A Church that is growing
The way of patience
The economic crisis, the faith of the newly baptized, the controversies about the confiscated church properties . And the ever more concrete possibility of a journey by the Pope to the country of Hô Chi Minh. Interview with Pierre Nguyên Van Nhon, President of the Vietnamese Bishops. To whom Benedict XVI said: “The Church in no case intends to replace those in charge of government”
Interview with Pierre Nguyên Van Nhon by Gianni Valente
Pierre Nguyên Van Nhon, Bishop of Dà Lat, with Benedict XVI [© Osservatore Romano]
PIERRE NGUYÊN VAN NHON: We are seeing how the global economic downturn is weighing on even the most private spheres of life. Here ninety percent of the population works on the land, but because of the economic crisis agricultural produce no longer provides a livelihood. So people are leaving the land and crowding into the cities. They leave their families, affections, customs. As immigrants, many end up confused by the problems they have to face. Over a brief period two million immigrants have arrived in Saigon, among them there are also a hundred thousand Catholics, who are feeling neglected and helpless. Many end up not going to church anymore, no longer praying. There it is, that too is happening because of the crisis.
And you, how did you become a Christian and then a priest?
NGUYÊN VAN NHON: My family had been Catholic for generations. In every Catholic family there was at least one religious vocation. In mine, out of six children, two of my sisters entered the convent and I went to the seminary. We grew up in simplicity. We went to Mass almost every day. We took Communion. We said evening prayers, and those before and after meals. The same thing happened in many Vietnamese Catholic families. I thank God and I’m happy to have held on to my vocation.
And now, it’s the same?
NGUYÊN VAN NHON: Many things have changed. For many life is now full of commitments and work, there’s less going to Mass. We always thank God, because generally in Christian families there is piety and devotion still today. With a simple faith, nourished by prayer and the sacraments. And there are many who become Christians as adults.
How does that usually come about?
NGUYÊN VAN NHON: Many become part of the Church when they marry a Catholic man or woman. Some, more intellectual, live unrequited lives, ask themselves questions, then maybe they happen to meet someone – priests, laity, religious – who help them find answers.
Is it easy to get baptized?
NGUYÊN VAN NHON: The preparation of neophytes requires two years of catechism. But usually they do six months or a year. In my diocese every year we have eight, nine thousand baptized, of whom three thousand adults, and five to six thousand children from Christian families. In the large dioceses, four, five thousand baptisms of adults per year.
The faithful leaving Sunday mass at Saint Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi [© Contrasto]
NGUYÊN VAN NHON: Those who use these arguments do so for reasons of propaganda or to stir up old controversies. Jesus Christ was born in Asia. His parables are full of references to the modes of behavior of Asian peoples. Then, the Gospel happened to arrive in Vietnam with the French and Portuguese missionaries, and so some people say that it’s a foreign thing. Others say no, Christianity is a religion of the East. For me, it’s probably better not to waste time on these arguments. Or at least bring them down to their proper size. Catholic means for everyone. Of course, the apostolic mission has always to take account of the nature of civilization in the various contexts. In a recent meeting in Thailand, where the mission in Asia was discussed, it was repeated that it’s more suitable for us to speak of the life of Jesus in a manner more in accord with how He Himself preached two thousand years ago, with His parables. An eastern, not rationalist, fashion.
Should the reports on recent disagreements with the Vietnamese government in terms of the restitution of church property also be scaled down?
NGUYÊN VAN NHON: It’s an issue that must be seen within the history of our country. At one time private property was the mode of life here. Then a system based on collective ownership of property was introduced. Certainly, the world belongs to everyone, what God created He created for all. But saying that can be abstract. There are individuals, social groups with their rights. If these rights are set aside for a greater good, that one can understand. But if property is confiscated to ensure it belongs to everyone and then it’s used instead in selfish fashion, to enrich only some, that isn’t right, and you can’t argue then about the common good.
Is that what happened with the property that belonged to the Church?
NGUYÊN VAN NHON: Sometimes these confiscated assets were not used to benefit the common good. The Church is asking for them to be returned not for itself, out of a desire to amass and grow rich, but to make sure they are used to benefit all the people.
As a result of the dispute there have been public protests in recent months mainly in Hanoi, with rosaries recited in the square, and also moments of tension with the police.
NGUYÊN VAN NHON: We know that we must negotiate and serve. Negotiate even when it’s difficult, and it takes patience. Negotiate to seek justice, and charity, to serve the good of all. Now there is some leeway, we understand each other a little better, but we know that the struggle continues and the confrontation doesn’t help anyone.
In recounting this situation, some people in the western media have stressed that the Vietnamese communist regime is afraid of the local Church.
NGUYÊN VAN NHON: We are the Church. The Church always follows the path of dialogue. And respects the civil authorities. The Pope has just said that the Church calls upon her children to work fairly for the building of a just and cohesive society. The Church – so Benedict XVI literally said meeting us on our recent ad limina visit – “in no case intends to replace those in charge of government, it only wants, in a spirit of dialogue and respectful cooperation, to take a proper part in the life of the nation to serve all people”.
In the current delicate historical contingency, is the recovery of the real estate at the heart of the dispute such an urgent priority for the Church?
NGUYÊN VAN NHON: We are not trying to seize property to become rich and powerful. We ask only the minimum so as to continue working and serving our people. The Church is growing, and needs a minimum of means to fulfill its apostolic mission and help the poor. In function of that work the means can be helpful.
A girl confessing in the Marian sanctuary of Notre-Dame in the Quang Tri province [© Afp/Grazia Neri]
NGUYÊN VAN NHON: I think in the life of the Church it’s not a matter of exporting models. The Vietnamese Church fits the situation in Vietnam. China is so big, so complex. I do not know whether what is being done in Vietnam can be done in China. But if we look at Jesus and the Church as He founded it, that is the model for all. Jesus built his Church upon Peter and his successors. And that is the model that applies to everyone, in Vietnam, in China, in America and anywhere else.
But there are also differences. The Vietnamese Church, for example, is a humble church, not least because of the history it has had to go through.
NGUYÊN VAN NHON: But this condition of humility is a vocation for all. The whole Church must be humble, simple, charitable, in imitation of Jesus. This applies to the whole Church, even to the Church in America, if it is the Church of Christ.
Even on the path to normalizing relations between the Holy See and the Vietnamese government the choice of humble patience has brought good results. Many have sown well so far, silently, without wanting to take center stage.
NGUYÊN VAN NHON: The first approach came from Cardinal Etchegaray in 1989. Since then, there have been official visits. Monsignor Pietro Parolin, Undersecretary of the Secretariat of State who is currently following events in Vietnam, has come to see us four times already in recent years. And there have been ever better results. We pray a great deal because the opening of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the Vietnamese government would mean having a representative of the Pope in place on a permanent basis, not just once a year. Slowly it will come, sooner or later.