03/31/2009, 00.00
VIETNAM
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Vietnamese Church considers how to revive its mission

by J.B. An Dang
Questions about how to deal with the various factors, from government hostility to the indifference of the laity toward the issue of evangelization, that have led to a drop in the percentage of Catholics over the past 50 years.

Ho Chi Minh City (AsiaNews) - Inability to witness in everyday life to the true meaning of being Catholic, a lazy conviction that evangelization is ultimately the duty of priests alone, hostility if not outright persecution from the authorities, which is often translated into various forms of discrimination - all of this is detracting from the missionary impulse of the Vietnamese Church, and with this, from the percentage of Catholics in the country. This is the analysis that emerges from a conference organized some time ago by the archdiocese of Saigon, precisely in order to examine the causes of the slowdown in the growth of the number of Catholics.

For decades, in fact, the growth of the number of Catholics - although it has continued - has been lower as a percentage than that of the rise in population. "The latest official statistical figures from the Church in Vietnam," says Fr. Anthony Nguyen Ngoc Son, one of the main speakers at the conference, "show that the Catholic population in 2007 was 6,087,700 among 85,154,900 people, or a rate at about 7.15% of national population,. This indicates a decline in number of registered Catholics comparing to 7.2 % in 1933 or 7.5% in 1939."

It is also alarming that while the percentage of Catholics has diminished over the past 50 years, that of other Christian denominations has risen. In 1999, these counted 400,000 members, and in 2008, according to the latest report, there were 1.5 million. According to Fr. Anthony Nguyen, "these figures are a clear indication of the ineffectiveness of the Church’s mission in Vietnam during the last 50 years."

The conference highlighted the alarming number of those who, baptized as adults, do not continue their faith life. Over the past seven years, about 35,000 adults have received baptism, in 80-90% of the cases through matrimony. Unfortunately, however, the number of these converts who continue to practice their religion is showing an alarming drop, above all because of the problems that they have to face after receiving baptism, like the loss of privileges and promotions in some jobs, or the subtle discrimination to which they are subjected by the atheist government.

To this must be added the attitude of practical indifference that many have adopted toward missionary efforts. Many are convinced that evangelization is something that concerns the priests, not the laity. Many Catholics also do not act as witnesses of Christ in their lives, and their behavior does not make a good impression on their non-Catholic neighbors and friends.

Even among priests, Fr. Anthony Nguyen observes, "the clergy has not assumed the much needed responsibility for the mission ad gentes in the country. Missionary efforts seem to be a personal, sporadic crusade for volunteering individuals and religious orders." Sr. Marie Nguyen, a sociologist in Ho Chi Minh City, adds that "dioceses and the Church in Vietnam as whole lack zeal, a comprehensive missionary strategy and investments of means and tools for evangelical mission, especially in the rural or remote areas."

A significant role is also played by government hostility. In many remote areas of the central highlands and the northern mountain provinces, pastoral activities are blocked by bureaucracy and government harassment. In these areas, missionary activity is always described as "a threat to national security," and local officials make no efforts to hide their hostility toward the Church's efforts to carry out its pastoral duties.

The constant policy of defamation, which is carried forward on all levels of education, also serves to generate confusion among young people and to discourage them from expressing their Catholic identity, in order to avoid a bad reputation. "Faith is often limited to something within a personal sphere that many Catholic youth try to make it as invisible as possible," says Sr. Mari Nguyen. "They try to avoid religion-oriented debates, hence lose chances to bear witness to Gospel."

This reality poses various questions, which were discussed during the meeting. The first is: how can the "Good News" of the Christian message be situated within the context of the bad social, political, and economic developments that the country is experiencing? In the midst of the desperation that is pervading everything, where is there room for the hope and optimism brought by the Gospel?

In the second place, how can the image of the Church as a family be constructed? How can Christian families become authentic domestic churches? What is the role of culture in evangelization? What efforts must be made to facilitate the inculturation of the Gospel into the Vietnamese tradition? What must be done to transmit the Christian message to the socio-cultural, religious, political, and economic reality of Vietnam? What emerged was that all of the answers must be sought in the correct understanding of the person of Christ, of his nature, of his meaning and his message addressed to humanity.

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