Where I work, it would be easy to mistake Catholicism for an ethnic religion; Celtic crosses and shamrocks are to be found everywhere. It would be easy were it not for the parish that sits immediately to the west of the place and visible from outside my office. Here in the parking lot of St. Henry Parish are two incredible statues. One is of Joseph and the other is a Madonna and Child. I am far from a statue kind of person, but all I can say is “wow!” They really are incredible. Look at these and you quickly see these are not the Mary and Joseph of white American nativity scenes. Mary is adorned in beautiful Asian garb (ao dai) with a headdress and sandals to match. Certainly poetic license as the parish is in large part Vietnamese.
But poetic license it is not. This Madonna is Our Lady of LaVang. This reported Marian apparition occurred during a time of persecution for Vietnamese Catholics and though the apparition does not have official recognition from the Vatican, it is of great importance to the Catholics of Vietnam and in 1961 Pope John XXIII made the Church of Our Lady of LaVang in the Quang Tri province a minor basilica and acknowledged the the vision of the Madonna as important to the piety of the people.
This is something we would not see in mainline Protestantism. A hundred years of historic/literary criticism of the Scripture may have meant we are now quick to dismiss the too European and twenty year old Mary with the sixty year old Joseph as untenable, but we would also not have Mary in an ao dai. There is a certain strength in this. It roots salvation history in a particular place and time which makes it easier to understand and has salvation coming from the Jews, which is Scriptural, but it also ignores that for the people of Vietnam the Madonna of LaVang is their particular. Even Luther said “if Mary be the Mother of our Lord, then she is the Mother of us all.” And if the salvation of humanity is in the message of the Christ, then the image of Christ and his Mother belongs to all people.
Here is Catholicism’s cultural strength. While Reformation Protestantism has been seeking to accommodate people based on Western values of equality and democracy (and these values are good ones) Catholicism has acknowledged that faith belongs in the hearts of the people regardless of the big ideas. It mattered little to the persecuted Catholics of Vietnam what theologians and professors said of Mary’s appearance, just as it mattered little to them to ponder on the great arguments for western values that resided in the halls of academic England, Germany, and America. It was enough that they were in the presence of the Lord’s Mother. One would wonder if the academics of Harvard and Oxford would have been so quick to keep their faith, let alone debate it, if they had found themselves in similar circumstance.
This weekend the faith community of St. Henry, named for a Holy Roman emperor, and now a multi-ethic parish in one of the world’s most diverse cities will celebrate a parish event that honors Vietnamese heritage. They will do this in the shadow of a young Jewish girl from Palestine that has come to others in many appearances.