The shrine of Our Lady of La Vang
by Bernardo Cervellera

No tourist guides talk about this place which draws upwards of 5 million faithful on Marian feasts. A devotion that is also widespread among Buddhists and Protestants. After years of destruction, a new sanctuary is now emerging.

Huế (AsiaNews) - The shrine of Our Lady of La Vang is considered Vietnam’s national shrine. On the feast day of the Assumption, August 15, it is possible to attend solemn masses that draw up to 5 million faithful. Still, no tourist guide, religious or secular, speaks of this enthralling phenomenon in a country that is still for all intents and purposes communist, even if it is taking small steps towards religious freedom.

The shrine complex stands on a plain in central Vietnam, in an area not yet reached by the rapid economic development that is transforming the country.

It was built in memory of the apparition of the Virgin and Child, which took place over two centuries ago, in 1798 at the “Cây Lá Vằng” forest (The trees of La Vang), in the province of Quảng Trị (today the territory of the archdiocese of Hue). A statue of the Virgin and Child, dressed in traditional Vietnamese clothes, stands on a stone and concrete sculpture in the form of a copse of trees (photo 1).

At the end of the 18th century, an edict by Emperor Cảnh Thịnh banned Catholicism from Vietnam, initiating a period of fierce persecution. The Virgin Mary appeared to a group of Vietnamese Catholics who had fled to the forest. Our Lady assured them of comfort and the end of the persecution, indicating a herb ("La Vang") to treat diseases. Even today, the nuns who together with the parish priest are in charge of the pastoral care of the complex, have areas where they grow this miraculous grass.

The cult for Our Lady of La Vang is widespread not only among Catholics, but also among the faithful of other religions including Buddhists and Protestants, who pray to the Virgin Mary for special graces and healings.

The history of La Vang is intertwined with that of the country and the Church of Vietnam. The church built on the site of the apparition of the Virgin was destroyed during periods of persecution (1830-1885). At the end of the 19th century a new chapel arose, to which Pope John XXIII conferred the title of minor basilica (1961).

With the war and reunification of Vietnam under the communist regime, the shrine was left to rack and ruin, while the authorities attempted to curb devotion and any attempt at restoration. In 1998, Pope John Paul II expressed the desire that on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the apparition of the Virgin, the sanctuary could be rebuilt.

To date, behind the remains of the old sanctuary, built in the 1800s (photo 2), a new sanctuary is being built which will be inaugurated in six years (photo 3). Many dioceses around the world, together with Vietnamese Catholics abroad, are sending donations for the gigantic sacred building that will be on par with the Marian shrines of Lourdes, Fatima, Czestokowa, or Velankanni.

Meanwhile, the complex has been enriched with chapels, hostels, a Way of the Cross and a giant panel dedicated to the 117 Vietnamese martyrs (see video). Each station of the Way of the Cross is accompanied by images and information about some of the martyrs. For example, the station of Jesus who meets Veronica is paired by the presentation of the martyr Thanh Phanxico Nguyen Van Trung, a 22-year-old soldier killed for his faith. The quote taken from him reads: "I am ready to fight and die for my homeland, but do not ask me to renounce my Christian faith" (photo 4).

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