Expectations and hopes in the Church for the visit of Vietnamese President Triet to the Pope
by Nirmala Carvalho
For the Catholic community in the country, 6.5% of the population, the situation has improved in recent years, although there is no full freedom of religion. Father Theodore Mascarenhas, an official of the Pontifical Council for Culture, reviews the situation in a conversation with AsiaNews.

Mumbai (AsiaNews) - The announcement that the President of Vietnam Nguyen Minh Triet, will be received in audience by Benedict XVI, on 11 December, has immediately resulted in talk of a  possible announcement of diplomatic relations or an invitation to Benedict XVI to visit the country. The new was announced yesterday in Hanoi, by the spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Nguyen Phuong Nga, who spoke of "measures to strengthen the relationship," which means everything and nothing.

The visit of Vietnamese President falls nearly three years on from that made January 5, 2007 to the Vatican by the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, the first prime minister of Vietnam to be received by a pope. Then he spoke of "a new and important step towards the normalization of bilateral relations".  

But Triet will go to the Vatican during a particular period for the Church in his country, which since 24 November (photo: the opening ceremony) is celebrating a special jubilee, 350 years of evangelization and 50 years of institution of the Episcopal conference. A year in which Catholics hope to meet the Pope  

In the country, moreover, the reality of the Church has improved in recent years.  Although it does not enjoy full religious freedom, due to the many obstacles that the communist government continues to place in their path  that range from the appointment of bishops to the ordination of priests, and their pastoral work. Nevertheless, the Church is growing both in its socio-educative activities as well as in the field of dissemination of the faith.

This is the picture drawn for us, on the occasion of the Jubilee of the Vietnamese Church, by Father Theodore Mascarenhas, an official of the Pontifical Council for Culture, responsible for Asia, Africa and Oceania, in a conversation with AsiaNews.  

"The Church in Vietnam - he says - is a growing Church. Despite the fact that Christians do not really have the religious freedom that they should have and despite the difficulties facing the Church it is growing. The relationship between the Church and the government in a communist country is never easy. But there are collaborative efforts at local levels and, on occasion, even at a national level".  

"In this country, where 'God weeps," the Church has made rapid progress, not only in terms of socio-educational initiatives, but also for its own growth. Over the last seven years there was an increase of 15.73% of the Catholic population (the population growth in the country is 14.59%). This means a marginal increase compared to that of the population, Catholics remain a minority, which constitutes approximately 6.5% of the population. "

“The work of evangelization among the ethnic groups of the mountains is very encouraging. Among them, after 80 years of evangelization, the number of Christians has grown significantly. Great credit must be given to the missionaries, who initially pledged to learn the dialects of the people of the mountains and become familiar with the traditions and customs of these peoples. Today, all the books of the New Testament and a large part of those of the Old have been translated into their languages. Of great importance is their presence among the lepers and commitment to education. "  

"The Church has suffered greatly in Vietnam since the beginning of evangelization in the sixteenth century. In 1625 the first persecution of Catholics began and in 1630 Francis, a subject of the royal court, was beheaded and became the first Vietnamese martyr. In 1633 last Jesuit was expelled. There was then a period of relative calm until 1975 when, after the invasion of the South by the communist North, the country was unified. Noviciates and seminaries were closed, the Catholic schools nationalized, the Bishop Coadjutor of Saigon, Mgr. Francis Nguyen Van Thuan, (who was later made a cardinal and led the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace) imprisoned, the apostolic delegate expelled and there were interference in the appointment of bishops. Contacts between the Holy See and the bishops became difficult, hundreds of priests were imprisoned and more than 500 left the country".

In that climate of fear, the government also created a Patriotic Association, a long the same libes of the Chinese. It explains father Mascarenhas, "was born in March 1955 as the Liaison Committee for patriotic and peace loving Catholics. At first, a significant number of Catholics joined it. But when, in December 1976 during a special celebration the prayer for the pope was removed, the Holy See wrote a letter in which instructed the priests who were on the Committee to resign". "When the government saw the failure of the initiative it launched a policy of repression against priests and faithful and the confiscation of Church property." After several changes, Association still exists, "but has no substantial influence."   

"Things begin to improve in the 80s. In 1980 the first plenary meeting of the Conference of Bishops was held. Government permission was needed and the working agenda was carefully examined and even the pastoral letters were 'corrected' by the government. In the same year two groups of bishops were able to make the visit "ad Limina" to Rome on 17 June and 9 September. In 1990 for the first time a delegation of the Holy See, led by Cardinal Roger Etchegaray was able to visit the country. It has been followed by 15 others, the last February 16 to 21 2009. In 1995, the Deputy Prime Minister finally acknowledged publicly the great contribution made by Father Alexandre de Rhodes to education in Vietnam. "  

Father Mascarenhas notes "participation in mass is really outstanding, very high, and not just on Sundays, but every day. In the rural areas vocations are growing, which are missing in the city. There is also a shortage of formators. Religious show a great desire for renewal and study of the Word. There is a difference in mentality between the North and South. The North does not appear completely open to the spirit of Vatican II. The South shows more openness to dialogue. "Of particular note, finally, the work of the Church in the cultural field, with the translation of documents and books, primarily as part of their pastoral approach to culture. The work of the Catholic Centre for Culture is of great importance, especially their plans to create a large structure in Ho Chi Minh City. "