Monday, August 13, 2007

"Asian Invasion" -- for Mary

It's been written about on these pages innumerable times before, but it bears repeating: for the 30th year running, what's become American Catholicism's largest annual event by miles took place last weekend.

Pro-life march, you say? No.

Knights' convention? Nope -- that was only around 3,000.

Summorum Pontificum pre-implementation fashion show? Non.

But if you guessed "Marian Days" -- the three-day convergence of somewhere around 75,000 Vietnamese-American Catholics on a 28-acre compound in Missouri -- give yourself a gold star.

Sad to say, however, there don't seem to be too many of those going around.... Chalk it up to the reality that, in most quarters, barring some kind of star-power -- or the potential of charged red meat/a brawl -- simple faith alone, even in stunning numbers, doesn't score the attention it should.

The Catholic press might've been asleep at the wheel, but all's not lost -- NPR covered it (and quite nicely, at that) this year.

With a tip to the ever-burgeoning Deacon's Bench (live from CBS News headquarters in New York), here's a take from the ground:
Every summer during the first weekend of August, tens of thousands of Vietnamese Catholics flock to the small southwest Missouri town of Carthage for a four-day festival to celebrate the Virgin Mary. Vietnamese refugees credit the Catholic icon for their protection and rescue from Vietnam as they fled the country after the Vietnam War.

The Marian Days celebration began in 1978 with only a few hundred people. It takes place every year on the 28-acre campus of the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix, a Vietnamese order of priests and brothers that has a provincial house in Carthage. The order came from Vietnam in 1975 just after the end of the Asian conflict.

Each year, attendance increases, with the most recent festival, which took place last weekend, besieging the town with more than 70,000 travelers from all over the country - hence the term "invasion." Carthage’s population on any other weekend is just more than 12,000.
The pilgrims camp out on the lawn of the seminary - like a veritable "Godstock" - and book hotels and motels to capacity throughout the region. Church groups from cities with large Vietnamese populations, such as Houston and Kansas City, set up food tents in the festival area.
Festivities include daily Masses, penance ceremonies, benedictions and religious lectures. The peak of the celebration takes place on Saturday during a parade for the Virgin Mary and a fireworks and balloon ceremony. The closing-night Mass is recited in Vietnamese and translated into English as well.

Normally, I zone out during the sermon after the gospel during the Saturday night Mass because my comprehension of the Vietnamese language is minimal. But this year, the sermon began in English, so I listened to the presiding cleric discuss this year’s theme: "The Future."

I looked around at the thousands of people surrounding me and thought how much the festival has changed in just a matter of decades. More than attendance size, the variety of people in attendance has also increased. It was once strange to see a non-Vietnamese person in attendance, which made the workers at the Knights of Columbus food tent seem like outsiders.

But as the families have assimilated into American culture, so has the festival - offering as much boba as bao, and as many fried Twinkies as pho. The concerts, which once featured mostly folk and traditional Vietnamese performances, are dominated by Vietnamese pop acts like Trish Thuy Trang, a Vietnamese Christina Aguilera of sorts.

And there are just as many, if not more, break-dancing circles that form as there are scheduled benedictions. In years past, the clerics have tried offering "holy raves" as part of their youth outreach programs. This year’s effort was an "inTune with Jesus Christ" podcast campaign....

My family began attending 28 years ago. As one unit, we traveled more easily from our hometown of Kansas City. But as my siblings and I have grown up, traveling as a family is more difficult. We still manage to come together from St. Louis, Columbia and even Houston for our annual family tradition. Even when we can’t all be there, we know how important it is to have at least four of the six children present with our parents for the event.

As I listened to the sermon, it dawned on me how important this festival is for me and my family as well as the thousands of families surrounding me. I understood how my parents - who at my age were embarking on a whole new life - have found a bridge between Vietnam and America in this event. For four days, they are one.
US Church, this is your future....

Welcome it.