The attraction of monastic life for the young in Vietnam

Report from Father Dominique Phan van Hien, Cistercian, on the experience of his community at Phuoc Son.

A GLANCE AT THE PAST

To see how vocations were accepted in the Cistercian Congregation of the Holy Family in Vietnam, we must go back over its history. The story of monastic life over the last 90 years in this country is varied and full of incidents. In 1918, on the Feast of the Assumption, Father Henri Denis, a member of the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris, who would later take the religious name Benedict, inaugurated the monastic life at Phuoc Son, in the Apostolic Vicariate of Hué.

   Until 1933, when Father Denis died, many young people knocked on the door of the newly founded monastery, undaunted by the considerable austerity of the life there. They came for the most part from the Major Seminaries of the North of the country, though a minority came from a poor peasant background.  These latter were happy to accept the life of lay brothers. However at the beginning of this foundation Father Henri Denis had decided that there would be only one class of monks. All the brethren would live in harmony as one family. Was this step a foretaste of the Second Vatican Council which requested the abolition of all differences between monks? I believe this attractive characteristic of the monastery of Phuoc Son might well have been the cause of many vocations.

   Then there was the personality of Fr Henri Denis himself, which was an important element in the attraction for  so many souls of a monastic vocation. Dom André Drillon, Abbot of Lérins, asserted that the founder of Phuoc Son was a man filled with the Holy Spirit. It was the Spirit which inspired his initiatives in adapting monastic life to the life-style and mentality of the Vietnamese people. Father John of the Cross Le Van Doan, in his thesis on our founder presented at the Sèvres Centre, stressed the attraction towards monastic life, felt especially by the first generation in the Monastery of Our Lady of Vietnam.

Fr Benedict Thuän's holiness, expressed in a life of sacrifice, close union with Christ and a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin, bore fruit in a daily increase in candidates, such that in 1936, three years after the founder's death, Phuoc Son had to ‘swarm' and make a new foundation in the North, in the Apostolic Vicariate of Phat Diem where Monsignor John Baptist Nguyên Ba Tong was the first Vietnamese bishop.

The year that the Father Founder was called to his Heavenly Father's House, the General Chapter of the Cistercian Order incorporated Phuoc Son into the Order (October 1933). This act of incorporation into a monastic tradition, heir to the riches of spiritual masters like Saint Stephen Harding and St Bernard, strengthened the attraction of these monastic values for the candidates. The Opening of the Cistercian Order of the Common Observance made it possible for the Monastery of Our Lady of Phuoc Son to bring about the Founder's dream, to belong to the Cistercian tradition and at the same time to adapt to the culture of the country.

In 1954 Vietnam was divided into two by the Geneva Agreement. The vast majority of Catholics migrated to the South. The monks of Phuoc Son, as well as those of the first foundation at Chäu Son, had to abandon everything to settle in the South. Judging by appearances, this might have seemed a catastrophe. However, thanks to God's providence, it was accepted and lived out as an opportunity for the South to develop in many respects, including the growth of Catholicism and of Religious Life.

To begin with, as with other Orders, the Congregation's monasteries went on admitting candidates to the monastic life through the juniorate. However, the results were not satisfactory. since at most one in ten students stayed on to become monks.

In 1975 both parts of Vietnam were united, and the country from then on was governed by the Communist Party. There were restrictions imposed in many areas, including that of religious activity. This resembled the countries of Eastern Europe before 1989. No religious institute was allowed to admit new vocations. Some monasteries of the Congregation, including Phuoc Son, had to break up into small groups in order to survive.

In 1978 catastrophe struck Phuoc Son. The monastery was confiscated and the monks imprisoned!  After four months of internment, all the monks were freed, except the Prior, Fr Dominic, and another monk, who were held for six more years. Once out of prison, the brothers gathered into small communities to continue their monastic life, but under conditions which, both materially and spiritually, presented great hardships. In these circumstances no one considered admitting new vocations. But! And God alone knows what these buts are!

In 1986 the Government introduced a policy of openness in trade with the outside world.  As a result religious practice became progressively easier. In 1989 the collapse of Communisr regimes in Eastern Europe had its effect on the political situation in Vietnem, though the country remained under the Communists.Fr Dominic Pham Van Hien, once prior and novice-master, decided to return to the monastery of Phuoc Son, after spending a few years with his family. With the consent of Superiors he set about reopening the novitiate. Many problems remain, but vocations increase daily, from the fourteen original novices, eight of whom are now ordained priests, to the present eight novices and forty-two postulants.       

WHAT ATTRACTION DO MONASTIC VALUES HOLD FOR THE YOUNG IN VIETNAM?

A review of the past gives us a glimpse of the attractions of monastic life in Phuoc Son.It is worth pointing out that the abundance of vocations is not just to monasteries, but to almost all religious bodies. Why is this so?

-     Firstly, the people are steeped in religious traditions: Buddhism, Confucianism, Caodäisme. These faiths have great esteem for the values of religious life, and those who follow this path are held in high regard. Nguyen Du, our famous national poet puts it thus: "Religious life is the source of happiness, while profane love is a chain binding us to misery." This veneration is part of a tradition which prompts men and women, thirsting for the absolute, to take refuge in temples and monasteries.

For those putting their faith in the Risen Christ, the multiplicity of vocations is a proof of Tertullian's saying: Sanguis martyrum, semen christianorum (the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians) Is the abundance of vocations to the consecrated life the result of persecution over the centuries? I would venture to say that times of persecution form a mournful winter for Christianity. But winter passes and spring comes with buds bursting and trees blossoming.

Besides the fore-mentioned reasons, we must turn our attention to the intrinsic attraction of contemplative monastic life.

1.  Steeped in Buddhism for over a thousand years, the Vietnamese population has an aptitude for the interior life as practised in Zen meditation and the choice of  a  non-violent life-style. So we might say that the majority of committed Christians have a propensity towards monastic life.

2.  As I outlined above, the style of monastic life at Phuoc Son reflects its Family Spirit, a spirit fully appreciated by every candidate who comes to the monastery. Some European monks suspect that these candidates are seeking that family feeling in compensation for the family they left behind in the world. Our Founding Father, when he chose the name, "Holy Family", wanted his monks to grow up in a family with Jesus at its heart. In other words, to live in a family spirit means to attain the ideal of the first Christians in Jerusalem: "They were of one heart and one mind." (Acts 4.32)

3.  Liturgy

The Vietnamese love to sing, for the Vietnamese tongue is a tonal one, with five different pitches. Foreigners, on hearing Vietnamese talk, often think that they are singing. After the Second Vatican Council, the Congregational Chapter set up a Commission for Liturgy and Sacred Music so as to adapt monastic liturgy to the mentality and language of ethnic groups.

Three decades later, the results of adaptation and renewal, looked at liturgically, are heartening: Commission members have composed ten different tunes to sing the psalms to, and have set hymns, antiphons, etc., to music. Furthermore, spiritual canticles have been written to Vietnamese tunes. Many of these are in use among Christians.

Thanks to the attempts at renewal mentioned above, and thanks also to the considerable number of monks, the liturgy is celebrated with solemnity and with a sense of devotion Those who come to the monastery for retreats, especially candidates for contemplative life, are moved from the outset of their stay by the offices they attend. As many of the brethren bear witness, the desire to become monks originates from this moment. Is it typical of the Benedictine tradition that such an attraction has been felt over the centuries in European monasteries?

4. SCHOLA DOMINICI SERVITII

Our Holy Father Benedict calls the monastery a school of the Lord's service. As a school, the monastery must give priority to education. Our monasteries have many vocations, but if they are to be fruitful, we must ensure that the formation we provide is truly monastic. The problem of forming the young increases in urgency, for the candidates have many different motives in coming to the monastery. Their choice of a monastic life is not always based on a hunger for the Gospel. But in time, and thanks to a formation that is gradual and not impatient for results, they come to appreciate the true values of religious life, and so arrive at the fullness of a contemplative vocation.

To this end, since 1990, the 800th anniversary of St Bernard's birth, a Formation Commission has been in place, consisting of the Novice-Masters and those responsible for formation in each community. The members started by producing a programme for basic formation and for ongoing formation. They then devised courses for each subject, principally Scripture, the Rule of St Benedict, and the Catholic Catechism. Thanks to the authors' commitment, the candidates felt inspired by this exposition of monastic values, and found their desire to search for God increasing by the day.

 CONCLUSION

Along with Pope John-Paul II, we are convinced that the consecrated life is the Lord's gift to the Church through his Holy Spirit. (V.C. 1) which is why, in the light of the efforts to follow monastic values that our Congregation demonstrates, we must accept that it is the Lord who draws candidates to our monasteries; the attraction does not come from us! The Holy Spirit is the wind, and the wind blows where it wills (Jn 3,8). Today the power of the Spirit is like an explosion in the heart of the Vietnamese Church, especially in the Cistercian Congregation of the Holy Family. We thank God for it, in our love for Christ, the cause of our hope.

   "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in your faith, so that in the power of the Holy Spirit you may be rich in hope." (Rom 15, 13)

Brother Dominic Pham Van Hien Abbey of Our Lady of Phuoc Son.