Testimony of Fr Bernard

fbernardMy name is Bernard Tran Hong Nho. I belong to the Congregation of the Cistercian Holy Family, of the monastery of Our Lady of Phuoc Son in Vietnam. One year after my final profession I was given the mission of studying in France to gain the degree of Master of Liturgy. On the 28th April, 2006, I first set foot in Europe and indeed in France. At the moment I am in the third year of the first cycle of Theology, which lasts four years. Afterwards I shall do the twoyear second cycle in order to gain the degree of Master.

This is the story of my monastery:

In the region of Quang Tri in the centre of Vietnam in 1918 the first Cistercian foundation was made by Père Denis, a French priest of the Missions Etrangères of Paris. This first foundation was named ‘Phuoc Son’ (mountain of happiness).

Père Denis was born in 1880 at Boulogne-sur-Mer. He arrived in Vietnam on the 29th April, 1903, having received the order to leave for the mission, one month after his priestly ordination. During the 15 years in which he proclaimed the Good News in a country different from his own in both culture and language, Père Denis fostered in his heart the idea of founding a monastery for the sake of the Vietnamese to receive simple poor men who wished to live monastic life. He said, ‘There are in Indo-China many convents for women, but not a single monastery for men.’ He asked permission from his bishop to gather a few young people and to live with them according to the Rule of St Benedict, but the bishop advised him to appeal to the Trappists. So Père Denis wrote to the abbots of France and Italy, then to the Carthusians and Benedictines, but he received no satisfactory answer. Faced with this pretty desperate situation Père Denis nevertheless continued to prepare himself for his future foundation. He prayed much, often for long hours before the Blessed Sacrament.

On the 14th August, 1918, with the authorisation of his bishop, he set off accompanied by his sole disciple, a Vietnamese layman, with very simple luggage: a cock to tell the time and a few necessities. He set up on a plot called Phuoc Son offered by a local believer. He chose the next day, the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, to celebrate a first Mass in this place and mark the birth of his new foundation, which bore the name ‘Our Lady of Phuoc Son’, with the mission of praying for unbelievers.

Despite all difficulties the young community, which developed very rapidly under the leadership of Père Denis, was first established by the Bishop of Hue under the name of the Congregation of the Holy Family. It afterwards asked for affiliation to the Cistercian Order. On the 25th July, 1933, Père Denis died without seeing the success of this affiliation. Two years later the monastery of Our Lady of Phuoc Son was officially affiliated to the Cistercian Order of the Common Observance.

When the régime changed in 1945 the monastery of Phuoc Son was obliged to move to Thu Duc in the present diocese of Saigon. In 1978 the buildings were ‘borrowed’ by the government, two religious were imprisoned and the rest, numbering about a hundred, were dispersed. They divided into small groups and set themselves up in various regions of Vietnam.

In 1987, when the new régime came into force, the situation of the communities changed somewhat. Little by little they achieved legal recognition, organised themselves into abbeys and recruited new mem bers. It could be said that the dramatic dispersion of the original monastery turned out to be fortunate because it resulted in the implantation of contemplative life throughout the country and ensured the development of the Congregation. In fact the old monastery no longer exists, but in its place eleven new abbeys of monks and nuns have been built.

At the present day the Congregation of the Holy Family consists of eleven monasteries, nine of monks and two of nuns, representing 800 members. The largest community is the Abbey of Our Lady of Phuoc Son, the mother-house, located in the south, 100km from Saigon. It consists of 150 monks, of whom 19 are priests and 131 professed brothers, to whom 24 novices, 12 postulants and 8 aspirants must be added.

The expansion of the Congregation has brought certain difficulties to the communities at the financial level and for the formation of young monks. As for resources, the monks work in the fields to cultivate rice and livestock (fish, pigs, cows, etc). Despite their efforts, these communities face a difficult material situation, and often need to make external appeals to keep their heads above water. As for formation, we try to create schools of philosophy and theology to form the young monks within the monastery, whereas earlier we were obliged to send monks outside the monastery for such studies. However, we lack teachers and formators to be able to ensure the spiritual guidance of young monks. Thanks to you, AIM and AMTM, our communities have brothers and sisters who are doing their studies of philosophy and theology in the Institutes of Europe, and we hope that this formation will be able to continue.

Our future is Divine Providence. We entrust our communities and our Congregation to the Love and Power of the Lord who always hears prayers and supplications. Throughout his life our founder, Père Denis, showed unfailing confidence in God and the Virgin Mary, and this must remain a model for us to imitate, for, like him, we are called to live out this confidence intensely in all our difficulties.