07/18/2011, 00.00
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Abortion, pastoral work and repression: the challenges of the "bishop of the lepers"

by J.B. An Dang
Bishop Cosmas Hoang Van Dat, has led, the Diocese of Bac Ninh for three years, destroyed by American bombing and under the heel of the Communists after the war. The bishop has given confidence to the population and is courageously fighting the challenges lying ahead.
Perth (AsiaNews) - Looking at this bishop, small in stature, even by Vietnamese standards, with a gentle voice, it is difficult to comprehend his daily life at the head of a diocese torn between the harsh religious policy of the Communists and the American bombing during the Vietnam War. Yet, three years after his appointment, Mgr. Cosmas Hoang Van Dat has brought significant changes to the life of the place that gave birth to 12 Vietnamese martyrs, killed for proclaiming their faith in Christ during one of the toughest periods in the history of the local Church.

About 125 thousand came to the Catholic Diocese of Bac Ninh, about 30 kilometers northeast of Hanoi. A number that seems small, compared to 8 million people in the region, but that is four times the number of faithful who lived here when the North was taken over by the Communists in 1954. At that time, concluded in 1963, the diocese had only "a priest and a half": one was allowed to say Mass and celebrate the sacraments, the other was an "underground" priest, forced to work illegally at the risk of be arrested and imprisoned. Today there are 57priests.

From the total absence of religious, who led the exodus of Catholics to the South, there are now no less than 300 nuns in Bac Ninh who teach catechism to children and take care of those resident in the 4 camps for lepers in the area. The diocese has been able to send 4 priests, 2 seminarians and 3 nuns to study in Europe.

Despite his enormous contribution, Mgr. Cosmas Hoang Van Dat - whom many call "the bishop of the lepers" - makes clear that it is all down to Divine Providence. Speaking to AsiaNews, after celebrating Mass in the parish of the Good Shepherd in Perth, on the occasion of his visit to Australia, the prelate explained: "I do not know how to lead a diocese. I have only ever done pastoral work in my life, and for most part with lepers. I do what must be done, no more. "

He came to witness the ordination of Mgr. Vincent Van Long Nguyen, the first Vietnamese called to lead an Australian diocese. Mgr Cosma Hoang, as Secretary General of the Vietnamese bishops' conference, represented his brothers in the episcopate.

Although humble and simple, the bishop is also able to tell it like it is and forcefully deal with uncomfortable situations. On September 9, 2008 he led 39 priests and hundreds of faithful of Thai Ha, to show solidarity with Hanoi Redemptorist Fathers who risked seizure of their goods. The government had threatened him not to do so, on pain of the cancellation of his episcopal ordination that was to have been celebrated a month later.

Arriving at the place of protest, Mgr. Hoang said: "I prayed for you from afar. Today I wanted to bring my sympathy in person to this place, where as a child I attended mass. " A week before he went to Tam Dao to re-consecrate a church sequestered for 54 years by the Communists: As a result, he suffered a week of violent attacks from state media.

Fighting against government restrictions and censorship of the bureaucrats, the bishop has made 251 pastoral visits in different areas of a diocese which covers 24 thousand square kilometers, communicating with thousands of faithful. His predecessor, who later became Cardinal Pham Dinh Tung, was only able to make 5 in 31 years and arrested by the Communists, spent much of his episcopate in jail.

Hit hard during the Vietnam War because of its proximity to Hanoi, the diocese has seen 80% of its places of worship destroyed by bombing. The priority of Mgr. Hoang was to reconstruct these places. Today, in Bac Ninh there are 336 places of prayer. The bishop sends his priests to visit them all, to celebrate Mass and the sacraments.

But the local church also fights against abortion in a country with the highest rate of pregnancy loss throughout the world. The Sisters of Bac Ninh, supported by their bishop, provide shelter and financial assistance to those who become pregnant and ensure the adoption of unwanted children.

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