Adaptation and transcendance of the ‘Lovers of the Cross’ with regard to the Confucian society of Vietnam

Sr Marie Tuyet Mai, Congregation of the Lovers of the Cross

Here is a testimony that is not strictly part of our topic. But it is worth presenting in our newsletter. Here is an indigenous community that has no European influence at its origin. Nevertheless the sisters were able to discern what values of their culture they could incorporate into their religious life, and how the gospel brought them a liberation and a way to transcend their cultural traditions. At the beginning of the article the Lovers of the Cross, born in Cochin China and Tonkin in the 17th century, introduce themselves. At the request of Father Martin Neyt, Sister Mary Tuyet Mai agreed to provide a summary of their participation in the symposium ‘Faces of Women Missionaries in Mission Lands’ held on 27-28 March 2009 at the Institut Catholique of Paris.


Pierre Lambert de la Motte, the founder of the Lovers of the Cross, participated with François Pallu in the foundation of Foreign Missions of Paris. Rome created a Vietnamese Church by appointing bishops on September 9, 1659, 350 years ago. We must bear in mind that this project to establish a religious congregation of women occurred not in a recognized and developed Church, but in a Christian community which was still in its infancy and subject to persecution. Pierre Lambert de la Motte intended that European religious should come to join him in establishing the religious life, but that turned out to be impossible.

However, we can say today that this was a grace from God, because the Amantes de la Croix have flourished for two centuries without any European religious model. This is the reason why they have totally retained in their religious life the cultural characteristics of Vietnam. First I must present to you the Lovers of the Cross at a moment when they were the sole religious in Vietnam.

Bishop Lambert founded the first community of Lovers of the Cross on February 19, 1670 in Tonkin and in Decmber 1671 in Cochin China. Six years after their foundation the Lovers of the Cross numbered one hundred, spread over several communities. Bishop Lambert limited each community to ten members.

Under the rules of the time, nuns were bound to enclosure and solemn vows, if they pronounced simple and temporary vows; renewed annually, without enclosure, they remained only a sisterhood. This is why the Roman edict of August 28, 1678 formalized the Lovers of the Cross as a sisterhood, although in fact they were from the beginning regarded as religious.

1. Adaptation

1.1. The sense of perfection

From the beginning the enthusiasm of young Tonkinese to embrace Christian chastity has been astonishing. At that time all Vietnamese culture was based on the human formation taught by Confucius. This involved the practice of the five virtues: nhân = sociability-humanity (respect for others, having a good heart), Nghia= filial piety (recognition, respect for parents and ancestors), le= decency (observance of rituals, customs), trí= studious mind (intellectual courage, ‘he who is without study is also without virtue’), tin = credibility (trustworthiness). In Vietnam, everyone knows by heart nine golden words: Tu Than, Te Gia, Tri Quoc, Bình Thiên Ha (go first for perfection in order later to be able to manage a family, in order later to be able to govern the country, in order later to be able to create a world of peace). This means that personal perfection is the basis for everything else. For girls the emphasis is on four virtues: cong= domestic work, dung= beauty, ngôn= good speech, hanh= the right attitude. These four virtues cannot exist without the three submissions: to father before marriage, to the husband after marriage, and to the eldest son when widowed.

All this was summed up as self-improvement, becoming a perfect person. If girls were attracted to the consecrated life, this was because it presented itself as a life of perfection. Moreover, in the Vietnamese language, the same term tu applies to the search for perfection and to consecrated life. Christianity was one way of fulfilling the striving for perfection required by Confucianism.

1.2. Family Spirit

The playing-field of Confucianism is the family. Perfection is to be sought not in isolation but in the family. It is not right for a Vietnamese to be celibate without family life, to separate from one’s own family without joining another family structure. At the beginning of the evangelization this new family for priests, catechists and seminarists was called the House of God, a real house with a family life. For women who chose the religious life the family house was called the House of Blessing, and this was the name spontaneously given to the Lovers of the Cross.

Everyone, Christians and non-Christians, alike call them Di (‘aunt’ indicating a certain degree of integration into the family of each one), Di Phuoc (‘the aunt who does good’) or Co Mu, Ba Mu (‘Miss’ or ‘Lady’) in Tonkin. These are marks of deep respect, deepest feeling reserved for them. When religious sisters from Europe come they are called So, a transcription of ‘Sister’. To designate priests another family term was chosen. They are called Cu or Co (great-grandfather, the ultimate expression of family respect).

The Vietnamese translation of the term ‘congregation’ by Dong is a good example of inculturation. The word does not address the institutional aspect, a matter of structure and rules, but means ‘the great family’, ‘clan, but also ‘descent’, ‘line’, ‘filiation’, joining together all the generations linked by blood. Proposing the new religious congregation as Dong to the young Vietnamese at first responded well to a Confucian context. From the earliest communities the intention was to join the different age-groups in such a way that the young respected the elders and the elders regarded the young as their daughters or nieces. For them the community was considered a new family. The Confucian character of the communities of the Lovers of the Cross was strengthened by the missionary who took on the role of father of the family in these female communities. However, the Vietnamese women kept their prerogatives, which were more extensive than in China. The domain directed by the woman, the interior of the house, included the community, care of the sick, education of the young, food for those who needed it. At that time it was a blessing for a village to have a House of Blessing at its centre, for the villagers realised that their sick would be cared for and fed, their children would be instructed. The term Nha Phuoc implies the same emotional attachment as the Vietnamese feels for his Dinh, the communal house of his native village.

One can understand how the family characteristics of the congregation of the Lovers of the Cross marked the Christian community. Their houses formed the centre of parishes where there was no House of God. The care of Mgr Lambert de la Motte to limit the houses of the Lovers of the Cross to ten members allowed the multiplication of foundations, each community serving a separate sanctuary. In view of persecution it was impossible to build churches which were too visible, and a missionary making a hasty tour of the villages would find everything necessary for Mass. While their mission forced priests and catechists to be itinerants, the Lovers of the Cross could be relied on for a welcome on the part of the Christian community. It was to the Lovers of the Cross that they turned to learn or to bring the latest news, especially in times of persecution. From time to time the Lovers of the Cross also made a circuit of the villages around each of their centres, sleeping in Christian homes while they fulfilled their mission. When a priest had no catechist to send on a mission, he sent a pair of Lovers of the Cross to preach in the markets and the non-Christian villages. That constituted a break with Confucian tradition, which obliged women to stay at home.

2. Break with Tradition

2.1. The status of women

If the Lovers of the Cross adapted to the spirit of Confucianism, they never wholly conformed to it. For Confucius virtue came by marrying and at the same time he held that men and women had different functions in life. For the Lovers of the Cross, however, Mgr Lambert had laid down that ‘it is of the highest importance to act in all ways as a representative of Christ’ – and Christ was a man! To a certain extent they worked with priests in the pastoral sphere, especially with women. Yin and yang are qualifiers which correspond to the way in which women (yin= shadow, cold, weakness, submission, ignorance, in a word everything bad) and men (yang = light, warmth, vigour, commandment, knowledge, action, and in a word everything good in primitive Chinese society) behave. It is a blessing of Destiny to be a man, a curse of Destiny to be a woman, and there is nothing to be done about it. The thought of Confucius contributed to fix firmly this way of seeing things. This was expressed in a Rite which could not be modified without putting the whole order of the world in danger. Such is the conception of the female which Vietnam inherited from the Chinese world. The sole glory of the woman is maternity, and even that does not abolish her submission to her husband.

2.2. A woman’s right to dispose of herself

With regard to a vow of chastity Christianity and Confucianism find themselves in conflict and at loggerheads. Their positions are irreconcilable. The Confucian woman cannot engage with life. She can dispose neither of her body nor of herself; she has no autonomy to mix in society. She cannot choose or refuse her husband. In addition Confucians could not take seriously a vow of chastity; they could give it no value at all. Often the houses of the sisters were considered place of refuge for stubborn girls. It was the business of Confucians to bring them back to the path of obedience, if necessary by violence. From time to time people thought of finding there girls to marry and take out of the community. Hence no house of the Lovers of the Cross could exist in a non- Christian environment. The Christian community guaranteed their protection, and this reinforced the bonds between them and the rest of the community, giving the Vietnamese parish a particular character, at a time when the Lovers of the Cross were the only religious communities known in Vietnam.


The Lovers of the Cross paid a heavy price for their fidelity to their vows. Between 1857 and 1861 hundreds of them died, especially between August and September 1885, when 270 religious perished. History still treasures their fame and the painful deaths suffered by the martyred sisters: Madeleine Nguyen Thi Hau (+ 1841), Agnes Soan, Anne Tri (+ 1861-1862) and others. In 2008 the Lovers of the Cross in Vietnam number 5,630 professed sisters, 796 novices, 644 postulants and 2,700 enquirers. In accordance with their Founder’s objectives, their activities cover four areas, apostolate, education, health and social work. Despite limitations of every kind (ability, resources, etc) they do their best in offering their five loaves and their two fish in the multiplication of loaves. God will multiple this to bring love and salvation to his people through the spirituality of the Cross which he confided to Mgr Lambert de la Motte, a child of France, the ‘eldest daughter’ of the Church.