Christ’s stepping stone in Dai Viet

Great Figures of the Missionary Work

Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

Despite their initial failure in the process of evangelization, the Order of Preachers never left Cochinchina and today there still remains the memory of the many martyrs, monks and lay brothers, who left there, especially during the 19th century. A total of 59 martyrs – bishops, priests, laity, catechists, all members of the priestly fraternity of Saint Dominic.

In the meanwhile, two other Portuguese missionaries, this time of the Augustinian Order disembarked on those shores and, in 1596, would eventually establish a mission, in Phuoc Kieu, neighboring village to Hoi An, known to the Portuguese as Cachão. However, a quarrel between a Christian and a soldier at the service of an important local Mandarin forced the two religious to abandon everything and return to Macau, thus failing another Christian attempt.

The missionary situation in those kingdoms worried the bishop of Malacca, Friar Cristóvão de Lisboa. After all, the region in question was under its jurisdiction. Determined not to give up, that religious man, around 1610, send several prelates with the title of vicars. Unfortunately, against all expectations, the result was nil; one of them returned to Macau and the others confined themselves to play the role of chaplains in the boats of the Portuguese merchants.

At that time a strong wave of persecution against the Catholic Church arose in Japan, especially between 1598 and 1614, forcing many Japanese Christians to take refuge in Macau or in Cochinchina. In turn, missionaries, unable to evangelize, returned to their base (Macau), but not for long, as will be shown.

A well-known resident of Macau, Rafael Carneiro de Siqueira, had a leading role in the opening of the Catholic mission in Cochinchina. In fact, he always acted as an intermediary between the king and local mandarins and the priests living in Macau, keeping them informed about the traditional hospitality of the Indochinese people.

Also the merchant Fernando da Costa, who visited Macau on his return from a Cochinchina trip, in 1614, described to Father Manuel Dias, Rector of St. Paul’s College, the characteristics of that kingdom, attracting even more attention from the local priests.

Such events accelerated the opening of new missions. The first would be precisely Cochinchina, because the primary objective was to give spiritual assistance to the Japanese Christians who had sought refuge there.

By order of the Provincial of Japan, Father Valentim de Carvalho, arrived in Hoi An, in 1615, the first Jesuit mission, constituted by the Italian Francesco Buzomi (1576-1639) and the Portuguese Diogo Carvalho (1578-1624). They were accompanied by three coadjutor brothers – the Portuguese António Dias and Japanese José Tsuchimochi and Paulo Saitō – and other 26 Japanese layman, including Tomé Nishi.

Diogo Carvalho had as his main mission to provide assistance to the Nipponese Christians, because he lived in Japan and knew well the language. Francesco Buzomi, in turn, had taught theology in Macau for five years. Both were quite experienced missionaries.

Only with the arrival of this mission can one say that Christianity begin to gain real strength in Vietnam.

The first person I get in touched with when I arrived in Hoi An, in the course my first trip to Vietnam, was Father Le Nhu Hao, in charge of the parish affairs since 1962, when the Catholic community had eight hundred people, because the Church was then a powerful entity, being in charge of a primary school, two secondary schools, an orphanage and several places of worship.

Le Nhu Hao was a well-traveled priest. He was ordained in 1954 and made his theological studies in Saigon and in Catholic institutes of Paris and Rome. From Portugal, he remembered Lisbon, the capital, and a memorable visit he made to the Holy Sanctuary of Fatima. Hao took the opportunity to remind me that Vietnam was the third country in the world where Marian devotion had the most relevance, after Poland and Mexico. Incidentally, the man never tired of talking about Our Lady of Fatima, “venerated in all the churches in Vietnam.”

Although he had never been to Macau, Father Hao was aware of the importance of that territory in the propagation of the faith he professed, because most priests sent to the mission of Hoi An came from there. Cited, for example, names like Fernando Barreto, Pedro Marques, Francisco de Pina and Cristoforo Borri. On these last two, we’ll talk more at length in due course.

That kind and gentle Vietnamese priest also reminded me that Francesco Buzomi, in 1639, at the behest of the Vietnamese sovereign, went the Macau to try to convince the city governor to intensify trade between the two territories. And to back up his claim, the priest pulled books from the shelves, several volumes on the history of Catholicism in Vietnam, written in French, English and Vietnamese.

Buzomi eventually died of disease during that trip to Macau, twenty years after his first arrival in Hoi An. Already his colleague, Diogo Carvalho, was martyred years before, on his return to Japan.

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