Francisco de Pina, The Philologist (4)

The Great Missionary Work

Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

As new missionaries kept arriving on the shores of Hoi An – from Portugal, Italy and France – the Romanization task of the Vietnamese language become more complex and time consuming for our Francisco de Pina, as he had to – simultaneously — continue his work and teach Vietnamese language to the new disciples. Soon the fruits of his labor became evident: more and more priests were able to speak the local language, thirty five in total, among them those missionaries who took part in 1645 at a meeting in Macao in order to set the baptismal formula, not in Latin, as was normally required, but in Vietnamese, “so that, in the preamble of a baptism, local parishioners could fully understand the Catholic dogma of God and the Holy Trinity and not confuse it with the existence of three gods.”

Five of those missionaries were true linguistic experts, especially Gaspar do Amaral, considered the best. He is the author of an Annamese-Portuguese dictionary, and his fellow countrymen António Barbosa and Manuel Ferreira also wrote, each of them, a Portuguese-Annamese dictionary. Unfortunately, all manuscripts, in which the archaic forms and the first transcripts were recorded, are nowadays missing.

In summary: the first phase, involving research and testing the transcription of the Vietnamese language, through the use of Latin characters – in fact, the gradual formation of Quoc Ngu (Vietnamese Romanization) – occurred in the first half of the 17th century.

At this preliminary stage all the credits must go to Francisco de Pina, Gaspar do Amaral and António Barbosa, and also to the Italian missionary Christoforo Borri, the second European, after Francisco de Pina, to fluently speak the Vietnamese language.

But let´s get back to present days and resume our conversation with Nhu Hao, the parish priest of Hoi An.

During the early days of the Communist regime almost all the books of Nhu Hao’s personal library were confiscated, burned or sold to traders who used its leaves to wrap rice and vegetables. In an attempt to recover some of these books, the brave priest went to the market in search of the missing bits, and every time he found one he bought them back.

In those hard times he had to learn two fundamental rules: “mistrust is the mother of all security” and “not all truths are good to say.”

But even in those early years of the 1990s, when I first met him, the country’s future kept him worried. Although Vietnamese people were then able to “breathe better,” freedom existed only from an economic point of view. According to Nhu Hao, there continued to be religious persecution, although in a more stealthy mode.

“We live in a superficial way,” he lamented with a sad look. “You, foreigners cannot truly appreciate the qualities of the Vietnamese.”

With this phrase, so current and real, Father Hao defined the real situation, pointing out the existing gap between foreign and Vietnamese people, consciously fostered by the regime, which resulted in mutual ignorance and mistrust.

“Why do men first capture the bad side of things?” he asked, referring to the rampant immediacy that was afflicting Vietnam. Hao classified it as “bad influences from Taiwan and Singapore,” which only valued material possessions and easy profit, and that, according to him, were spiritually impoverishing the Vietnamese people.

Hao explained all this with the following metaphor of biblical contours: “Doing good is like climbing a mountain; doing evil is like slipping down the slope.”

Interested in research work, Nhu Hao had already written, in his typewriter, on very thin, almost transparent, pages, his hardships of years of house arrest, beyond the history of the dioceses, the life of one or another saint and the reports of some of their travels. He has also made the translation of various literary works of Victor Hugo, a writer who enjoyed a privileged status in Vietnam, and he had not lost his hope to publish these writings someday, “so that parishioners can have access to the history of Catholicism in Vietnam.”

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