Nestled beneath the trees along one of the paths which winds through the Grotto, Phuong Than stands holding her baby. Like so many of those who attend the Freedom Mass, Than could not physically see the altar from her position. Thousands of refugees and worshippers gather each July to thank God for bringing them to America.
Cuong Phan came July 2 to gather with other refugees, offering gratitude to God for the blessings he has received from the country and the city of Portland.
Our forefathers taught us to think of the man who planted a fruit tree when eating its fruit, Father Ansgar Pham told the crowd.
“With this in mind, every year the Vietnamese refugees in the Portland area have chosen the first Sunday in July — which is near the celebration of Independence Day in the United States — to gather at the feet of Our Lady of Lavang to give thanks to God for his protection, strength and courage, as he guided us to the land of freedom in the United States of America,” said Father Pham.
Among those in attendance was Bé Lê. The parishioner at St. Juan Diego Parish in Portland escaped from Vietnam after being imprisoned by the country’s communist regime. He fled in a boat and came to America. He treasures coming to the Freedom Mass to pray.
“Today is very important for me,” said Lê.
“Every refugee from Vietnam comes here and they go together and pray with God and Mary,” he said.
Lê is not alone in feeling the importance of the day. Vietnamese refugees from throughout the western United States make the journey every year for the celebration.
For days before the Freedom Mass, the community gathers at Our Lady of Lavang Parish for even more spiritual and community festivities.
On the morning of July 2, the gathering began two hours before Mass with a pilgrimage walk through the Grotto. Thousands of people attended, including religious sisters, priests, children and refugees from not only Vietnam but from other countries as well. The pilgrims marched through the trees, stopping to pray and give thanks. One small group of men walked while raising a platform holding a statue of Our Lady of Lavang surrounded by flowers.
Once the statue was carried back to the Grotto steps, liturgical dancers surrounded her. The group of young women dressed in golden yellow danced up the stairs, dipping bouquets of flowers toward the altar and down to the crowd below.
After the dancing concluded, a famous Vietnamese singer who was flown in to serenade the crowd gave his first performance of the day.
Archbishop John Vlazny celebrated Mass.
“As we gather to conclude this year’s pilgrimage with the celebration of this beautiful Mass, we have to ask ourselves: what about our hearts? What about our dreams? Could our hearts have possibly been suffocated by all the things that freedom has made available to us that we are scarcely aware of?” said the archbishop in his homily.
The archbishop went on to list the killings and oppression of Christians in countries around the world, including in modern day Vietnam and the United States.
“We’re here today because in spite of all that bad news, we remain a people of hope. And the bedrock of our hope is our Christian Catholic faith and this God who gave us life, who saved us from our sins and who guides us along our lifelong journey to glory,” he said.
“That dream of glory, however, needs some nurturing and lots of tender care.”