Vietnam: Catholics in remote area have first Christmas Mass in decades

 This past year was especially memorable for Catholic communities living remote northwestern corner of Vietnam, as they were able to attend their first Christmas Masses in 40 years.

After celebrating Midnight Mass in his own parish of Sa Pa, in Lao Cai province, attended by 2,000 ethnic Hmong Catholics, Father Pierre Pham Thanh Binh drove northwest through mountain roads to visit the remote communities. By the time he returned three days later, on 28 December, he had traveled 800 kilometres and celebrated Christmas Masses at four villages in neighboring Lai Chau and Dien Bien provinces, UCA News report.

At his first stop, Lai Chau town, about 70 kilometers from Sa Pa, 600 local Catholics had prepared an open-air stage for Christmas Mass. "This is the first time we have publicly welcomed a priest to celebrate Christmas Mass since we moved to this area four decades ago," said Anna Nguyen Thi Khoi, a lay leader. Catholics had moved here from Nam Dinh and Thai Binh provinces, on the coast of northeastern Vietnam.

Khoi, 60, told UCA News that local Catholics in early December petitioned local government authorities to allow Father Binh to visit and celebrate Mass for Christmas. After receiving approval, the Catholics erected the stage which they decorated it with colorful flags and strips of cloth, near a Catholic home where they have gathered and prayed on Sunday evenings since 2007. They also erected a Nativity scene and hung a big star from the roof of the house.

On Christmas Eve, local children took part in a catechism contest, sang hymns and danced to welcome the Infant Jesus, according to Khoi, owner of a local restaurant.

"This is evidence God loves his lambs in this remote area," she said. Priests had not been allowed to pay pastoral visits to local Catholics, who earlier were not allowed even to gather and pray at each other's homes, she added.

After Mass, Fr Binh traveled 200 kilometres to Noong Het village in Dien Bien town. About 200 local Catholics crowded into a house belonging to one of them for the Mass he celebrated at 9pm.

Francis Xavier Nguyen Ba Huan, the host, said local government authorities had always banned Christmas celebrations, but this year "they ignored our religious activities." Huan said local Catholics also erected a big crib at his house, where they prayed and sang Christmas hymns the previous night. "We are very happy to publicly attend Christmas Mass at our village for the first time." the father of three remarked.
Dien Bien town has around 300 Catholics from families who moved here

The following day, Fr Binh went to Tua Chua district, Lai Chau province, and celebrated Masses at two Catholic homes for about 100 people.
Joseph Nguyen Van Ha, a member of the Catholic community there, said that since December 2007, Father Binh has visited them four times and celebrated six Masses, including the recent Christmas Masses. Catholics moved to Tua Chua in the 1980s.

Fr Binh then journeyed on to Noong Heo village, 220 kilometres from Tua Chua, and celebrated Mass for 80 people at a Catholic home. He also baptized two people.

Fr Binh, 37, who was ordained in 2006, said he was very tired but felt "happy to give pastoral care to people who are eager to attend Mass on Christmas."

Source: UCA News

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