Yellow Mustard Flower
St. Vincent Liem (1732-1773)
Roman Catholic Priest and Martyr in Vietnam
And he [Jesus] said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.
Mark 4:30-32, Revised Standard Version–Second Catholic Edition
Jesus, in Mark 4:30-32, likens the kingdom of God to a mustard seed, a small item with large output. The mustard bush goes where it will, and the most assiduous efforts of powers and principalities cannot stop its progress. At best they can delay it for a time. Yet, as a cliche says, the blood of the martyrs waters the church. So persecution is not only inhumane and sinful, but counterproductive, too.
Many people seem never to learn this lesson.
Consider the case of St. Vincent Liem. He was born in Tra Lu, Kingdom of Tonkin (northern Vietnam), in 1732, and raised Roman Catholic. Europeans had brought Catholicism to the region we call Vietnam today. At the time the region was home to various kingdoms, including Tonkin. Many natives were suspicious of Roman Catholicism because of its association with Europeans, many of whom were openly imperialistic (not that the Tonkinese leadership was not imperialistic, too). It is easier to criticize the “other” for the proverbial splinter in his eye than to remove the equally proverbial plank from one’s own eye, however. Displacement is an old pattern of human behavior.
Educated in the Philippines and ordained a priest, Liem returned to his homeland in 1759 and began to teach novitiates of his order, the Dominicans. This was dangerous work, for the authorities in the Vietnam region killed over 100,000 Christians and tortured others from the 1500s to the 1700s. The tortures were cruel, ranging from dismemberment to burning flesh away from the body to branding the words ta dao, or “false religion” on the face. St. Vincent Liem labored faithfully in the fields of the Lord while facing great risks, which led to his capture and execution by beheading in 1773.
Pope John Paul II canonized him in 1988.
Today Roman Catholics constitute a persecuted minority faith group in Vietnam. The government there is staffed with control freaks who sanction only religious groups they control, and the Pope does not bow to their demands. Also, many Vietnamese critics associate Roman Catholicism with French imperialists and certain corrupt South Vietnamese leaders. Yet the faith lives in Vietnam. The kingdom of God, like a mustard bush, goes where it will, without a permission slip. Persecution will never change that fact, although many faithful Christians will continue to pay the ultimate price, which is to take up their cross (or whatever the modern method of execution might be at a particular time or place) and follow Jesus. And their blood will continue to water the church.
Persecution is inhumane, sinful, and counterproductive.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
SEPTEMBER 8, 2010 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF NIKOLAI GRUNDTVIG
Gracious God, in every age you have sent men and women who have given their lives in witness to your love and truth. Inspire us with the memory of St. Vincent Liem, whose faithfulness led to the way of the cross, and give us courage to bear full witness with our lives to your Son’s victory over sin and death, for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.