05/12/2015, 00.00
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Catholics mourn the death of Mgr Van Nghi, defender of religious freedom in Vietnam

The prelate died peacefully at the age of 88 after a life fighting for the freedom of the Church. During his ministry, he resisted abuse, attacks and harassment by Vietnam’s Communist authorities. The faithful appreciated him for the simplicity, clarity and rigour of his pastoral activity.

Ho Chi Minh City (AsiaNews/EDA) – Vietnam’s Catholic Church is mourning the death of Mgr Nicolas Huynh Van Nghi, retired bishop of Phan Thiet, Binh Thuan province, southern Vietnam.

Local sources said that the prelate died peacefully on 6 May at the age of 88, after spending a lifetime fighting for the freedom of the Church against abuses and violations by Vietnam’s Communist authorities. He passed away at the diocese where he served as the first bishop, and then after he retired in 2005.

For many faithful and experts in the history of Vietnamese Catholicism, Mgr Van Nghi will be remembered as “a model bishop” whose “absolute faith” in the Vatican and the pope was the cornerstone of his episcopal mission.

He remained faithful despite adversities and harassment during the troubled history of the Catholic Church in the past 40 years.

Born in 1927 in a parish in what was then called Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, he entered the seminary of the southern metropolis early on in his life.

In 1950, he travelled to France to further his education at the Major Seminary of Issy-les-Moulineaux, where he received a doctorate in theology.

Ordained into the priesthood in 1953 at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, he returned to Vietnam to teach theology and work in the two most important parishes of Saigon.

In July 1974, he was appointed auxiliary bishop to the Diocese of Saigon, capital of South Vietnam.

A short time later, on 19 March 1975, when the Republic of (South) Vietnamese was collapsing under the blows from the Vietcong and regular North Vietnamese units, he was appointed apostolic administrator to Phan Thiet, a newly established diocese.

From the beginning, local Catholics appreciated the simplicity, clarity and rigour of his pastoral ministry, which enabled him to tackle even the most complex and troubled situations.

A southerner, he was born in Ho Chi Minh City (ex Saigon), where he was educated in his first years of faith thanks to a strong and balanced character.

Two events - in Phan Thiet and Saigon – stand out as evidence of how he lived his pastoral ministry during a period in which Christianity and the Church endured serious abuses and violations.

In the first case, which coincided with his arrival in Phan Thiet in mid-April 1975, North Vietnamese troops had already seized most of the territory of the Republic of Vietnam.

Yet, fighting was still raging in the area. However, the new prelate jumped on a plane and from Saigon reached the town to take charge of the diocese without consideration for the dangers.

After an installation ceremony in the cathedral (led by the Archbishop of Saigon), he was left alone in meeting the challenge of creating a new ecclesiastical district.

The second event occurred in 1993, in Ho Chi Minh City. The Holy See appointed him apostolic administrator of Saigon because the local Archbishop, Mgr Nguyen Van Binh, was ill, and the coadjutor bishop of Hanoi (and future Cardinal), Mgr François-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, was not well liked by government authorities.

His appointment was supposed to be temporary, pending a final decision. He too was disliked by the Communist regime. Yet, despite everything, he faced attacks and harassment by government-controlled “official” Catholics with courage, defending religious freedom and fidelity to the pope.

According to old reports, the prelate did his job with discretion and devotion until 1998 when Mgr Pham Minh Man was finally put in charge of the Archdiocese.

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