On October 10, 2023, the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists) in Vietnam celebrated the 54th anniversary of their mission to the Jrai people of the Central Highlands of Vietnam. The celebration took place at the parish of Chrôh Ale in the Cheo Reo community of the Diocese of Kon Tum.
The celebration began with a period of Eucharistic Adoration, led by Fr. Bart Nguyễn Đức Thịnh, superior of the Cheo Reo community. At 9:30 a.m., a Mass of Thanksgiving was celebrated, presided over by Fr. Giuse Hồ Đắc Tâm, provincial counsellor of the Redemptorists in Vietnam, and concelebrated by Fr. Bart and all the Redemptorists present.
In his homily, Fr. Giuse Trần Sĩ Tín, a Redemptorist missionary who has served the Jrai people for over 50 years, shared his memories of the early days of the mission. He recalled that when he arrived in the Central Highlands in 1969, he knew very little about the Jrai people. However, he was confident that God had called him to share the Gospel with them.
Fr. Giuse also spoke about the importance of the Holy Spirit in the missionary task. He said that the Holy Spirit is the source of renewal, life, and sanctification. It is the Holy Spirit that empowers missionaries to go out and proclaim the Gospel to those who have not yet heard it.
Fr. Giuse concluded his homily by thanking God for the progress that has been made in the mission to the Jrai people. He said that there are now over 80,000 Jrai Catholics in Vietnam. He also encouraged the Redemptorists to continue to work for the spread of the Gospel among the Jrai and other ethnic groups in the Central Highlands.
After the Mass, Fr. Counselor Giuse Hồ Đắc Tâm sent a thanksgiving message from the Provincial Superior to all the Redemptorists (4 communities) who are gathered at Chrôh Ale of the Diocese of Kon Tum; he also shared a few words with all the confreres to work together in communion and action with the directions of the Province for the future plan. May the Lord Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Saint Alphonsus bless our current efforts and good wishes, all for the mission.
Summary of the history of the evangelization of the Jrai people
The history of the evangelization of the Jrai people began very early if we consider the start of the evangelization of the Central Highlands in 1851. The first mission was established in the southwestern part of Kon Tum, on the right bank of the Đăk Bla – Krông Pơ Kô River. It was led by Fr. Fontaine (Cố Phẩm). However, the mission was abandoned in 1854 due to a lack of missionaries, the harsh climate, and the insecurity between ethnic groups.
It was not until 1903 that Fr. Kemlin (Văn) arrived to build the parish of Plei Jơdrâp. He was responsible for evangelizing the Bahnar, Rơngao, and Jrai people in a very wide area, from Sa Thầy district to the south, bordering the Hà Bầu (H’Bau) region of Pleiku today.
The evangelization of the Jrai people began to grow significantly in 1905, when Fr. Jules Vialleton (Truyền), the superior of the missionary region, sent Fr. Gabriel Nicolas (Cận) to the Hà Bầu (H’Bau) region, located in the northern part of what is now Pleiku city. Two villages, Plei Ko and Plei Dâl, converted to Catholicism in 1906. This was a good sign for the start of missionaries going into other Jrai villages. After three years, in 1908, Fr. Nicolas Cận handed over the Hà Bầu (H’Bau) region to Fr. Corompt Hiển, while he went to the southwest of Plei Ku city.
Following the Hà Bầu (H’Bau) center, Bishop Paul Seitz (Kim) sent Fr. Jacques Dournes to evangelize the Jrai people in Bon Ama Djơng, Cheoreo region, Phú Bổn (now Ayunpa town) on August 1, 1955. In 1960, after five years of evangelization, Fr. Jacques Dournes baptized 12 people and had about 50 catechumens (people who were studying the Catholic faith). This detail is recorded in Fr. Jacques Dournes’ book “Dieu aime les païens – Thiên Chúa yêu thương người lương dân” (God loves the pagans). In a research paper by Fr. Nguyễn Hoàng Sơn (2013), “Sơ lược tiểu sử trung tâm truyền giáo Cheoreo” (A brief history of the Cheoreo missionary center), the name of the first person to be baptized in Cheo Reo is mentioned: “after five years of catechesis, Siu Nge, on Sunday, June 5, 1960.” According to Fr. Nguyễn Hoàng Sơn, from 1960 to 1969, the year Fr. Jacques Dournes left the missionary region, the result of 14 years of evangelization from 1955 was 85 Jrai people baptized and 120 catechumens. After Fr. Jacques Dournes left the Cheo Reo missionary center, two priests replaced him, Fr. Phaolô Vũ Văn Thiện and Fr. Đaminh Đinh Hữu Lộc.
Thus, as of 1969, after 118 years of evangelization for the communities of the ethnic groups in the Central Highlands, the majority of the Jrai people had not converted to Catholicism, even though they had known or been in contact with missionaries and Kinh Christians.
Standing before the reality of evangelizing the Jrai people, Bishop Paul Seitz Kim (1952-1975) wrote a second letter (1956) inviting the Redemptorists to the Central Highlands to evangelize. Meanwhile, the first letter sent to the Redemptorists in 1953 had not yet been answered. However, thanks to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which encouraged the whole Catholic Church, especially religious orders, to reach out to those who do not know God, to dialogue in joy and hope with the world to carry out the mission of evangelization. This spirit was embodied in the Redemptorists, who were welcomed by Bishop Paul Seitz Kim with open arms and began their mission in Jrai-Plei Kly.
On October 10, 1969, Bishop Paul Seitz Kim personally brought four Redemptorist missionaries, including: Fr. Antôn Vương Đình Tài, two deacons Rev. Phêrô Nguyễn Đức Mầu and Rev. Giuse Trần Sĩ Tín, and Br. Phêrô Hồ Văn Quân. They arrived at the land of the village of Plei Kly, Phú Nhơn. In the presence of the representative of the diocese, Fr. Đôminicô Vũ Khắc Minh, pastor of La Sơn, in charge of the parishes of Mỹ Thạch, Phú Quang, and Phú Nhơn, because at that time these places all belonged to the Plei Kly, Bishop Seitz (Kim) proclaimed the Gospel of Luke chapter 10, verses 1 to 12, which speaks of Jesus sending seventy-two disciples to preach the Gospel. Then, the Bishop directly sent these four brothers with the following message: “I entrust to you all this area of the Jrai people. Now you have four people, but if the Redemptorists send you seventy-two people like in the Gospel passage, we will also be happy to receive them.” (Trần Sĩ Tín, 2009, p.19)
Thank God that Fr. Giuse Trần Sĩ Tín, a great tree among the first four Redemptorist brothers who officially received the mission of proclaiming the Gospel to the Jrai people, is still present among the Redemptorists in Vietnam in general and the Redemptorists in the Central Highlands in particular. His sharing in the Thanksgiving Mass is a confirmation of the path of the missionary mission, and it is also a word of encouragement to the brothers to continue to commit themselves to the path of proclaiming the Gospel to the ethnic minorities. The missionary area of the Central Highlands is still vast, not only for the Jrai people but also for the Bahnar people who began their official mission from the Pentecost in 2008 and other ethnic groups on the land of our homeland, Vietnam.
Ngoc Huong Tran, CSSR
Translated by Duc Trung Vu, CSSR