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from issue no. 11 - 2003

VIETNAM. Meeting with the Archbishop of Hôchiminhville

In praise of patience

«What I want is for the Church to have the chance of contributing to the progress of the country…. To make dialogue work, we need to find shared factors and formulas so as to meet and understand each other». Says the new Vietnamese cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pam Minh Mân

by Gianni Valente

Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Mân receives the Cardinal’s red hat from the hands of John Paul II during the Consistory of 21 October 2003

Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Mân receives the Cardinal’s red hat from the hands of John Paul II during the Consistory of 21 October 2003

If one looks at the map of Vietnam, stretching lengthwise north to south, it’s not easy to make out the little village of Hoa Thanh, in the far south, in the province of Ca Mau. From that extreme “deep south” comes Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Mân, now Archbishop of Hochiminhville, created Cardinal at the Consistory of 21 October last, the fifth Vietnamese in history called to join the Sacred College of the Church of Rome, and first titular of the See of former Saigon to receive the purple.
After training which began in the seminary of Phnomh Penh, in Cambodia, and was completed in the upper seminary of Saigon, and after priestly ordination in 1965, the new Vietnamese Cardinal spent good part of his life in training seminarians, in the difficult years when after the end of the war the communist regime, first in the north and then in the south, wiped out all the seminaries, closed the Catholic schools and confiscated Church property. Only in 1988 did he officially become rector of one of the eight upper seminaries the government had allowed to reopen.
The modus vivendi of the Holy See and the Hanoi government permits heavy interference by the local political power in the choice of bishops, something that often leads to grueling negotiations. Precisely for that reason the nomination of Pham Minh Mân as Archbishop of Hochiminhville, in March 1998, was an event for the Church of Vietnam. It put an end to a long vacatio in the archdiocese of former Saigon. The late-lamented Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyên Van Thuân was meant to take that See. The Vatican named him coadjutor archbishop with right of succession in 1975, just when the capital city of South Vietnam was about to be conquered by the army of communist North Vietnam. But the appointment of Nguyên Van Thuân was rejected by the new regime, and indeed the designated coadjutor bishop passed thirteen years in prison and under house arrest, before being expelled from the country, “called” to Rome and appointed first as Secretary and then President of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace. Since 1993 the authorities of the country had also boycotted various other candidates proposed by the Holy See as successors to the elderly and sick Archbishop Nguyên Van Binh, including Monsignor Mân himself. Only, later, to retreat and allow free passage for the nomination of this timid priest from the deep south. Who needs few words to get himself understood.
A Vietnamese woman confessing at the shrine of Our Lady of La Vang  in the province of Quang

A Vietnamese woman confessing at the shrine of Our Lady of La Vang in the province of Quang

Your Eminence, it is commonly said that Vietnam is a “young” Church. How did you become Christian?
JEAN-BAPTISTE PHAM MINH MÂN: I was born and grew up in a Catholic family. What attracted me to Christianity was the testimony of the faith itself and Christian charity. I was brought up in a family that sought not only to live its Christian faith and love, but also to share them with others.
You spent some years of your training in the United States. At that time US soldiers were fighting in your country.
PHAM MINH MÂN: From 1968 to 1971 I studied the Sciences of Education and Administration at Loyola University in Los Angeles. Through the media, I saw the inhuman face of the war that was overwhelming my country. The war sowed pain and destruction, suffering and death. That is why nobody among my people believes that war is to be wished for, in any shape or for any reason.
So you were trained in an institution that carried the name of the saintly founder of the Society of Jesus. Are there saints you feel closer to?
PHAM MINH MÂN: I try to imitate the humility of Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus, the steadiness and courage of Saint John the Baptist, the generosity and sacrifice of Saint Paul for the Gospel.
After the war the new regime closed the seminaries and confiscated the property of the Church in the south as well. At that time you were supervising the training of young priests. How did you manage, in a country without seminaries?
PHAM MINH MÂN: From 1976 to 1981 I carried on the work of training future priests in the diocese of Cân Tho. In the years from 1981 to 1988 we sent the seminarians into parishes to complete their training with the help of parish priests and the laity, at least from the pastoral point of view. Until, in 1988, the government allowed the reopening of eight upper seminaries in the country. And I was appointed rector of the seminary of Cai Rang.
A moment during the celebration of the Consistory in Saint Peter’s Square on 21 October 2003

A moment during the celebration of the Consistory in Saint Peter’s Square on 21 October 2003

In recent times, in the things you have said to the civilian authorities, you have not spared the use of Marxist categories such as “alienation”. And in the ongoing discussions on the reform of religious legislation you have suggested returning to the old rules inspired in 1956 by Ho Chi Minh. Why do you choose to use such arguments to give force to your interventions?
PHAM MINH MÂN: The Holy Father teaches us to be wide-ranging in dialogue. For dialogue to work, we need to find shared factors and formulas, so as to meet and understand each other.
Might the Vietnamese method in relations between Church and State suggest models and solutions for the troubled Chinese situation?
PHAM MINH MÂN: The Church needs unity as a force for existing and growing, for living and proclaiming the Gospel.
What safeguarded the faith of the Vietnamese Catholic community, even in difficult times?
PHAM MINH MÂN: One grows in the faith by listening to the Word of God, and through the grace of being able to frequent the sacraments and imitate the saints in the spirit of love and service, especially to the poor. It seems to me that difficulties and trials can become the humus that nourishes and makes faith grow. However, current situations developing with the free-market economy and hedonism are a challenge, a gust of wind that could blow out the lamp of the faith if we do not pray and act so as to safeguard it.
In your new experience as a Cardinal, what are your expectations and hopes for your life and for the life of your people?
PHAM MINH MÂN: What I want is for the Church to be able to contribute to the progress of the country and to the advancement of men, so as to witness that God is the Father who loves all men and hence also the Vietnamese people.
An Easter procession  at Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

An Easter procession at Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

You are now a member of the Sacred College. Among your colleagues who are the Cardinals you know best?
PHAM MINH MÂN: I haven’t had a chance to get to know many members of the College of Cardinals. I hope to have many occasions in the future to know them better.
One hears a lot of gossip about who will be the next pope. Have you any idea on the issue? Will the next pope be Italian, or might the time have come for an Asian successor to Peter?
PHAM MINH MÂN: The pastoral task in the archdiocese of Hochiminhville is complex and multiform. So far I haven’t had time to think about the issues shared by the Church or those of the Vatican.

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