning for the monastery of Vinh Phuoc, of the Cistercian Congregation of the Holy Family; it has two past students of the studium at Vanves.

Vinh PhuocAccueilThe monastery is well appointed, spacious and comfortable, in harmonious buildings. During the morning we visited different parts of the large ensemble. A little cultivation, a little stock-breeding, a workshop for hosts and vestments, ponds for fish-farming, gardens suitable for welcome (there are many groups), places of devotion, such as a little sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary, a large Stations of the Cross near the entrance of the park, etc. In the afternoon I met the sisters for free conversation. There are more than a hundred of them, and certainly mostly young. Questionssparked, and always on the same themes, without any loss of interest.

On the following day I met the novices at 6am for a conversation on formation. The questions were profound and lively. I was really surprised to see the quality of these young people; they were girls most of whom had received secondary or even university education. They knew what they wanted and several of them expressed it with conviction. Beyond exterior forms of politeness and social convention so deeply embedded in the national culture, there is a visible depth, rooted in the sufferings undergone in a country ravaged by political combats , which has had to make use of every possibility to avoid giving way to despair. The present generation has not known it, but has inherited it to the extent that the pressure of public events can still be felt.

The nuns put themselves out to offer us varied and delicious dishes, typical of Vietnamese cuisine. Even though I am hardly an expert in this matter, I appreciate the variety, the surprise, the preparation, the inventiveness of such delicious offerings. In the afternoon we left by car for Saigon to rejoin the group of 40 young professed sisters of Vinh Phuoc who were following the summer session of the School of Theology. This session lasts three weeks each year and is directed to various religious congregations. The 40 participants lodge in a house belonging to Vinh Phuoc. The AIM has made large contributions to the equipping of this house. The sisters eat and sleep in a space pretty tight for their number. They sleep on the floor on mats, side by side. During the school year the house is occupied by some 15 perpetually professed sisters who are following the philosophical and theological formation of the School of Theology at Saigon.

They put all sorts of fairly deep questions; the Mother Abbess told the history of that house which had not been easy to acquire, and which needs to be enlarged. Then we sang Vespers and dined there, afterwards returning to the monastery.

The next day, during breakfast, the Mother Abbess (who received the abbatial blessing on 14th August 2016) told us of the heroic beginnings of her monastery during the time of persecution. She had many anecdotes which showed the true nature of the national temperament and the profound relationship which Catholics have to the faith of their baptism. It made one feel very small.

PhuocLiEgliseThen off we went to the monastery of Phuoc Ly, of the Cistercian Congregation of the Holy Family. We arrived after two hours of travelling and crossed the threshold of a monastery of great grandeur. We were lodged within the enclosure and I met several brothers who spoke a little French. The Abbot was away – in Germany. The meeting took place in the afternoon, and it was principally the older monks who spoke, many of them in French. On this Sunday 24th July the Cistercian Congregation of the Holy Family was celebrating the 98th anniversary of its foundation, a real feast day. Mass was celebrated at 5am, with participation of some hundred laypeople. After breakfast, as it was a feast day, the monks played football or volleyball for part of the day.

In the afternoon we visited the very extensive buildings. The farm is most impressive, with its cows, its 500 pigs (they have had up to 1,000), its chickens and various products. All of it requires careful attention. The monastery supplies its own daily needs, but needs outside help for larger expenses. I also visited the lands around the monastery. There are several hundred hectares of cultivation, ponds, rice-fields, and in the middle of it all a sanctuary of Our Lady to which many pilgrims come. We returned for Vespers and after dinner I met Fr Vincent, who is responsible for the formation of the young. He told me all his concerns about this formation, and we will stay in contact.

The next day two brothers of Phuoc Son, of the Cistercian Congregation of the Holy Family, came to fetch us and take us to their monastery after breakfast. We reached it in little less than an hour, and arrived in the central courtyard. The abbot is Fr John of the Cross; he was waiting in front of the buildings, and I was glad to see him. He was present in Paris at the Abbey de la Source when I was Administrator in that monastery with the task of reorganising the house as a welcoming place for foreign monks coming to study in Paris. We lived side by side for some years.

PhuocSonWe were lodging in the guesthouse and quickly joined in the Office of Sext in the church, then joined the community for lunch. During the afternoon we met the whole community and I tried to put into action a new method for more authentic dialogue, myself asking the questions on individual vocations and their course. The results were spectacular. The monks could not stop talking: they spoke of their experiences, of the evolution of monastic life in their country, the many reasons for a vocation, etc. Finally I realised that we had to do with young people who were younger than they seemed. They seemed to be 25 years old when they were in fact 35. They had had rich experiences before their entry. It was necessary to listen patiently and carefully to each one to get a more exact idea of what the members of these communities were living out in the present context. Abbot John of the Cross was present and his contributions were most enriching. Because of the interest shown we prolonged the exchange into a second part after a short break, and then went to Vespers. Later I met Abbot John of the Cross twice and he was able to explain some points at greater depth.

On 26th July we visited different plantations around the monastery and the farm with its cows. We also saw a relatively important site for the production of a typically Vietnamese food, in which some 30 monks were active. One was driving a mechanical digger, and others transporting wheel-barrows full of concrete. Pretty impressive!

PhuocThienAfter this we went on to the Cistercian nuns of Phuoc Thien, the neighbouring female monastery to Phuoc Son. There are about 30 sisters, as opposed to the 200 monks. They welcomed us warmly. Their monastery is simple, the height of a human person, very well planned. We met the community with the same pedagogical method as at Phuoc Son, and there too the dialogue was very lively. Several of the sisters said they had been apostolic sisters before entering the monastery. We attended the Office of Sext and had lunch in a joyful atmosphere in the refectory.

After lunch we left for the monastery of Thien Binh, where we did not stay long enough, though it made a great impression on us. We arrive in the afternoon and were glad to meet the prior, Father Philip, Father Andrew and other brothers. After Vespers and the meal a meeting with the community was organised according to our new method, and the dialogue was very rich, making it easier to see the issues of monastic life in the context of that country.

On Wednesday 27th July Fr Philip took us to visit a Buddhist pagoda 20 minutes away. It houses more than 200 monks, and it seems that their success is significant. They have a mission of education and they receive many young people whose education and initiation into Buddhist wisdom they guide.

After a brief stay at Thien Binh I returned to my original starting-point at Thu Duc and had a meeting with the prioress and another sister during the morning. After such a journey we had  plenty to say!

With Fr Minh we put together a sort of balance-sheet of this monastic journey:

• In the last analysis Vietnam is living on the credit of the glorious 1930s, despite its internal problems, exodus from the countryside, urbanisation and other difficulties, linked to the era or the context. The Church of Vietnam still has several resources (no lessening of religious practice for a long time). Even with the evolution of morals there is still a future for the Church for many years to come.

• In the context of development the question of formation is crucial. It is a matter of forming the formators, for which a greater co-ordination between monastic orders is essential. Individual communities cannot manage on their own. For properly monastic formation it is preferable to encourage formation in each community, but with shared resources. But for theological studies the Catholic Institute of Vietnam (at Ho Chi Minh) opens its doors each year. Why not make use of it?

• Why allow communities to have more confidence in themselves without recourse to the authority of an ‘outside intellectual power’? It should be possible to make use of the local richnesses to nourish a special development of the Church and so of local monasticism.

• Many of the Christians come from the North, including monks and nuns; that might make a certain disequilibrium in communities. There is nothing new about that. In 1954, when the dioceses of the North took refuge in the South, there was the same regional rivalry. It is important to give special attention to projects which help the North more than those which help the South and the Delta.

• The Vietnamese soul has a religious basis, on which Communism has not succeeded in imposing its ideology. How should young people be helped towards a deeper spirituality?  Monks sometimes display above all a cultural interest in the phenomenon of social improvement given by religious life. The same is true of the priesthood. This requires serious attention and discernment.

• For an outside observer the outstanding impression is of a Church and society in full development in different ways, both exterior and interior. In communities it is constantly essential to balance the aspect of personal development (which can be less taken for granted in Vietnamese culture) with community coherence (which Vietnamese culture envisages on the model of family experience, sometimes too exactly).

On the evening of 27th July I left to return to France. It goes without saying that these two and a half weeks are not sufficient to give me a clear view of the realities of monastic life in this country, but at least the exchange was enriched by concrete contacts and experiences which go far beyond any conclusions which could be drawn only on the basis of experience in Europe.