“Indefatigable missionary Alexander de Rhodes was finally expelled in May 1630 from Vietnam leaving behind at least 50,000 Catholics trained by Vietnamese catechists and a cultural heritage that no Vietnamese nowadays will do without. His name continues to be dear to our collective memory because thanks to him we are the only country in the Far East to have a Roman alphabet.” With these words, a writer close to the communist government of Vietnam, remembers the great French Jesuit, Alexander de Rhodes, who from Macao (the same house from where Ricci had begun his journey to Peking) went to Vietnam. He worked there for 17 years. His main contribution to Vietnamese culture was his Romanization of the language. For centuries, Vietnam had been a vassal state of China. It was only around the year 1428 that Vietnam became truly independent from China.
Once independent , Vietnam continued using Chinese characters (administration, examinations) but felt the need to create a new form of writing to express spoken Vietnamese. In the past, Chinese characters were used to write theVietnamese spoken language, but that made the writing more difficult than Chinese itself! Alexander de Rhodes began the hard and toilsome work of transcribing spoken Vietnamese by using Latin letters. After a long process of correction, and over many generations, the spoken Vietnamese language, with its six tones, was perfectly rendered into a written form, and could be easily learned by the common people.
An understandable written language does much to eradicate illiteracy. This bi-cultural language formulation circulated first only within the Church. Later on, it was used by the first Vietnamese writers and by newspapers. It was “officially” recognized as the written language of the nation at the beginning of the twentieth century. Alexander de Rhodes published his Vietnamese-Latin-Portuguese dictionary in 1651. The Jesuit died in 1660. Catholicism was a late-comer to Vietnam after Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism came on the scene. Catholicism has developed for about 400 years or so. The Catholic Church has spread quickly in Vietnam. Church records reveal that by the early 20th century, the number of believers in Vietnam was already numbering nearly one million. And the Evangelization method of forming entire “Catholic villages” had already taken place from the earliest days. In some regions of the country, dozens of villages were totally Catholic in population.
Unfortunately, Vietnam had to face countless threats initiated by various colonial powers. The Church was caught often in the middle of endless wars. After the Portuguese, then came the French, who were to rule from 1887. The French would rule the country until they were defeated by the Vietnamese army under the leadership of the “Father of Vietnam, Hochi-minh. During World War II, the Japanese occupied Vietnam. After the war, the Americans came to Vietnam. In 1954, the Geneva Accord had split Vietnam into the North (under Communist regime) and the South (American allied). The Vietnam war between the North and the South went on for almost 25 years, until 1975, when Vietnam was reunified under communist government. This is now a long and painful period of reconstruction and of opening up to the world community. Vietnam has become a member of ASEAN, and has diplomatic relations with the European Union(1990) and USA (1995).
Today, the Catholic Church in Vietnam is alive and well.. The faith of the six million Vietnamese Catholics has been tested throughout the nation’s history. As in all Asian Churches, thousands of Vietnamese martyrs stand as a symbol of courage and hope.