The Abbey of Our Lady of Phước Sơn is home to 220 monks, including 80 novices and postulants. In Vietnam, there are about 1,002 Cistercian monks and 244 Cistercian nuns.
Phước Sơn (AsiaNews) – “Young Vietnamese are attracted to the monastic life,” says Fr Gioan Baotixita Dung, a Cistercian monk at the Abbey of Our Lady of Phước Sơn.
The abbey, which is about 70 km south of Ho Chi Minh City not far from Vũng Tàu, is home to 220 monks, 80 of whom are novices and postulants (picture 1). In addition to work and prayer, the monastery is also a place for theological study.
Introducing some young novices, Fr Dung explains that Vietnamese religiosity is rooted in ancient Buddhist and Taoist traditions. When some decide to enter a monastery, the country’s history of persecution plays a role, leading to radical choices in life.
Like in any Benedictine monastery, the monks work to achieve food self-sufficiency, growing rice, medicinal plants; they also clean and work in the laundry and kitchen. Part of the rice harvest is donated to the poor.
The abbey also has a building to host local believers for retreats and spiritual exercises.
The chapel is the central building, built in the oriental style with a pointed roof (picture 2), a token by Cistercian monks to bring Benedictine life closer to Vietnamese culture. This was also the goal of its founder, Fr Henri Denis (1880-1933), who led the Benedictine experience.
Fr Denis had come to Vietnam as a missionary with the Société des Missions Etrangères de Paris (Society of Foreign Missions of Paris). He had chosen the monastic life in 1918 taking the name of Benoît (Benedict) and began to gather around him many young people attracted by a life of austerity life and community.
At that time, the monastery was located in the Diocese of Huế, central Vietnam, but when Vietnam split in 1954 between North and South, the monks moved South.
Upon reunification in 1975, the monastery went through hard times. After communal life was banned, many monks lived their vocation at home with occasional gatherings with other religious. Some of them were also imprisoned.
When Vietnam embarked on a path of economic reform and overture to the world in 1986, religious freedom began to blossom once again, encouraging many vocations.
At present, there are nine male and three female Cistercian monasteries with about 1,002 monks and 244 nuns, according to the Order’s own figures for 2015.
The remains of Fr Denis (who changed his name to Benoît Thuân) lie in the garden of Phước Sơn Abbey (picture 4). The cause of his beatification is currently underway.
Photo: Silvana Daneker