Ho Chi Minh City's Carmelite monastery that attracts young people
by Stefano Vecchia

It was founded in 1861 by the Discalced Carmelites of Lisieux. Before dying, St. Therese of the Child Jesus said, "I will go there one day.  Sister Benedicta: "For us, this is a promise that becomes concrete every day, when her example of holiness inspires many young Vietnamese to give their lives in the service of God and humanity." 

Milan (AsiaNews) - A cloistered monastery in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. Where - despite the many wounds experienced in 160 years of history - vocations to the contemplative life are flourishing today.

An interview published in this month's issue of Mondo e Missione, the PIME missionaries magazine, to mark the World Day of Cloistered Life, or Pro Orantibus Day, the day of cloistered nuns celebrated by the Catholic Church throughout the world every year on November 21, the liturgical feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

In the interview, Sister Benedicta, spokesperson for the Vietnamese Carmel, comments on the springtime of vocations in her community, "Pope Francis says, 'When young people and old people together open themselves to the Holy Spirit, they create a wonderful combination.' Here in Ho Chi Minh City we are also living this experience together in the Carmelite vocation, looking to the future with faith in the action of the Holy Spirit who is constantly renewed."

The former Saigon monastery is historically the heart of the Carmelite presence in the country. An ancient experience, marked by many difficult moments: "It can be said that the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites in Ho Chi Minh City was born from persecution," continues Sister Benedicta. "Monsignor Dominique Lefèbvre, priest of the Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP), apostolic vicar in what is now South Vietnam since 1835, had entered the country clandestinely when the presence of Christian missionaries was still forbidden: already from the prison in which he had been imprisoned, he had expressed the desire to see a Carmel born in that land. In 1849, after his release, he renewed his invitation to the Carmelite nuns of Lisieux, his native city. In October 1860 a group of nuns arrived in Nha Trang and in 1861 four of them founded the Carmelite monastery in Saigon, opening the way to the birth of dozens of other monasteries in Vietnam and throughout Asia".

A few years later, St. Therese of the Child Jesus would enter the very Carmel of Lisieux where she heard about this monastery in Asia. "On September 2, 1897, less than a month before her death, to the words of a sister who pointed out to her the desire of the Carmel of Saigon to welcome her on a visit, St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus replied, 'I will go, I will go one day.' For us, this is a promise that is made concrete every day, when her example of holiness inspires so many young Vietnamese to give their lives in the service of God and humanity".

After the victory of the Communists in the war in 1975 all the French nuns had to leave the monastery. But despite the difficulties, today there are eight Carmelite centers in Vietnam, with 260 religious. "In Vietnam," adds Sister Benedicta, "and even more so in a city as vibrant with initiatives as Ho Chi Minh City, the desire for power, the obsession for wealth and consumerism are becoming predominant."

"Yet,deep in our hearts there is always a thirst for happiness that invites us to look to Heaven and seek the Absolute in solitude. Everyone knows that ours is a life of prayer and union with God within the perimeter of the cloister. That is why they contact us both by phone and through e-mails and letters to ask for our intercession. Many come to share with us their needs, problems, concerns, trials in daily life, illnesses or other aspects of life; they ask us to include their intentions in our daily prayers. The doors of our convent are always open."