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  • Quan Am and Mary:Vietnamese Religious, Cultural, and Spiritual Phenomena
  • Thao Nguyen SJ

Marian devotion among Vietnamese Catholics and worship of the Goddess of Mercy, Quan Am or Guanyin (Chinese),1 among Vietnamese Buddhists, are two dominant forms of religious practice in Vietnam.2 Popular devotion to these female deities formed a special type of religiosity that has helped sustain the institutional religions and nurture the ethical and spiritual life of the followers. While Marian devotion helps Catholics sustain their faith in the difficult times as well as survive religious persecutions,3 devotion to Quan Am helps Vietnamese Buddhists cope with trying situations in their lives.4 Moreover, while devotion to Mary motivates Catholics to live out their ethical lives in a relationship with God and other human fellows, devotion to Quan Am helps Buddhists attain ethical and spiritual values, such as compassion, patience, mercy, and harmony.5 Similarly, Catholics look to Mary as an exemplar of compassion, humility, patience, peace, and charity.6 From a cultural perspective, devotion to Quan Am and Mary has been also strengthened by the indigenous Cult of the Mother Goddess interweaved with Vietnamese feminine cultural characteristics.7

Although some have mentioned cultural interactions between the Vietnamese indigenous Cult of the Mother Goddess and Buddhist and Catholic popular piety, little research has investigated the spiritual and ethical dimensions between the two traditions comprehensively. On the contrary, many works on Vietnamese Buddhism and Catholicism seemed to have overemphasized the differences between the two traditions.8 While acknowledging the differences is important, searching for common ground on spirituality and ethics would open the door for further comparative studies.

Given the significantly shared characteristics between Marian devotion and worship of Quan Am, this article attempts (1) to present the common patterns in the way in which Vietnamese Buddhists and Catholics approach Mary and Quan Am; (2) to discuss the interactions between Vietnamese indigenous cult of Mother-Goddess (Ðạo Mẫu) and Marian devotion and worship of Quan Am, through which popular piety has strongly taken root, developed, and continued to thrive in the midst of cultural and religious challenges;9 and (3) to examine the spiritual and ethical domains through which personal and collective transformation manifests. The research hopes to shed light on religions in Vietnam and aims to offer a fresh view of Buddhism and Catholicism that has been distorted by religious and political ideologies.10 [End Page 191]

communal devotion: buddhists and catholics

In the Catholic Church, Marian devotion manifests in different forms: pilgrimage, patronage, personal prayers, and communal celebrations. All of the Catholic pilgrimage shrines in Vietnam were built in devotion to Mary. Hundreds of Catholic parishes chose Mary to be their patron.11 More important, every Vietnamese Catholic parish always presents at least a magnificent shrine or statue of Mary. These shrines are frequented by people of different ages. In addition, large pilgrimage locations, such as La Vang, Tra Kieu, and Binh Trieu, attract millions of people annually. Every year in mid-August, an estimated half million Vietnamese Catholics, including a majority of bishops, clergy, and religious men and women, gather to pray to Mary at the National Marian Shrine called La Vang in Quang Tri Province, a central province of Vietnam.12 Catholic pilgrimages to the Marian shrines in several places, such as Ðà Nẵng, Kontum, Daklak, Bến Tre, and Vinh Long, have also increased.13 When the Catholics gather at Marian shrines, local as well as national, they recite the rosary, sing praise songs to Mary, offer flowers and petitions to her, and hope for abundant blessings bestowed on their families and country. To Vietnamese Catholics, more significantly, Mary is not only the Mother of Christians, she is the Mother of the country of Vietnam.

western influences and cultural roots

Marian devotion in Vietnam has been significantly promoted and developed from the beginning of the Western missionary period in the seventeenth century.14 Various religious groups from Europe and North America, such as the Dominicans and Redemptorists, introduced Marian devotion to Vietnam.15 Also, according to some scholars, at the very beginning of his missionary effort, Alexander de Rhodes, a pioneering Jesuit missionary in Vietnam, had already incorporated Mariology in his...


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