An article of faith(s)

The Buddhist pagodas of Saigon are filled with worshipers. This stands in sharp contrast to the struggling congregations in America or the Cathedrals of Europe which subsist as refuges for old women or as tourist attractions.

In a city with few Hindus save the traveling merchant or visitor, the Mariamman Hindu Temple is also packed. Buddhists, Christians and non-believers alike light incense and nod in prayer to statues of various gods or set up offerings of food, soft drinks, candles and other assorted items.

On my day of faith I wander over to mass at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the 19th century church in the Place de Paris to see how my own faith has fared in Vietnam.

Catholicism has had a politically charged history in the country.

French missionaries first arrived in the 16th century. The later French occupation of Vietnam was done ostensibly, in part, to protect their continued mission in the country.

After the French defeat in 1954 and the partition of the country into north and south, the US government and Catholic organizations urged Northern Catholics to come South to avoid predicted persecution and possibly worse. Millions heeded the warning and became the backbone of the US-backed President Diem, a Maryknoll Father who returned from New Jersey to become president.

Diem marginalized and repressed the Buddhist majority and alienated other sectors of the society and was killed in a US backed coup in 1963.   Catholics today are a small minority in the country and have, on occasion, run afoul of government policies especially in the Central Highlands, home to many ethnic peoples and believers.

Notre Dame was full, standing room only.  Families, couples, young, old and in-between filled the vast space.  Clearly 90% were Vietnamese but smatterings of Westerners of all nations and accents, Africans, other Asians, Middle Easterners and a host of other regions all joined in mass reminding me that the word “catholic” means universal.

The mass was in English with a power point of slides, refrains, lyrics, playing prominently on the dozens of monitors strategically placed.  The celebrants did not need the props as most effortlessly responded, sang, stood and sat as they would at a Catholic mass in Boston or Rome.

Just before the mass drew to a close there were some words in Vietnamese and I asked a neighbor for a translation.  “The Vietnamese priest is telling us there is a second collection today” he indicated.  I smiled. It reminded me of home, of faith and of course, the second collection.



About Dr. Roy Nirschel

Thirty years experience as an educator; international traveler, occasional writer, on a personal journey. Author of My Seasons in Saigon (available at Upon the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States I promised to go to Mexico; I did! Carol and I are here now. In the spirit of full disclosure, I promised to go to Mexico if Hillary Clinton was elected president too. The Seasons in Saigon are over; I am uncertain about Vietnam for many reasons despite my love for the country. Now it is Mexico time.

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