No announcement was made about the establishment of diplomatic relations or a papal visit to Vietnam as Vietnamese Catholics had hoped for. Nonetheless, in its press release the “Holy See expressed its pleasure at the visit,” the first by a Vietnamese head of state. It also “expressed the hope that outstanding questions may be resolved as soon as possible”. This was an obvious reference to issues involving the Vietnamese Church as well as freedom of religion, which is still limited in the country.
In an interview released today by Églises d’Asie, Mgr Barnabé Nguyên Van Phuong, from the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, said that he has been a member of every Vatican delegation that visited Vietnam since 1990. “Each time,” a delegation was in the country, there was “rapprochement and understanding,” he said. On both sides, “there is a desire to establish diplomatic relations.” Yet, whatever the goal, “time is needed” to normalise relations.
The prelate answered questions about the issues that have caused tensions between the government and the Catholic Church, in particular over property like the former compound of the apostolic delegation in Hanoi. He said, “a section of the property has been turned into a public garden,” but “the building is still intact. Naturally, when diplomatic relations are established the issue has to be raised, so that it can be settle justly. but it is still a public garden.”
The same problem applies to the Pontifical Institute in Dalat, which is going the way of the apostolic delegation.
In the interview, Mgr Van Phuong also addressed the issue of priests beaten up by police in some areas, adding, “When the time comes, the Holy See will express its position on such issues.”
President Triêt was accompanied by a ten-member delegation that included some ministers, but only one woman. He held unusually long discussions with Benedict XVI (40 minutes), in an atmosphere described as “cordial” by the journalists who saw him on his arrival.
When it was time to exchange gifts. President Triêt gave the Pope a silk cloth with an embroidered lotus flower, symbol of the country, and a porcelain vase. The Pontiff gave the Vietnamese leader a medallion of his pontificate.
Today’s visit comes almost three years after that of Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng (25 January 2007), the first Vietnamese head of government to meet with the Pope. That occasion marked “a new and important step towards the normalisation of bilateral relations”.
Relations between the Vatican and Vietnam have been tense in the past because of a number of problems as well as the government’s persecutory attitude towards Catholics following unification, and this despite statements by Pope Paul VI against US air strikes against North Vietnam. At the time of the Vietnam War, the Pope made public appeals and especially sent letters to US President Lyndon Johnson and the leaders of the North and South Vietnam (1967). He also made private entreaties in favour of a negotiated solution to the various governments.
In October 1998, in response to an invitation by Vietnamese bishops, John Paul II said he was prepared to come in pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of La Vang. However, the Vietnamese government informed the Vatican through channels that “it had no intention of inviting the Pope, for the time being.”
The failure to set up a Chinese-styled ‘Patriotic Church’ and the steady action by the Vatican to convince the government of the usefulness of working with the Catholic Church have led to a modus vivendi on Episcopal appointments and gradually given Catholics more leeway to act.
The current position of the Vietnamese government is informed by the belief that the catholic Church can be useful in helping the poor and the disabled through its management of kindergartens and health facilities, which are theoretically the prerogative of State institutions.
The Church’s action in trying to stem the negative effects of corruption and the current economic free for all is also valued positively by those in power.
Before Nguyễn Tấn Dũng’s visit, a government commission was in the Vatican between 27 June and 2 July 2005. At the time as well, the parties expressed a desire to see talks progress rapidly towards the normalisation of relations.
Deputy Prime Minister Wu Khoâng was the first top official to enter the Apostolic Palace on 29 November 2002 when he met John Paul II’s ‘foreign minister’, the then Secretary of State Card Angelo Sodano. On that occasion, he also met Mgr Jean-Louis Tauran.
Back in the 1990s, the two parties had also held private meetings.
Over the past 20 years, Vatican delegations have visited Vietnam 16 times, almost once a year, and each time they have been warmly received by the authorities. On those occasions, almost all of the country’s dioceses were visited.
Still religious freedom remains very much hampered in some of the more remote provinces of northern Vietnam and in the Plateau region.
In terms of relations, the message of condolences sent by Prime Minister Phạm Văn Khai to Secretary of State Card Angelo Sodano expressing his government’s heartfelt regrets to “the Vatican, the world’s Catholic community and Catholics in Vietnam for the death of John Paul II” was highly significant.
During the Pope’s funeral, the authorities allowed the installation of a maxi-screen in front of Hanoi Cathedral so that people could follow the ceremony. (FP)