Despite the cultural, social, and political challenges, the Catholic Church continues to take steps, albeit small, to flourish and make the Gospel known.
In the last four centuries, the country has gone through many divisions. After a long period of division and various attempts to unify the country, Nguyen Phuc Anh (1762-1820) became the first emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty in 1802, under the name of Gia Long. He chose the coastal city of Hue, in central Vietnam, as his capital.
This would be the last imperial dynasty in Vietnamese history, lasting for 143 years and counting 13 emperors.
Towards the end of the 19th century, it came to terms with the French colonizers and, eventually, gave in to the Communist government of Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969), which proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam as an independent nation on September 2, 1945. Gia Long’s victory at the battle of Dien Bien Phu (May 7, 1954) ended the French rule.The establishment of the Communist government in Hanoi (1954-1955) set in motion the migration of over 800,000 people, including entire Catholic communities with their priests, to the southern provinces, where the pro-Western government of Saigon welcomed the new citizens by giving them large areas to settle, work and even rebuild their parishes.
The Christian witness of the new immigrants greatly favoured the evangelization of south Vietnam where, up to that moment, the Church had been less numerous than in the north. In the early ‘60s, the Americans began their war in Vietnam in support of the Government of Saigon. On April 30, 1975, the tanks of the victorious Communists entered the palace of the president of South Vietnam.
This brought about the final reunification of all of Vietnam into one Socialist Republic (1976). Saigon, the former capital of the south, was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
The reunification of Vietnam under a single Communist government raised fears and caused mass exodus of refugees who emigrated first to neighbouring countries (Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand); then to Australia, U.S.A., Canada and European countries (France, Germany, Great Britain).
There may have been up to two million refugees between 1975 and 1995, leaving the country by diverse means and routes, from safe ships and planes to simple boats. Those leaving by the latter means came to be known as the boat people, the symbol of this humanitarian tragedy with many fold dramas: hunger, disease, storms, pirates, overloaded boats, tragedies at sea, refugee camps.
The establishment of Communist rule over the whole country was not painless for the Church: several priests, seminarians and many lay people paid their faithfulness to the Gospel with years of imprisonment and re-education camps.
A gradual openings
From Rome, the Holy See has been following closely the development of Vietnamese events with appropriate interventions, “small steps” and gradual openings, confirming the desire for mutual understanding that both the Church and the Vietnamese authorities have had all along.
At the end of 2011, the local Church had 26 dioceses distributed in three ecclesiastical provinces: Hanoi (10 dioceses), Hue (6), Ho Chi Minh City (10); 44 bishops, 4,050 priests, 18,424 religious, 3,946 seminarians and 56,593 catechists, serving 6,400,567 Catholics out of a total population of 89,029,559. The estimate today (2016) speaks of a population of over 90 million Vietnamese, with more than 7 million Catholics (7-8%). In and out of the country, many expected substantial openings in terms of human rights and, for the Church, greater freedom and larger involvement in social activities. Meanwhile, the practice of “small steps” was leading to meaningful breakthroughs, unthinkable only a few years ago.
In August 2015, the Government gave official approval to the foundation of the Catholic Institute of Vietnam; the Holy See granted pontifical recognition to the new theological institute, which will be able to give the bachelor, licentiate and doctorate degrees in theology. With this, the Church entered the field of education, from which all religions have been barred up to that moment.
The Institute will open its doors in Ho Chi Minh City this year, as confirmed by Msgr. Paul Bui Van Doc, Archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City and President of the Bishops’ Conference.
Rumours are circulating concerning a next visit by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, to Vietnam, for contacts at the highest levels in view of forthcoming extraordinary events.
Cardinal Parolin is particularly well-known and respected in this country, which he visited when he worked at the Secretariat of State until 2009, and then again since 2013. Now, in the upper levels of the hierarchy, an apostolic visit by Pope Francis in Vietnam in 2017 is given for certain, an event, which is bound to have wider repercussions both on the Asian and the world stage.
New pastoral challenges
Internal and external armed conflicts, hard work, family discipline, recurrent persecutions, the values of traditional culture and those proper to the Gospel have shaped, over the centuries, the human and religious character of the Vietnamese people and tempered the spirit of the Catholics.
Although the latter comprise just 7-8% of the population, they contribute, with their Christian values and ecclesial dynamism, to the human and social growth of the country.
Msgr. Joseph Dinh Duc Dao, coadjutor bishop of Xuan Loc, a southern diocese with the highest number of Catholics and now the president of the Episcopal Commission for Education, is conscious of the urgency of more missionary evangelization not only in Vietnam but all over the world and is willing to send priests of his diocese to evangelize other countries. “In the past, in times of great suffering and persecution, our Church had to turn in on itself for survival. Today, we enjoy more freedom and new energies. Now we are called to a change of pastoral model: from a model for the preservation of the faith to the evangelization model, which urgently calls for the ‘joy of the Gospel’ to be shared with the non-Christians.”
In recent decades, the participation of Catholics at Sunday Mass in the parishes has been very high, up to 80 and 90% of the faithful. Msgr. Dao, however, poses some questions: “How long will it last – this high Mass attendance and this abundance of vocations?” Similar questions concern also the family:
“In Vietnam, the family still stands as an institution, as a gym of love and of constructive relationships between generations; but how and until when, can the traditional family and the Christian family withstand the destructive attacks that the family faces in the world today?”
New threats to Christian life, family, priestly and religious vocations come from secularization, modernity and globalization, which, through the pressure of the social media, offer opposing models of life, of family and of sexual behaviour. Msgr. Dao argues that “secularization is in itself a positive phenomenon as it responds to the legitimate autonomy of reason and human action vis-a-vis a given religion. But in Europe and North America, secularization has developed into a cultural and political movement that is anti-Christian, anti-religious, anti-hierarchical and imbued with a consumerist and hedonistic mentality. With this background, we can understand the devastating impact that secularization has had on the Christian life, on vocations and, in particular, on the family in those nations: contraception, abortion, divorce, artificial procreation, homosexuality, euthanasia, and the like, to the point that, according to some authors, secularization has led to the de-Christianization of the West.”
Since secularization in Asia is not born of anti-religious and anti-ecclesial motivations, “hopefully it will not produce the religious and cultural devastation that is taking place in the West; but we need to foresee and avoid these disasters,” Bishop Dao says. “It is not enough just to repeat traditional formulas and rites. We need to bring about a pastoral of renewal of the Christian communities, relying on the Word of God, the Sacraments and the works of mercy. This will lead to a more profound, personal and mature faith, able to respond to the challenges of modernity and to contribute to the building up of solidarity in society. To protect and preserve our religious and cultural heritage, it is necessary to rely also on the sense of the sacred and on the contemplative resources of the Asian tradition, believing that prayer is the soul of the proclamation of the faith.”
Pham Ngoc Tri