Vietnam: The Long Road To Freedom

An edited version of an article by Fr Bernardo Cervellera PIME of FIDES that appeared in
World Mission

Pope John Paul in Manila in 1995 called on all Asian Catholics to evangelize their continent, the one with the smallest percentage of Christians in the world. This invitation certainly involves the Philippines but also the 8,000,000 Catholics of Vietnam who form ten per cent of the population there, the third largest percentage in the continent.

The faith came to Vietnam about 400 years ago and 120,000 were martyred by 1700 for refusing to worship the Emperor. French missionaries encouraged literacy which facilitated relations with the international cultural community. A few years ago the government named a Hanoi street after French missionary Alexandre De Rhodes who gave the Vietnamese language its Roman form.

Catholics, though discriminated against, are still among the country’s most advanced scholars and writers. Especially in the South, universities were either Catholic or closely linked to the missionaries. Among the Catholics of Vietnam are Teresa Than, a pediatrician who is an advisor to the World Health Organization, and the simple Christians who spend whole days praying at the grotto of Our Lady at the national shrine of La Vang.

La Vang: A Moment of Truth

A clear manifestation of what Catholicism means for Vietnamese happened at La Vang on August 15, 1998. 200 years after Our Lady appeared there. 200,000 pilgrims from all over the country and from all social strata came to this little village in Central Vietnam, Prayer, tears, confession, begging for graces, mutual help: this is how they lived for three days. When the Hanoi government saw how this huge celebration had passed off in peace and order it expressed its appreciation for the witness and high civic sense of Vietnamese Catholics. Initially it had tried to block the affair.

A Church Close to the People

The presence at La Vang of many Muslims, Buddhists, Confucianists and animists was a sign that the Catholic Church interests the whole population. The designs of the altar, the podium, the statue of the Blessed Mother and the liturgical vestments were all inspired by the culture of Vietnam.

During the period of Communist domination, from 1954 in the North and 1974 in the South, the Church has responded to the needs of the people, even during persecution, caring for refugees, helping flood victims, providing medical care and education. Its social commitment has increased in proportion to the decline of the ideals of the Marxist regime and widespread general neglect, corruption and poverty. Catholics among northern tribal peoples offer free medical care to groups who live in the forest, abandoned by the government. Similar things happen in the cities. Medical care is very poor in contemporary Vietnam as a result of economic options based on ideology. Many religious sisters and Catholic laypeople visit and give medicine, both Western and traditional, to the sick, either free or at very low rates. One example is a convent of sisters, some preparing herbal remedies, some doing research, some praying for the sick, who ask patients to pay 1000 dong, about five pesos, to create a sense of responsibility among the 100 or so who arrive each day. Many with leprosy or tuberculosis get care only from Catholics with the help of some Buddhists.

Facing Modern Challenges

Since Vietnam began to open up in 1986 other needs have been felt, for example, the need for education and language study, and an adequate response to the general spiritual and moral vacuum. Though prohibited by law, Catholics have opened innumerable kindergarten, primary and professional schools, as well as institutes for computer and language studies. Because of the need they survive and sometimes local Communist party officials ask priests and sisters to establish these places.

Marxism led to a deep gap between generations and some Buddhists have asked Catholics to teach their children Catholic moral teaching such as love for the truth, personal responsibility, commitment and respect for parents. These were part of the Confucianist values underpinning Vietnamese society before. Nowadays many of the young are more fascinated by stylish clothes and drugs than the calls of filial piety.

With one quarter of the population below the poverty level and one fifth unemployed, more and more young boys and girls find themselves caught up in the “sex industry.” Harsher laws have not prevented the growth of this and it is reckoned that 10,000 Vietnamese girls under sixteen practice prostitution in neighboring Cambodia. The problem is not only economic but spiritual. Sisters in Ho Chi Minh City, for example, have a place to stay for girls caught up in prostitution.

On March 19, 1998, the then Prime Minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, made an extraordinary statement: “Karl Marx defined religions as the opium of the people, but with the use of drugs, prostitution and other plagues which have struck Vietnam, we say today that religion can give us a hand in getting out of this situation.” The Vietnamese Episcopal Conference had been underlining that it was precisely the religious policy of the government that had put the brakes on the service the Church could give to the nation.

The Pendulum of Control

The government’s policy towards religion and the Catholic Church swings back and forth. It appreciates the social function of religion but places every religious activity under the control of the police. Permission is needed to organize a parish choir or to print leaflets and catechisms. The government insists on approving the appointment of bishops. It must give permission for a young man to enter a seminary, to be ordained, for the printing of books, for changes in church personnel both within Vietnam and abroad. However, one Catholic in Hue showed how members of the Church deal with this: “We are like grass that grows in any crack that appears in the wall. If they don’t allow us to give our witness in one place, then we just set about flowering somewhere else.”

Signs of Change

A Vatican delegation in March 1999 found the Vietnamese keen to start moves towards establishing diplomatic relations with the Holy See. The usual problems surfaced at this meeting with members of the government: the appointment of bishops to ten vacant dioceses, the opening of new seminaries – many who want to be priests are not given permission to study – and a possible visit by the Pope to the country. However, the government’s control over bishops has decreased. Now they are free to travel around their dioceses to preach and to confirm without asking permission and without having to return to their residences every evening.

Government Under Pressure

Corruption in government and a desire for greater democracy are some of the factors sending shock waves through the leadership of the Communist Party. Some generals have torn up their membership cards and others have been expelled from the Party. Among these was General Tra Do who invited the Party to “either reform itself or die.” Another Party member was arrested for averring that the “Red capitalists are paradoxically protected by the dictatorship of the proletariat.” These are situations that push the government to seek new alliances and to reconstruct an acceptable moral image. Relations with the Church and with the Vatican could be seen as helping in this.

Economic Threat

The Asian economic crisis of recent years, along with legislative neglect and a closed attitude towards the international community, have meant a decrease of fifty percent in international investment in the country. Added to this is extreme poverty and unease among the people. A similar situation in Indonesia led to the fall of the dictator Suharto. There have been some cases of clashes between farmers and the forces of order. The Church has worked for peace and calm in these situations.

However, diplomatic relations have not yet been set up and a papal visit is not politically possible without that. The Vatican has made it clear that it is not a matter of seeking a few favors and privileges for Catholics, but of affirming freedom for all religions, and together with religious freedom, respect for civil rights.