After years as the first nuncio to Vietnam, he now moves to Israel. During his period in the Asian country he encountered moments of difficulties. Thanks to stronger bilateral relations, the Vietnamese Catholic Church hoped for true religious freedom in appointing bishops and priests, and building places of worship.
Ho Chi Min City (AsiaNews) - "You will always be in my heart and love," said Mgr Leopoldo Girelli on 14 October in his farewell address to the Vietnamese marking the end of a mission that began on 30 January 2011 when Pope Benedict XVI appointed him as the first non-resident representative of the Holy See to Vietnam.
The Vietnamese Catholic Church hoped that through stronger bilateral ties, it would gain true religious freedom to appoint its bishops and priests and build its places of worship.
The government did pass a better law preventing local authorities from appropriating Church property, but as a non-resident nuncio to the socialist country, Archbishop Girelli did not have full freedom. To enter Vietnam to perform his pastoral and representative functions, he had to inform government and local churches about schedules, places and purposes of his visits.
In fact, Bishop Nguyễn Chí Linh, vice president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Vietnam, reacted to a visit by Mgr Girelli to Hanoi at the invitation of the bishops on 20 April 2011, saying that "this is the first time I hear about a non-resident representative of the Holy See. Until now the Vietnamese Church did not know his diplomatic status. I sincerely do not understand how the non-resident representative of the Holy See has some authorisation or relationship with the local Church and state."
On 21 April 2011, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry said that "the non-resident nuncio of the Holy See to Vietnam undertook his first working trip and visited the Ministry.” As he welcomed Mgr Girelli, Vietnam’s Deputy Foreign Minister Bhui Thanh Sơn stressed the "coherent policy" of Vietnam's Communist Party and government based on respect for the right to freedom of opinion and religion, the equality of religions, and the active role of Vietnamese Catholics in economic development and social life.
That was the first of many occasions in which Mgr Girelli worked with the Vietnamese Catholic Church. At the invitation of Bishops’ Conference, he made his first visit on 18 April-1 May 2011, and attended the opening of the Conference’s annual meeting (24-29 April) at the pastoral centre of the Diocese of Saigon.
He was able to visit 26 dioceses
Between then and 14 October 2017, Archbishop Girelli visited 26 dioceses, working with the bishops and celebrating Mass for millions of faithful.
To maintain good relations with the government, he visited the Foreign Ministry as well as provincial and municipal authorities in the 26 dioceses.
Vietnam is a developing country and its people face major problems like regular storms, flooding and environmental pollution. In addition, the educational system is degraded.
Government media have expressed support for improved relations with the Vatican hoping that Vietnamese Catholics would continue to contribute to economic development as well as help the poor, storm and flood victims, children in difficult conditions, etc."
Yet, the government has persecuted Catholics in the Vinh diocese just because of their action against the pollution in the central coastal region caused by Formosa Steel Group's pollution.
The authorities have also banned civic and religious groups from providing food and other aid to victims of flooding, storms and the Formosa Steel Group.
The government has also claimed the right to take donated food and money so that it would deliver it to the victims. Why? Because of stories of corrupt charities unfairly handing out the aid.
For his part, Mgr Girelli has called on the authorities to take care of the victims and pay more attention to Catholics as a resource for economic and social development.
During his visits, the prelate met and comforted poor families. He travelled to remote parishes where local authorities threatened or authorised land grabs in favour of Communist capitalists or certain “interest groups".
That year, Mgr Girelli made a pastoral visit to the diocese of Kon Tum, home to 170,000 Catholics, many from ethnic minorities. He also visited Dak Kia's leprosarium in Kon Tum and that of Dak Pnan in Pleiku. In remote districts in Gia Lai and Kon Tum provinces, he visited 15 missionary communities and houses run by a number congregations and members of the laity.
When he visited the parish of Quan Lãng in the diocese of Vinh on 1st September 2013, he told the thousands of parishioners: "I know you face many difficulties here. I would like to assure all of you that the Holy Father is close to the Catholic Church of Vietnam. Pope Francis remembers you in his prayers and prays for justice and freedom of religion."
"The pope encourages you to be strong to bear witness to the human and Christian values deeply rooted in the faith and in the history of the Vietnamese people. At the same time, I would like to encourage you to live with generosity and in peace whilst upholding dialogue and understanding as the main ways to deal with tensions and controversies."
Religious freedom does not belong to the state
On 1st May 2016, the archbishop visited Thủ Thiêm parish and the Congregation of the Lovers of the Holy Cross in Thủ Thiêm. The parish, founded in 1859, is located on the banks of the beautiful Saigon River and offers pastoral and social outreach to residents, Catholics and non-Catholics.
At 157, the parish is one of the oldest parishes in the diocese of Saigon. "Ho Chi Minh City authorities and those of District 2 have been trying to get rid of this church and sell land for the Thủ Thiêm New Urban Quarters project. This is a very big project with a huge amount of means."
During his visit, Mgr Girelli told parishioners: "I am deeply moved to know that about two thousand families were supposed to be moved and settled elsewhere. Yet, they still meet in this church for the Holy Mass every day, on Sunday, and great celebrations."
Last year, on 16-17 February 2016, Mgr Girelli participated in the 14th Youth Congress of the Archdiocese of Hanoi (which includes ten dioceses in northern Vietnam). Natural and man-made disasters have devastated the area. At the congress he urged young Catholics of the Archdiocese of Hanoi and the entire Catholic Church of Vietnam to bear witness to the truth, uphold the truth, and defend peace that belongs to society.
At the opening ceremony of the 31st pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of La Vang on 13 August 2017, the prelate said that "religious freedom is not something that belongs to the authorities but is a right that belongs to the people".
On 13 September, Mgr Girelli was appointed apostolic nuncio to Israel and apostolic delegate for Jerusalem and Palestine.