The life of the late archbishop is a reflection of the highs and lows of the Vietnamese Church, its hopes and concerns, in wartime and under persecution. Born on 20 May 1919 in Quang Nao parish, Phat Diêm diocese, Ninh Binh province, in family that had been Christian for several generations, Phạm Đình Tụng had a good education in his early years. Eventually a Vietnamese priest brought him to Hà Nôi to pursue his studies. The year was 1940 and he enrolled in Hà Nôi’s Saint-Sulpice Major Seminary, where he studied philosophy and theology.
In August 1945 revolution broke out in the capital and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was proclaimed. The seminary was forced to shut down but as able to reopen three years later but smaller. Phạm Đình Tụng went back to study, attending classes taught by the Redemptorists in Thai Ha parish, which has been in the headlines lately because of the resistance by local parishioners to unlawful seizures by the government.
He was ordained priest in 1949 in Hà Nôi Cathedral and later sent to Sainte-Thérèse orphanage, then run by Fr Paul Seitz, the future bishop of Kontum.
In 1950 he became the priest at Hàm Long in Hà Nôi. Here he set up a centre for migrants escaping to the capital from the war that was raging elsewhere.
In 1954 the country became divided. As a Communist government took over in Hà Nôi many Catholic priests and believers, already terrified by widespread persecution, fled to the south. Fr Phạm Đình Tụng chose instead to stay. In 1955 he was put in charge of the St-Jean small seminary, which despite the times was able to admit 200 seminarians from all northern dioceses.
In 1960 he stood up for the seminary’s freedom and autonomy, refusing to accept the compulsory political indoctrination of his seminarians. For this reason the institution was shut down. In 1964 the Holy See appointed him bishop of Bắc Ninh. His motto was “I believe in God’s love.”
Again war raged, creating all sorts of problems. Material destruction was compounded by the increasing pauperisation of the population. Anti-Christian persecution by the authorities did not relent. Yet discretely he reopened a seminary, ordained priests and set up a female congregation.
In 1990 with the Episcopal See of Hà Nôi vacant the Holy See appointed him apostolic administrator of the capital. Four years later, he was named archbishop and a few months later the Pontiff made him a cardinal. As part of his duties he was also in charge of the seminary (1999-2003), serving as well as the apostolic administrator for the diocese of Lang Son on the border with China, where anti-Christian persecution was strong and sometimes extended to physical violence. From 1995 to 2001 he chaired the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Vietnam.
As head of the seminary he pursued by every means a dialogue with the government to ensure the institution’s freedom in recruitment, trying his best to have secretly ordained priests allowed to exercise their ministry in public.
Although he was also involved in fostering relations between the Holy See and Vietnam, this did not stop him from being among the first to have a protest statement read out in the capital’s churches against the seizure by city authorities of buildings that once belonged to the old Vatican nunciature.
The Holy See only accepted his resignation when he was 84, appointing as his successor Mgr Joseph Ngô Quang Kiêt, that Hà Nôi Communist authorities are now trying to get rid of.
In March 2006 Card Phạm Đình Tụng became seriously ill but continued to receive visits and take care of the problems of the Church and Vietnamese society.