saint VINCENT LIEM PAX ,OP
Saint Vincent PHẠM HIẾU LIÊM
*Conference of Four Religions.
Reviewing the martyrs’ lives, we can see that they were witnesses for Christ twice: with their lives and with their words. They had talked to profess their faith. Some corrected falsifications, some explained theology. But the most fascinating story among the 117 Vietnamese martyrs’ stories was the three-day discussion between two Catholic priests, Fr. Vincent Liêm and his friend Fr. Jacinto Gia, and representatives of the three other major religions in Vietnam at the time: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.
Where does man come from? What is the purpose of life? What happens after death? Those were the three biggest issues of mankind that were discussed in the conference of four religions. The polite and precise words, superb analysis on the history together with excerpts from writings from Confucius, Lao-tze as well as Buddhism as recorded in the book “Conference of Four Religions” which was reprinted 14 times in Sài gòn, will forever remind us of Fr. Vincent Liêm, the book’s author and one of the panelists as well as the first Vietnamese priest being martyred.
*Vincent of Peace.
Vincent Phạm Hiếu Liêm was welcomed into this world in 1732, in the hamlet of Thôn Đông, Trà Lũ village, Thiên Trường city, Sơn Nam Hạ province. His father, Mr. Antôn Doãn, was one of the hamlet leaders. His mother, Mrs. Maria Doãn, was very religious, devoting her life to raise her children. At 12, Liêm entered the monastic life at the seminary in Lục Thuỷ. After 6 years of education and training, he exhibited intelligent and spiritual traits that caught the eyes of Dominican priests working in the east vicariate of Tonkin. Vicar Espinoza Huy chose him as one of the men awarded scholarship from the king of Spain, and sent him to Manila (The Philippines) to further his education at the Juan de Letran institution.
After three years of overachieving at school, he joined the Dominican order and received his habits on 9/9/1753. The following year, he solemnly professed sacred vows along with three other Vietnameses, adopting the nom-de-guerre Vincent of Peace (VINHSƠN HOÀ BÌNH). Thereafter, Vincent of Peace started the four years of theology and was ordained a priest in 1758.
After the ordination Fr. Liêm began his repatriation to serve his homeland. On October 3rd, 1758, he could not hide his emotions saying farewell to his professors and friends before boarding the ship to go home after eight years of friendship. Arriving in Trung Linh on 1/20/1759, he could not hold his tears of joy reuniting with Vicar Huy who met him at the dock, as well as relatives, fellow villagers, and Christians who were also eagerly awaiting the “triumphant” homecoming of a priest returning from foreign studies.
*The Messenger of Good News.
Back in Vietnam, at first Fr. Vincent Liêm was appointed a professor at Trung Linh seminary. He poured all his skills and energy to transfer all his knowledge to students. But the real wish of Fr. Vincent of Peace was to spread the Good News of peace to others. Not too long after, he left the seminary to enter the field of evangelization. In turn, he assumed pastoral responsibilities for parishes: Quất Lâm, Lục Thuỷ, Trung Lễ, Trung Linh, Trung Lao and when Fr. Jacinto Gia was arrested, he also served the Lai Ổn region.
His missionary works were not only limited to the parishes but also expanded to the villages on non-believers, regardless of danger of the religious persecution, especially under Lord Trịnh Sâm (1767-1782). No matter where it was, he always demonstrated his ardent love and care to all, as a result people really loved him. He encouraged all to be brave; consoled those who were in anguish, and never hesitated doing things that would benefit them spiritually.
Although very successful in his missions, he was never satisfied with himself. In his letters, we can still read: “I beg the bishop and the provincial to ask God, during mass and in your prayers, for me to be better and to accept difficulties as God’s will.” Due to the work of missionaries, a prince, the sixth brother of Lord Trịnh Doanh, wanted to receive the sacrament of baptism before his death. Fr. Liêm received the news as the joy of the Vietnamese Church, and announced the news to the provincial in Manila.
*Testimonials in the Public Conference.
In 1773, Fr. Vincent Liêm was preaching at Lương Đống parish, preparing them for feast day of Our Lady of the Rosary. Informed, government officials ordered Mr. Điều Cam leading soldiers to arrest the priest at Mr. Nhiêu Nhuệ’s home on February 10th. After a bout of savage beatings, they tied him and the two altar boys, Matthew Vũ and Joseph Bích, and took them to the canton chief Xích Bích. The canton chief jailed him for 12 days. No longer able to wait for ransom money that never came, he sent the priest to the Phổ Hiền city officials. There, Fr. Vincent Liêm met up with another Dominican priest, Fr. Castaneda Gia, who was already in jail. The two were happy having the opportunity to share the hardship of prison life.
On October 10th, the city official ordered the two priests carrying a cangue inscribed with the words “French Missionary”, and then entrusted them to the Thần Khê mandarin for their transportation to the royal capital of Thăng Long (Hanoi) to appear before Lord Trịnh Sâm. Here was the place that the conference of four religions took place.
Lord Trịnh Sâm had an uncle who was also a high-ranking government official. The high-ranking official’s mother, Mrs. Thượng Trâm of Hải Dương, was a Christian convert who often advised her son to convert. So this official had the idea of calling on representatives of the four religions for a conference to talk about their religion. He said: “My heart which loves the truth wants to know which religion is the right one to follow.” The exchange lasted three days, each day on a topic on the origin of life, the purpose of life, and life after death. Fr. Liêm and Fr. Gia, representing Christianity, had explained so superbly that the mandarin applauded enthusiastically. But knowing that Lord Trịnh Sâm still banned Christianity, he did not convert.
A few days later, the two priests had an opportunity to talk about Christianity with the Queen Mother, Thái Tôn, Lord Trịnh Sâm’s mother. Due to her curiosity, she invited them in. The real conversation was never known, but the last question from the Queen Mother was: “If your religion is the only true one, then where non-believers go after their deaths?” Fr. Liêm replied: “Her Majesty, they will go to hell!” Hearing that the Queen Mother, Thái Tôn, became enraged, and using her position as the mother, forced her son, Lord Trịnh Sâm, to sentence the two priests to die by beheading and to banish the two altar boys who were later freed after paying 100 piasters.
On November 7th, the two priests were led to their execution followed by a big crowd. When the procession arrived at the royal palace, a courtier read the sentence. According to royal tradition at the time, the king could pardon the prisoners. Another courtier raised his voice: “The European religion has been forbidden, but until now, no Vietnamese had been executed because of this religion, so His Majesty pardons the individual named Liêm.” Upon hearing that, Fr. Liêm quickly answered:
“Whatever reasons for which Fr. Gia will be executed, I should be executed for he same reasons. Fr. Gia is a priest and I am also a priest. If the laws of the land do not punish me, then they should not punish Fr. Gia. I am a Vietnamese, so I should follow the laws more than he does. If Fr. Gia is executed while I am pardoned, then the king’s sentence is unjust. I beg to pardon both or to execute both. Then the sentence is just.”
Fr. Liêm’s unmistakable words probably came from the spirit of brotherhood, unwilling to abandon a brother, or really were meant to petition for the pardon of the priest friend, because they really touched those present who all wanted both to be pardoned. Those words were also came from the desire to sacrifice his life to be a witness for the true faith.
Nevertheless the sentence did not change. The two heroes of faith cheerfully said the Nicennes’ creed and the prayer venerating Our Lady the Queen on the way to the execution field of Đông Mơ. The two fatal swings of the sabers helped them achieve their mission of being perfect witnesses for Christ. Their bodies were taken and buried in Trung Linh.
On 5/20/1906 Pope Pius X elevated to the rank of blessed. Separately Saint Vincent Phạm Hiếu Liêm was chosen to be patron saint of many schools among them is the Juan de Latran in the Philippines. The saint really was the shining symbol of honor for Vietnam to the outside world