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from issue no. 02 - 2007

Towards diplomatic relations

A Church full of life. In a Communist country

The Vatican “deputy minister” for Foreign Affairs tells of the recent visit of the Holy See delegation to the country of Ho Chi Minh. Where the patient dialogue between Vatican diplomats and the Government has helped to find solutions even to the most troublesome questions. Such as the nomination of bishops

by Pietro Parolin

The Holy See delegation during the meeting with the Committee for Religious Affairs

The Holy See delegation during the meeting with the Committee for Religious Affairs

A delegation from the Holy See spent the days from 5 to 11 March 2007 in Vietnam, the fourteenth such visit. The series was begun in 1989 by Cardinal Roger Etchegaray. Since then the Holy See delegation has always been led by the undersecretary of the Department for Relations with States, first Claudio M. Celli and then Celestino Migliore. For me it was my second visit, after the first in 2004. In 2005 a Vietnamese delegation came to Rome and in 2006 I couldn’t go because of business to deal with in the Department for Relations with States.
I was accompanied by Luis Mariano Montemayor, nunciature counsellor at the Secretariat of State, and Barnabé Nguyên Van Phuong, a Vietnamese, office head at the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. The program was very intense, split between “political”, so to speak, and “ecclesial” business, that corresponded to the two purposes of the visits – furthering contacts with the Vietnamese authorities and meeting the local Church. In practice, the Holy See delegation performs, for a week, the tasks that in other countries are entrusted to the papal legates, given that there is no representative of the Pope present in Vietnam.
We received the same cordial reception as in 2004, with the advantage, compared to then, of already knowing many of our interlocutors, with whom we tried to strengthen those bonds of respect, esteem and trust that are much appreciated by Vietnamese society and that make dialogue easier, above all on thorny issues. Our visit followed the visit to the Vatican last January of the Prime Minister Nguyên Tân Dung, who met Pope Benedict XVI on that occasion and the Heads of the Secretariat of State. Perhaps it was precisely that circumstance that contributed to making reception even more considerate and constructive. We noticed it from many details, from the way in which we were treated to the media coverage our visit received.
The dense program of talks with the Vietnamese authorities hinged on the three work sessions with the Committee for Religious Affairs, presided ad interim by Nguyên The Doanh. There were then the courtesy visits to the first deputy minister of Foreign Affairs Le Cong Phung, to the vice-chairman of the Commission for Foreign Affairs of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam, Pham Xuan Son, and to the chairman of the Committee for Foreign Affairs of the National Assembly, Vu Mao. During the visits to the provinces of Binh Dinh, Kontum and Gia Lai we also met the chairmen of the local People’s Committees (the bodies that govern the provinces into which the country is divided). In the work sessions we dealt with questions concerning the life and activity of the Catholic Church in Vietnam (as, for example, the nominations of bishops and the construction or rebuilding of places of worship) and relations between Church and State. It’s a known fact that the religious policy of the Vietnamese government is contained in the Ordinance on Beliefs and Religions of June 18 2004, and hinges on the two principles according to which believers – and so Catholics also – are an integral part of the nation and the State undertakes to respond to their legitimate needs. The delegation was given information on the law and on the necessity of assuring a more uniform application of it throughout the country, as also on the willingness to improve where necessary, heeding the suggestions of the religious communities arising out of experience so that freedom of worship, which is a fundamental right of individuals and of communities, may be ever more respected and translated into reality. The subject of the talks was also diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Vietnam. Though for the moment no dates have been fixed, I believe a considerable step forward was made: we were told that the prime minister has given instructions to the competent bodies to look into the matter and the proposal was made to us to create in the coming months a group of experts entrusted with studying a timetable and concrete modalities for starting the process of entering into diplomatic relations.
Faithful coming out of Sunday mass at a church in Hanoi

Faithful coming out of Sunday mass at a church in Hanoi

We devoted Thursday 8 and Friday 9 March to the last two dioceses that had not received a visit from a Holy See delegation, Quy Nhon and Kontum, in the center of the country, in the ecclesiastical province of Huê. They were intensely busy days and, let me add, quite fatiguing with schedules and journeys by car and plane (a torrential downpour left us with… bated breath at the moment of the landing at Quy Nhon airport), but the ecclesial experience repaid all eventual distress beyond all measure. In Quy Nhon we were welcomed by the vicar general and almost all the clergy of the diocese, together with the multitude of faithful that packed the cathedral precinct decked with bunting (Bishop Pierre Nguyên Soan was absent in hospital). There we celebrated the holy mass praying for the Pope and for the Church in Vietnam. From the city, that looks out on the sea, we went inland as far as the parish of Goi Thi, that was the center of the spread of the Christian faith in the region and hallows the memory of the great bishop martyr Etienne-Théodore Cuénot, the French apostolic vicar of eastern Cochin China. We, too, went to venerate his sanctuary, the goal of continual pilgrimage, after a moment of prayer in the large and beautiful parish church, packed with people, for the most part young, teenagers and children, and after a pause at the Quy Nhon Nuns Lovers of the Cross.
It’s difficult to express the emotions, the feelings, the thankfulness to the Lord, the spiritual joy that one feels in similar situations. In the public meetings I kept on repeating that what we were receiving was much more than what we had brought. In the report to be delivered to the Holy Father after the visit, I recorded the difficulty of writing down the experience, and also for that reason I hoped that the day would soon come on which the Pope might experience it for himself. We had a similar time in the diocese of Kontum, an ecclesiastical district in the central plateaus inhabited for the most part by montagnard ethnic minorities. The Eucharist, concelebrated by the delegation with Bishop Michel Hoâng Dúc Oanh and many priests, brought together more than five thousand faithful on the square in front of the cathedral, on an evening climatically mild, but “warm” with faith, with devotion, with love of the Pope, with Christian witness. The following morning we celebrated mass in the church of Pleichuet, built on the model of the montagnard long-house, with a soaring thatched roof. The majority of the parishioners are neophytes. One saw in their eyes the joy of faith and of their belonging to the Catholic Church, which they expressed in their colorful traditional dress, the sound of their instruments, with the dance movements accompanying the various liturgical moments. At the end we continued the gathering in holiday mood, tasting the local cooking of the montagnards and not refusing, even if it was early morning, a sip of the very potent liquor they make from rice. The rest of the morning was spent visiting various Church institutions in Pleiku, kindergartens, boarding schools, centers for the handicapped, etc., that express the care and commitment of the Catholic Church toward these peoples, that have found and still find themselves facing difficulties of various sorts and situations of disadvantage.
The visit of the Vatican delegation to the diocese of Quy Nhon

The visit of the Vatican delegation to the diocese of Quy Nhon

I can’t then forget the meetings with the students at the major seminary and the Nuns Lovers of the Cross in Hanoi, the masses celebrated in the Cathedral of the capital city, in the presence of Archbishop Joseph Ngô Quang Kiêt – whom we had already met with the chairman of the Vietnamese Bishops’ Conference, Paul Nguyên Van Hóa, Bishop of Nha Trang, and most eminent Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Mân, Archbishop of Ho Chi Minh Ville, come specially to Hanoi – and in the parish of Ha Long (in the diocese of Hai Phòng, close to China), before a tourist trip to the bay of that name, listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site.
On all these occasions I was deeply impressed by the way people prayed, concentrated, attentive and devout and, at the same time, very concerned at the community level: children and adults, young people and old, men and women singing and responding together. I was struck by the love, the attachment and fidelity to the Bishop of Rome, feelings of which we received continual proof. It is a courageous Church, dynamic, full of vitality, of which, among other things, the numerous candidates for the priesthood and the religious life are a clear sign. It is a Church that is committed to society and takes care of those in need and in poverty, while it would like to devote more attention to the educational and social sphere, so as to offer an ever more qualified and effective contribution to the country and to all its inhabitants, whether believers or not, or whether they belong to the one or other of the religious groups. It is a Church, finally, that is aware of the problems linked to the rapid industrialization of the country and to the tumultuous economic development (Vietnam, with an 8.4% growth rate forecast for 2007, is the second most rapidly developing economy in the world) and that intends to be ready to respond to the new situation, so as continue to be salt and leaven and enlighten all with the joyful proclamation of the Gospel.

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