Vatican City (AsiaNews/UCAN) Card Crescenzio Sepe, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, will visit Vietnam at the end of November according to news reports from the Asian country. Vatican sources that AsiaNews contacted confirmed it.
Card Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man of Ho Chi Minh City was the first to announce the information. "Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe is expected to pay an official visit to Vietnam. The visit is scheduled for November 28-December 6," he said.
The Bishops' Conference of Vietnam extended an invitation to Cardinal Sepe ahead of their annual meeting on September 5-9, but had to wait for the government's green light before they could announce it.
Cardinal Sepe is the highest ranking Vatican official to visit Vietnam since Card Roger Etchegaray's 1989 and 1990 visits. No other Vatican cardinal has visited the country since it was reunified under Hanoi's rule in 1975. Since the mid-90s though, officials from the Vatican's Secretariat of State have made regular visits.
Vatican sources told AsiaNews that the Prefect "is on a strictly pastoral visit" which is in no way related to possible discussions between the Holy See and Vietnam with regards to diplomatic relations. The visit's agenda has not been established in every detail.
Cardinal Sepe will visit Vietnam's three archdioceses, namely Hanoi, Huê, and Ho Chi Minh City. In Hanoi he is scheduled to meet Vietnamese government officials.
The inauguration of the new diocese of Ba Ria will be among the more important ceremonies he will attend to. Located just south-east of Ho Chi Minh City, the new diocese was carved out of the existing Xuan Loc diocese. Mgr Thomas Nguyen Van Tram, Xuan Loc's current Auxiliary Bishop, will become its first Bishop.
The diocese of Xuan Loc, home to almost a million faithful, has the highest proportion of Catholics in the country. Many of them are refugees from the North who fled in the 1950s after the founding of the People's Republic of Vietnam.
The establishment of new dioceses was among the topics raised during talks between Vatican officials and a Vietnamese government delegation that made a working visit to the Vatican on June 27-July 2. The Holy See and Vietnam do not have diplomatic relations but Hanoi has started a dialogue with the Vatican over the appointment of bishops.
Officially, there are 5.6 million Catholics in Vietnam. The Catholic Church like other religions is under almost complete government control. The authorities tend to limit religious freedom and evangelisation, but they value Catholics' commitment to education and health care such as help for lepers.