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from issue no. 06/07 - 2009

The Pope in Vietnam? Now it’s possible

by Gianni Valente

Benedict  XVI with the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyên Tân Dung on the occasion of the private audience on 25 January 2007 [© Paolo Galosi/Vatican pool]

Benedict XVI with the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyên Tân Dung on the occasion of the private audience on 25 January 2007 [© Paolo Galosi/Vatican pool]

The Vietnamese government is “not opposed” to a visit of the Pope to Vietnam. So says Bishop Pierre Nguyên Van Nhon nonchalantly in the interview published in this issue. The remark, tossed off like that in the negative, almost as if to disguise the import and ward off bad luck, alludes to the circumstance that has vastly increased the possibility of an imminent visit by Benedict XVI to Vietnam. Before coming to Rome in the second half of June to make their ad limina apostolorum visit, the bishops of the country were requested by emissaries of the Vietnamese government to let the Pope and his collaborators know that a papal visit would not be unwelcome to the Hanoi regime. Cardinal Jean Baptiste Pamh Minh Mân, Archbishop of Hô Chi Minh Ville, confirmed in an interview with the UCA-News agency that the informal request had come from officials of the Hanoi Religious Affairs Office, who had verbally communicated it to the Archbishop of Hanoi Joseph Ngô Quang Kiêt. A mission promptly executed. In meetings held in the Vatican with the Vietnamese bishops – the last on 3 July with the people in charge of the Secretariat of State – the first, general, exchange of ideas began on how to make the most of the opening expressed so far only in verbal form by the Vietnamese authorities, so that Benedict XVI may soon cross the frontier of one the countries that remained off-limits for his globetrotting predecessor. By the end of the year – this time in Rome – the second meeting of the joint work group set up to promote diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the Holy See will take place.In this work session the details of an eventual papal visit to Vietnam could also be evaluated. In December, also, the Vietnamese President Nguyên Minh Triet will make an official visit to Italy, and he could well cross the threshold of the Bronze door to be received in audience by the Pope. From the ecclesial point of view, the occasions for a visit by Pope Ratzinger to Vietnam are certainly not lacking. The Vitnamese Church has proclaimed a Jubilee Year – which will begin on 24 November next and end on 6 January 2011 – to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the establishing of the country’s two apostolic vicariates and the 50th anniversary of the establishing of the Catholic hierarchy in the country. The program of the celebrations, which will conclude with a pilgrimage to the national sanctuary of La Vang, also includes a large ecclesial assembly in Hanoi, with the participation of the representatives of all the Vietnamese dioceses.
The papal visit would set the seal on the long process of détente between Vietnam, the Holy See and the local Church, which began more than two decades ago after the dark time following the unification of the country and the establishment of the communist regime. It was Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, then president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, who reopened channels by his visit to Hanoi in 1989. Since then there have been as many as sixteen Vatican delegations to Vietnam, involved in patiently untangling complications and difficulties related to political control of the life of the Church, through negotiation with the civil authorities. Over time the reopened seminaries have been restored to full operation, a modus vivendi has been found in the process for selection of bishops, the antecedent conditions have been established for a more structured deployment of the social and charitable initiatives of the Church.
Recently relations between the Vietnamese regime and some sectors of the local Church have become tangled again. The reason: failure to return – despite the promises made on several occasions by authoritative representatives of the government – church property confiscated by the regime in the ’fifties. The first dispute, between December 2007 and January 2008, centered on the erstwhile headquarters of the apostolic delegation in Hanoi. A new surge of tension, at the end of August 2008, again in Hanoi, arose from the request for restitution of land once belonging to the parish of Thai Ha, administered by the Redemptorists, which had been given in use to a government tourist agency with permission to build a hotel. In both cases, the public claims of the Catholics took the form of processions, masses and rosaries organized at the places being contested. In late August 2008 there were more serious conflicts, with arrests and baton charges by police to disperse groups of the faithful in prayer. The verbal and media attacks inspired by the government were mostly aimed at the archbishop of Hanoi, Joseph Ngô Quang Kiêt. Various second rank politicians publicly called for his removal. Kiêt was also criticized by the prime minister Nguyên Tân Dung, who in January 2007 had been received in audience by the Pope.(Now, the fact that government officials have entrusted specifically to him the responsibility of having the verbal invitation to the Pope arrive in the Vatican seems to indicate a thaw in relations between the government and the Archbishop of Hanoi.
A group of girls during mass in Phat Diem Cathedral [© Afp/Grazia Neri]

A group of girls during mass in Phat Diem Cathedral [© Afp/Grazia Neri]

In all this, the Holy See has maintained a prudent stance, inviting members of the Church most involved in the protests to take the path of dialogue and moderation. Meanwhile, precisely in the months in which the Western news agencies spoke in alarmed tones of the dispute as if it were open war between the Vietnamese Catholics and the regime, in dialogue with civil authorities the Church has seen a number of demands granted that have much more impact on the ordinary life of the Vietnamese ecclesial structure. In the autumn of 2007 the seminary of Nha Trang – after those in Hanoi and Hô Chi Minh Ville – obtained permission to recruit each year new candidates to the priesthood, setting aside the old bureaucratic system which limited the number of seminarians: after the most recent episcopal nominations published on 25 July last, only the diocese of Ban Mê Thuôt, in the center of the country, still remains administered by a bishop over seventy-five years old; in October 2008, with the permission of the Government Office for Religious Affairs, after more than thirty years of inactivity the Vietnamese Caritas was re-activated both nationally and in the network of parishes.
The preparations for the papal trip might provide the opportunity to smooth the thorny issue of the property claimed, bringing in compromise (the government has agreed to equivalent exchange) and setting aside hard-nosed attitudes and incongruous disputes on matters of principle involving relatively secondary matters. The only difficulty that the “feasibility study” of the papal visit will have to deal with is pretty concrete: the Vietnamese Church is poor, its few resources are absorbed by the providential growth rate of the Catholic community, and the resources for offering the Bishop of Rome the hospitable reception he deserves must be looked for elsewhere. The Vietnamese bishops also talked about this in their meetings in Rome. In the hope that someone – perhaps a “richer” sister church – might put its hand in its pocket.

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