Originally created 08/15/98

Biggest-ever Catholic festival in Vietnam gets under way



LA VANG, Vietnam -- Some came to pray for an end to their ailments. Others had loftier goals in mind, like peace and prosperity for their families and communities.

Mostly they came because they believe.

Vietnam's biggest-ever Roman Catholic gathering got under way Thursday with an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 pilgrims on hand, and up to 150,000 expected before the festival ends Saturday.

Nothing could keep them away from the 200th anniversary of an apparition of the Virgin Mary, they said -- neither the steamy heat nor the rumors, spread by government officials and state media, that they would face shortages of food, water and accommodations.

"When I first came here, I sat in front of that statue and tears rolled down my face," said Bui Quang Dong, 45, referring to a towering rendition of Mary holding the Christ child under three tall trees.

Dong came with his family from Dong Ngai province in part to pray for his undersized 10-year-old daughter to grow more rapidly.

The family arrived Monday and has been staying in a tent village set up behind the church, still battered a quarter-century after it suffered serious damage in some of the fiercest fighting of the Vietnam War.

The crowd heard a message from Pope John Paul II recalling the story of how the Virgin Mary appeared to a group of needy travelers here 200 years ago, the only such apparition recorded in Southeast Asia.

"From that time when she appeared, she has given help to those who need it, despite the ups and downs in this place," the pope said in the message, which was read in Vietnamese to the crowd.

Buddhism is Vietnam's primary religion, but an estimated 8 million of its 78 million people are Catholics.

With temperatures hitting nearly 100 degrees, virtually every bit of shade had been snatched up when the sun emerged just as a procession of more than 1,000 faithful signaled the festival's start.

The parade was an intriguing blend of Catholic and Vietnamese traditions.

Leading 150 black-frocked priests were groups of young women from each archdiocese, dressed in white ao dais, the traditional tunic-over-pants outfit that slowly is being replaced in today's culture by jeans and other Western wear.

Mixed in were men in brilliant red-and-gold outfits with matching conical hats and leggings, along with a few members of the Bana and Sedang ethnic minorities, wearing long strands of beads that clacked together as they walked.

A few participants were Vietnamese who now live in the United States, Australia and elsewhere. Some said they were pleasantly surprised that the government, which has a history of uneasy relations with organized religions, was keeping its distance.

Police were handling only the traffic along the one-lane road that runs for about a mile from Highway 1 to the site. Security inside the church's 17-acre compound was being handled by more than 1,000 orange-capped church volunteers.

Contacts between Vietnam and the Vatican have long been strained over government restrictions, and the two do not have diplomatic relations. But signs of a desire for improvement have come in recent months.

In March, the government approved the Vatican's appointment of a new archbishop for Ho Chi Minh City, a city of a half-million Roman Catholics, after a visit by a Vatican delegation. The position had been left vacant for more than three years after the government rejected the first nomination.

Last month, the government said it would allow a U.N. representative on religious intolerance to visit in October, three years after he first asked to come.