Hanoi (AsiaNews/EDA) - The priesthood and the consecrated life are exerting a growing fascination among young Vietnamese Catholics as evinced by the high number of candidates applying to enter the Major Seminary of Vinh-Thanh (which covers the northern dioceses of Vinh and Thanh Hoa). Last month saw in fact a peak, with 410 men asking to write the entrance exam for the 2013-2014 academic year.
More importantly, such a high number involves an institution located in northern Vietnam, a traditional stronghold of the Vietnamese Communist Party, which for decades has used every means at its disposal to discourage religious practice and crush religious freedom. Catholics, who have often been associated with the West, have suffered persecution and abuse under Communist rule as shown by the life of Card Van Thuan and other priests.
For years, Vietnam's seminaries required candidates to undergo aptitude tests and exams at the level of each diocese and religious congregation, in both South and North, in order to carry out an initial screening and assess qualifications.
In the ecclesiastical province of Hanoi, there are four major seminaries. The one in the capital was the first to reopen in 1987 after the Communist government shut down it following reunification in 1975.
A few months later, a seminary reopened in Saigon, in the south, even though the conditions imposed by the authorities were very strict and news admissions were allowed only every six years.
Over time, things have changed and the new seminaries of Vinh-Thanh, Bui Chu, and Thai Binh were set up in the North.
This year, the diocese of Vinh (which has about 500,000 members) broke all records in terms of candidates to the priesthood.
On 1 August, 410 candidates from the diocese's three provinces took the entrance exam. After morning Mass, they wrote three tests to assess their level of knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, Christian spirituality, general culture and society. This was followed by one-to-one interviews to learn more about their wish to join the consecrated life. Only 40 will be eventually selected for the programme, which is set to begin in a few weeks time.
The number of female vocations is also a measure of the vitality and dynamism of the Vietnamese Church. In Vinh, the Congregation of the Sisters Lovers of the Cross organised exams for future novices on 27 July, with 65 candidates ranging in age between 18 and 23 admitted to the one-year programme in 2013-2014 to vet further their vocation.
Although the high number of candidates to the priesthood is a sign of the vitality of the Vietnamese Church, Catholic leaders still want to examine closely the reasons that motivate young people to want to dedicate their life to Christ and others.
Sometimes, the desire to wear the cassock is based more on "worldly ambitions" than a genuine spirit of service. This is why their motivations must be evaluated, and then adjusted, refined and purified along an educational path shaped by teachers, family, priests and other seminarians.