They Watch Over It Still
by Rachel Shrader
From humble beginnings in Switzerland in the 1980s, the Fraternity has spread over the entire globe, with a presence in many European mainland countries, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. With the FSSP’s mission apostolates in Nigeria and Colombia, this relatively small group of priests covers five of six habitable continents. The only one that has eluded them is Asia.
But perhaps that is about to change.
In 2019, Fr. Laurent Demets, FSSP, arrived in Vietnam. His mission: to bring the Latin Mass to a country that is thousands of miles from the next-nearest FSSP center (if our calculations are correct, the next-closest is Australia), where the population is only 7-8% Catholic and which is surrounded by non-Christian countries on all sides. Like so many missionaries before him, the challenges confronting Fr. Demets from the outset were daunting in human terms.
But God’s work is not bound by human limitations, and Fr. Demets brings not only experience but a genuine and long-standing love for Vietnam to his work. He has been a priest for two decades, having celebrated the 20th anniversary of his ordination earlier this month. Originally from France, he spent the first part of his religious life with a Benedictine community in his home country before deciding to attend the Fraternity’s seminary in Wigratzbad, Germany. He has served in France, the United States, and most recently, at our apostolate in Québec City in French-speaking Canada.
His particular interest in Vietnam goes back to his childhood, when he heard stories of his great-grandfather’s work in the French colonial administration of Vietnam. Before his vocation became apparent, Fr. Demets was considering joining the French Army as he read in depth about the First Indochina War.
“Beyond the war story,” he said, “I was fascinated by the culture and history of the country.”
When Fr. Demets began to pursue his priestly vocation, Asia remained on his mind. He was inspired by the life of St. Théophane Vénard, a French missionary (and a favorite of St. Thérèse of Lisieux) who spread the Faith in Vietnam and was martyred there in 1861 at the age of 31. Fr. Demets even considered joining France’s society for missionary priests, the Missions Étrangères or Paris Foreign Missions Society, of which Fr. Vénard was a member.
“But the priority was for me the Latin Mass, so I joined the Fraternity of St. Peter, but still had this desire to be a missionary priest in Asia if possible, and now it’s possible with the Fraternity, so thanks be to God,” Fr. Demets said.
While working in France and Canada, Fr. Demets met a number of Vietnamese friends who connected him with families in Vietnam, and he began visiting the country annually for a month at a time. Having obtained permission from his FSSP superiors to begin a project in Vietnam, he made his official move there last year and stayed for nine months in the northern part of the country at a Cistercian monastery, where he taught French and English classes. He traveled about as he could to celebrate the Latin Mass and form contacts in the country, and with the conclusion of classes at the monastery this past month, he moved south to Saigon, where he hopes to open the first Fraternity apostolate in Vietnam. After operating out of a small residence and house chapel for a few weeks, he is now based at St. Théophane Vénard House, which was dedicated this past Sunday, July 26th.
“So it’s a beginning, there are still many things to do, it’s not easy but it’s quite exciting,” he said.
Though Catholics are a minority in Vietnam, Fr. Demets explained that they are a strong minority. The churches are large and beautiful, the Masses are well-attended and seminaries and religious houses are not wanting for vocations. This in itself sometimes means that people, while not opposed to the Latin Mass, are not necessarily drawn to it, but Fr. Demets is optimistic that the numbers will grow, citing the attendance at a recent pilgrimage. This past Pentecost, Fr. Demets led 70 members of the community on pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Bãi Dâu, located on the beautiful coast southeast of Saigon. He celebrated the Mass of Pentecost at an outdoor altar adorned with tropical flowers, beneath a statue of Our Lady that looks towards the turquoise-blue sea. The Mass of the ages seemed right at home amidst the immense beauty of the place.
For a number of reasons, the Archbishop of Saigon has asked that Fr. Demets’ Masses remain private for now, but he is not opposed to Fr. Demets helping the young men in his diocese discern their vocations with the Fraternity.
And potential vocations there are. One of them is 18-year-old Thomas Nguyen, a lifelong Catholic and one of the first six members of the Confraternity of St. Peter in Vietnam. He discovered the Latin Mass as he was searching for a more reverent Mass to attend, much preferring the sacred atmosphere of the traditional liturgy. He proceeded to research orders that offered the Latin Mass, came upon the Fraternity, and began to follow various Facebook groups related to the FSSP. After a year, he rejoiced upon seeing a post that Fr. Laurent Demets was coming to Vietnam to found an apostolate.
On October 26th, 2019, Thomas attended his first Latin Mass, a sung Mass celebrated at a parish near Saigon whose pastor is an enthusiastic supporter of the Latin Mass and remembers serving it when he was young. For Thomas, it was not only his first time attending a Latin Mass, but also his first time serving it, having learned the ropes in one two-hour session from Fr. Demets.
“That was really special for me,” Thomas said. “Actually, really special because after 50 years, on the 26th of October, that was the first sung Mass, first public sung Mass celebrated in Vietnam 50 years after the Vatican II Council.”
Thomas is currently finishing his high school education and plans to pursue environmental engineering at a university in Finland. But after that, he aims to study for the priesthood at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary or possibly the FSSP’s European seminary in Wigratzbad, Germany.
“I really want to come back to Vietnam to serve here,” he said.
Thomas’ hopes are strong that his fledgling community will take root, expand and possibly find its own church or chapel where he can work.
Both Thomas and Fr. Demets acknowledge that projects such as these take time, potentially many years, to grow into full apostolates. But neither one seems fazed by the road ahead. They both emphasize that prayer is their greatest need, and hope that those who hear of their little apostolate will pray for its success.
“Because if Our Lord wants, we can do anything,” Thomas said.
If you feel called to support the work of FSSP Vietnam materially, your donations would be much appreciated as well. You can securely donate through the FSSP’s Mission Tradition website.
The task of establishing a Latin Mass community in Vietnam seems monumental, but certainly, the work has been in good hands from the very beginning. Before Fr. Demets, saints such as St. Théophane, St. Andrew Dũng-Lạc and thousands of others enlightened this land with their faith and consecrated it with their blood. No doubt they watch over it still, and over the budding community that, Deo volénte, will one day blossom into the Fraternity’s first apostolate in Asia. +
Courage! God asks of us only our good will; His grace does the rest. What I am most afraid of, is lest you should be discouraged. The Christian motto is Hope! Hope on! Hope ever!
~ St. Théophane Vénard ~
Rachel Shrader was the editor and primary writer of the Missive from its inception in June 2017 until May 2020. She now contributes as a freelance writer, covering military topics, the international work of the FSSP, and FSSP parish life.
July 27, 2020