Friday, January 4, 2019

St Martin de Porres - a beloved saint in Vietnam

Image of St. Martin de Porres inside a small neighbourhood Catholic church in Tan Binh District, Ho Chi Minh City

If you start visiting the Catholic churches in and around Ho Chi Minh City you will begin to notice an unexpected saint. St Martin de Porres, native of Lima, Peru, is one of the most beloved saints of the Saigonese Catholics, and his image pops up everywhere.

Now, given Vietnam's French colonial past you might expect to see French saints better represented. People like St. Catherine Laboure (hardly found at all) or Bernadette of Lourdes (seen in churches occasionally). But no - apart from the Vietnamese martyrs and Our Lady of La Vang, the most commonly encountered figure is from the Hispanic world: St. Martin de Porres.

Well, one reason for it might be that Spanish missionaries got to Vietnam well before French ones. They established missions in the North of Vietnam that were never particularly successful. It was the French Jesuits, especially in the wake of Alexandre de Rhodes, who would make the greatest religious impact on the country.

But the real reason for the popularity of the levitating, biracial Peruvian saint is much more recent. By the 20th century St. Martin de Porres had come to be an important figure in the post-colonial Church. His in-between status had seen his popularity grow beyond Latin America. By the 1960s he was revered in the Philippines, and was seen as representing the spirit of the Church outside of the Western world.

It was Filipino missionaries and young Vietnamese priests trained in the Philippines who really ramped up the devotion to St. Martin de Porres, installing images of him in churches around the war-torn city of Saigon. He seems to have struck a nerve with Vietnamese worshippers as well, and soon his cult, which is still well and truly alive today in Vietnam, was well established among Catholics in the South.

Probably the most famous shrine to Thanh Martino (as he is known in Vietnam) is quite close to my house in Phu Nhuan district. The famous Nha Tho Ba Chuong is a large and beautiful church in a Vietnamese architectural style on the impossibly busy Le Van Sy street. It is well worth a visit to see its funky 60s Vietnam style and, of course, say a prayer at its famous shrine to St. Martin de Porres. You can also buy a statue or image of St. Martin at the gift shop outside (that is where mine comes from).

The shrine to St. Martin de Porres at Nha Tho Ba Chuong, Phu Nhuan District, Ho Chi Minh City

The church is always open (though the gift shop closes for the lunchtime siesta between 12 and 2, making of one of the last places in the City to keep these once-ubiquitous hours) and the image of the Saint was sent from the Philippines in the early 60s and has since became a focus of many prayers and miracles.

Statue of St. Martin de Porres outside Nha Tho Ba Chuong, Phu Nhuan District, Ho Chi Minh City

There is also a small but often-visited shrine to him at the colourful Tan Dinh church in District 3, but in recent years this church has closed itself off to visitors (why on earth they would do such a thing I have no idea) and you will probably be shooed away if you try to get inside to say a prayer.

Who was St. Martin de Porres? (1579 - 1639)

A Dominican lay-brother of mixed race, St. Martin de Porres exhibited a sophisticated and profound spirituality from an early age. He was the illegitimate child of a Spanish colonial, and his outsider status is an essential part of his story, and of his popularity across the Church in this modern age.

As a young servant he would beg his employer for candle stubs so that he could spend his nights in rapturous prayer and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary

He was famous for his saintliness, and once let a beggar covered in ulcers to sleep in his own bed so that he might find some comfort.

He is something of an all-purpose Saint, and people pray to him for all kinds of reasons, but particularly for help in times of financial distress and to help the poor in all parts of the world.

He is the patron saint of people of mixed race, and of innkeepers, barbers, public health workers and more, with a feast day on November 3.

The Special Prayer to St. Martin de Porres reads: 

Most humble Martin de Porres, whose burning charity embraced not only thy needy brethren, but also the very animals of the field, splendid example of charity, we hail and invoke thee!  

From that high throne which thou dost occupy, deign to listen to the supplications of thy needy brethren that, by imitating thy virtues, we may live contented in that state in which God has placed us, and, carrying our cross with strength and courage, we may follow in the footsteps of our Blessed Redeemer and His most afflicted Mother, to reach at last the Kingdom of Heaven through the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ.  



 Walter Mason is leading a tour to Vietnam in April 2019. With a special focus on writing and creativity, this tour is a precious opportunity for writers to see a country with a fellow writer who is passionate about the place and whose enthusiastic love for Vietnamese culture, literature, cuisine and life is unbounded.

More details about the Better Read Literary Tours Vietnam tour with Walter Mason


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