Yen Bai (AsiaNews/Ucan) Having traveled 6 hours through 20 kilometers of mountainous terrain on horseback and foot, Bishop Antoine Vu Huy Chuong is the first bishop the Hmong Catholics in Phinh Ho parish have seen in more 100 years. From February 9-18, the Bishop, newly ordained in October 2003, made a pastoral visit to 8 parishes in the province of Yen Bai, which includes about 45,000 Kinh (majority Vietnamese) and ethnic minority Catholics. Arriving at sunset to the church in Giang Lao Pan, the 59 year -old bishop was moved to tears to see the faithful who had waited since early morning and walked barefoot to meet him. "Now as I stand among you, I am not tired any more. I feel closer to God and see God in each one of you." The bishop was accompanied by 25 Catholics, including 3 priests.
Joseph Cu A Chang, 40, a member of the Giang Lao Pan parish said, the bishop's visit brought the "greatest joy and consulation" to the tribal Catholics. "It is the first time we have welcomed a bishop here since the Hmong people first received the Good News more than 100 years ago."
The bishop celebrated Mass, with hymns and songs in the native Hmong language, and confirmed 270 Hmong adults and children. During his homily, he was moved to share: "Last night I dreamed that when I retire, I will come to live with you and die here. Please pray for me so I will be healthy enough to visit you again." Following the Mass, there was a celebration where the people presented Bishop Chuong with a large wooden rosary which he wore around his neck.
The Phinh Ho parish has had no priest since 1964. Only since 1993 has a priest come once a year to celebrate Mass and administer Sacraments at the church, explained Joseph Chang. Parishioners normally hold prayers, bring Communion to the sick, and baptize children themselves. On feasts such as Easter, Christmas and All Saints' Day, the lay leader said, only the able-bodied can walk the 150 kilometers to Yen Bai parish, which is about 180 km northwest of Ha Noi.
During his visit to the eight parishes, the Bishop confirmed more than 2000 people, and baptized 30 members of the Thai ethnic minority. He also blessed new cemeteries and visited the poorest parishes.
During each Mass, Bishop Chuong made an appeal for vocations, and asked children if any of them wanted to be Religious or priests. When some girls said that they wanted to be priests, the Bishop explained Church teaching to them, suggesting that they find in St. Therese of the Child Jesus an example of a one who wanted to be a priest, and gave her life to prayer. In this way, she participated in the work of the priests and foreign missions in a very powerful way. Then he asked parents to encourage vocations in their children by helping them to complete at least high-school level education, and to teach them the faith.
The Hung Hoa diocese, the geographically largest in Vietnam, covers 54,432 square km and has 197,436 Catholics11,315 of them ethnic Dao, Hmong, Muong, Tay and Thai, from a population of 6.3 million people. There are 24 priests, 105 nuns, 27 seminarians, and 2030 catechists serving in 75 parishes, with 500 sub-parishes; 54 of the parishes are without priests.
The lack of priests in the North is due to the long persecution of the Church (started in North Vietnam in 1954, after it was declared a Communist republic). During that period many priests were killed and many fled to the south. Until now there has been a surplus of priests in the South, though the government does not allow them to move to the North.
Also, priestly ordinations and entrance to the seminaries need the permission of the government.