09/14/2006, 00.00
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Government gives green light to expansion of St Joseph's Seminary in Xuan Loc

by Nguyen Van Tranh

For years the Church had asked permission to expand the seminary to accommodate the growing number of young seminarians. Vietnam's desire to join the World Trade Organisation is behind the decision.

Ho Chi Minh City (AsiaNews) – After years of refusal, the Vietnamese government has finally given its permission to the second phase in the expansion of the St Joseph Major Seminary in Xuan Loc diocese, a step that was becoming increasingly necessary given the growing number of seminarians trying to apply. The new building will accommodate students from four dioceses: Xuan Loc, Phan Thiet, Da Lat and Ba Ria.

The announcement was made by the bishops of Vietnam in a thanksgiving mass held in Ho Chi Minh City. Mgr Dominique Nguyen Chu Trinh, bishop of Xuan Loc; Mgr Peter Nguyen Van Nhon, bishop of Da Lat, and Mgr Anton Vu Huy Chuong, bishop of Hung Hoa, presided over the ceremony. Fr Nguyen Van Huong, head of the Pastoral and Social Action Committee for the diocese of Saigon; officials from the Saigon seminary; and various priests and seminarians also attended the service.

The government's decision dates back to December 2005, but it took all these months before it could be implemented. Nguyen Thanh, deputy chairman of the People's Committee of Ho Chi Minh City, said that "the government of Vietnam and the Communist Party of the city have a policy that respects religious freedom and the spiritual life of the people. Religious leaders can find the best conditions to pursue religious activities of any type, so much so that there are some 15,000 clergymen at present."

In his homily, Mgr Nguyen Chu Trinh said that "setting up a seminary is fundamental for the future of the diocese, but also for the Church. This is so because dioceses, parishes, districts and seminaries as well as all other social field depend on priests."

The prelate stressed that the "future of the priesthood hinges on training seminarians. For this reason a priority for bishops is building seminaries where future priests can acquire their education. That is why the seminary is called a 'bishop's eye'."

This positive development, according to some observers, stems from the government's desire to join the World Trade Organisation in order to have access to world markets, a goal that depends much on the United States which sees unfavourably any restrictions on religious freedom.

Still, many local Catholics are hoping and praying that this new attitude may signal a "new direction in the development of Vietnam's socialist society".

The diocese of Xuan Loc has the highest number of Catholics in Vietnam with just under a million members. Many of them are refugees who fled the north in the 1950s after the establishment of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Officially Vietnam's Catholics number 5.6 million.

Despite improvements, the Catholic Church and all religions remain under tight state control. The authorities continue to restrict religious freedom and evangelisation, but they have none the less tended to support the Church's involvement in education and health such care for those suffering from leprosy.

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