The following story appeared in the April 28 Idaho Catholic Register.
By Emily Woodham
(Author’s Note: Very little has been written of St. Joseph Luu in English. The Idaho Catholic Register contacted the Bishop’s House of the Diocese of Vinh Long in Vietnam, which graciously provided details of St. Joseph Luu’s story from their records. Because the document was in Vietnamese, information for the article comes from an imperfect translation that would have been difficult to understand without the help of Father Dat Vu, pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Parish in Boise.)
In the 16th century, French Catholic missionaries were welcomed to Vietnam and surrounding areas because of their connections to trade. But as political powers in Vietnam shifted in the 17th century through the 19th century, the Church would wax and wane in accord with the government’s view toward the Church. From 1630 to 1886, the Vatican estimates that 130,000 to 300,000 Catholics were martyred in Vietnam.
(Because whole villages were sometimes massacred, it is impossible to
have an accurate count of those who died.)
Although European missionaries are among those martyred in Vietnam, most of these martyrs were faithful Vietnamese. Many of them were native priests and religious. They knew that the gospel was not a made-up story from the West, but that it was the truth. They were tortured and slaughtered because they refused to recant their faith in Jesus. St. Joseph Luu is among the 117 Martyrs of Vietnam canonized by Pope St. John Paul II in 1988.
Joseph Luu was born in 1789 to Christian parents. His mother died when he was young. His father remarried a loving and kind woman, and they had four more children.
Joseph followed in his father’s footsteps in his faith and hard work. He is believed to have married while in his late teens or early 20s. His first born child died during birth, but he and his wife had six more healthy children.
Joseph was dedicated to his family, parish and community. He was a farmer, but spent his free time catechizing his family and neighbors. He faithfully prayed morning and evening prayers with his family. He also went to Confession and Mass regularly.
One story says that as he was walking along the road one day, he noticed a neighbor’s rice fields had been neglected. He immediately jumped in and saved the fields with his hard work. Another story says that whenever he walked home from fishing, he would give fish to whomever asked for food, keeping only enough to feed his family. He was made the president of the Mac Blac parish council because of his leadership in the parish as a catechist and his exemplary life.
In 1847, the Emperor Tu Duc took the throne. Four years later, he issued
a decree against Christians. All those who refused to recant their faith and trample the Crucifix were to be tortured and killed, and their families were to be either killed or exiled. (The punishments were more extensive for clergy and Church leaders.)
Joseph knew that the sacraments were vital to the life of the faithful. He weighed the cost and decided to risk his life so that Confession and Mass could continue. He hid priests in his home and secretly gathered Catholics so they could receive the sacraments, Mass and catechism classes.
In 1853, three men demanded money from one of the priests, Father Peter Luu (probably not related to Joseph). Father Peter did not have any money, and so the embittered men betrayed him and Joseph by reporting their underground church.
As officials secretly made plans to capture the underground church, Father Peter left to help in another village, and Father Philip Minh came to take his place.
The officials sent a woman to Joseph’s house to ask for Confession, but Joseph didn’t trust her. Officials then sent someone else to spy on Joseph. Later that evening, while Father Philip Minh was catechizing students, the military surrounded the house. Father Philip happened to overhear them give the order to capture the Christians and was able to alert the students to hide.
Not wanting the soldiers to find Father Philip, Joseph told the soldiers that he was the only one they needed to arrest. But Father Philip, seeing the soldiers beat Joseph, stepped out of hiding, hoping that the soldiers would let the elderly Joseph go free. He begged them to let everyone else go, but the soldiers refused to bargain.
Joseph was imprisoned for a year, where he was tortured and starved. But he refused to give up his faith. He continued to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation and also to pray the Mass when the priests were in prison with him. (The priests who helped Joseph were martyred at different times.)
It seems the authorities were afraid to kill Joseph because he was so well-loved. However, they kept him in prison. He became seriously sick, confessed his sins and did penance for 15 days. He was then sent to a hospital.
He was in excruciating pain, but he continued in his faith. His last prayers were: “Jesus, Mary, Joseph: Oh! Our Lady, my Mother, please help me!” When he died, he looked so happy and peaceful that the authorities thought he was faking. They burned his toes until they were black to make sure he was truly dead.
His body was brought back to his parish. Four priests concelebrated his funeral, which was attended by 2,000 people. His body was buried in the foundation of the parish church. (It is assumed that the persecutions had abated for a time due to threats from France.)
After the beheading of a bishop in 1857, the French government stepped in more directly to stop the torture and killing of Catholics.
St. Joseph Luu is the patron saint of the Diocese of Vinh Long.
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