The Church In Vietnam today

There is no doubt the Catholic Church in Vietnam today is recognized and respected by many as a Church of serving and heroism. The same Church, however, is facing a tremendous challenge to survive in a country imperiled by both internal and external foes.

A Heroic Church

Let's the fact speak its volume. After 401 years of missionary (1615-2016), we have gained numerous new believers in the Catholic faith.

As how heroism is defined, the Good News taught by the Lord Jesus has been contributing so much to the country from political to cultural, social to scientific, educational and medical aspects of life. Specifically, the communist government nowadays is still using the maps drawn by Catholic missionaries to prove Vietnam's territorial and maritime sovereignty. The Catholic missionaries were credited for inventing the Vietnamese National Language with 27 Latin alphabets which successfully replaced the 224 Sino-Vietnamese characters without much difficulty and is currently being used exclusively by all countrymen. Unarguably, this effort has provided such precious opportunity for the Vietnamese people to break themselves free from the Chinese assimilation after thousands of years. This remarkable milestone was well documented in history and the Vietnamese people forever grateful. The (Latin) alphabets have also been instrumental in helping the Church in Vietnam spreading the Good News effectively from the day it was developed!

The Vietnamese Catholics from time to time have been labelled as “traitors” and “disloyal” as in defecting to the French colonists and refusing to worship ancestors. The fact is that only a small number of foreign missionaries, those either bearing the mentality of “my motherland comes first” or just simply being fearful of persecution chose to cooperate with the French invaders so they can keep on going with their missionary. With these two labels, those who chose to be faithful to their Catholic belief had been looked down upon as second or third class citizens with their civil rights stripped off, put in segregation and persecuted for hundreds of years. This has continues as of today. Despite all that, the Catholics have been committed to living our life as both good citizen and good faithful as we believe a true Christian must be a pious and patriotic citizen. To put it simply, “to worship God and to love people must be combined as ONE character”.

Question is, how could a Church with such unity and wonderful faith, under such experienced leadership be on the decline in a land that God has used the “Communist whip” to prepare for the past 70 years? Could the 1954 and 1975 events be how God would send the message “The Church in Vietnam has to LEAVE?”

The Church on the decline

The statistic has it, the Church in Vietnam has been called the Eldest Daughter in Asia. From 8% of population being followers in 1950's it's now ranked 5th with only 6.8%, trailing behind the Church in the Philippines, Korea, East Timor, and Lebanon. Being fully equipped with a system of committees including Committee for Evangelical Ministry from central authorities to parish level, but the results still a disappointment. How could it be? Because of a disorganized or non-effective operation?

Looking at religious organizations, we would see many groups operating within the church premises, focusing more on structures erecting and festive celebration than on prayers and evangelical mission. The young, the poor, the non-catholics, the pagan, the social and cultural media are less of an interest to us, it seems.

In terms of personnel, particularly the clergy, a large number of students is being educated in various seminaries and institutes but the trainers or educators are still in shortage. There seems to be more of a need to fill in the gap of personnel for parish activities rather than for evangelical mission. In Vietnam today, priests are being educated more on Western's culture and norms while straying from Oriental culture and values. Many lack basic knowledge on cultures, languages, history, and even Vietnam's history. Thus, the gap between clergymen and laymen - both Catholic and non-Catholic alike- in terms of language and behavior has been created. Many priests have neither confidence in their parishioners nor give them credit they deserve. Other clergymen's luxurious lifestyle has been a hindrance to the Good News in Vietnam!

Throughout history, the attitude of Catholic community has undoubtedly been the decisive factor for the growth of the Church in Vietnam. During the French colonial as well as the nationalist periods, this seemed to be quite positive, even a little too far at times. On the contrary, in communist era while the country struggling with Chinese territorial appropriation as well as cultural and economic manipulation, while the people are at their wit's end with plagues of moral, socio-economic chaos and take it to the streets to vent out their anger and frustration, the Vietnamese Catholic Bishop Conference remains in an eerie, frightening silence. This very attitude would potentially become not the hindrance for those who want to learn more about Catholic faith, but also a force to drive practicing Catholics away from the Church.

The Holy See has also inflicted pain and puzzlement to the situation. Is the Apostolic See's actions as a result of her assessment of the Vietnamese Catholics as being sub-standard or perhaps due to the pressure the French colonists and later the communists set upon her? The appointment of the first bishops at key positions had been too slow regardless the fact that Vietnam had many believers with high academic and virtuous standard. It took 318 years (1615-1933) for a Vietnamese national to be appointed as bishop. It took 355 years for Hanoi the capital to witness the first Vietnamese be installed as bishop in 1950 and five years later in 1955 another one in Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. A cardinal was installed only after the communist took over South Vietnam in 1976. In the nutshell, the Church in Vietnam was recognized as mature in 1960 but only under the sponsorship of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples after 345 years of evangelization (1615- 1860).

In contrary, the Holy See's appointments from 1975 on were viewed by many as hasty. The transfers however were perplexing and confusing! The case of Bishop Peter Nguyen Van Hoa is the shining example of how perplexing it can be at the time. When arriving at the diocese to start his duty as Phan Thiet bishop, he discovered that the position had been filled by bishop Nicholas Huynh Văn Nghi, who later got dispatched to Saigon archdiocese. Nevertheless, the communist authorities rejected the transfer. Could it be "someone" had secretly planted their mole(s) into Vatican's diplomatic branch or the diplomats had fallen into a Communist's labyrinth? History will soon reveal the painful truth.

How could it be that in 1972 His Holiness Pope Paul VI refused to receive president Nguyen Van Thieu of Republic of Vietnam, yet agreed to meet with special envoy Xuan Thuy of North Vietnam? On Jan 30, 2008, the Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone personally signed Letter No. 915/08/RS/FAX which directly interfered with the event going on at Hanoi Nunciature when in fact Archdiocese of Hanoi was very capable of handling the issues at hand on its own. More regrettably were what happened after 1975, when the Church had made numerous concessions to the communist regime in Vietnam, especially in the process of selecting bishop candidates. Over and over again, hassles were created to cause problems and damages to the Church, her independence, her freedom and her reputation. It seems the Holy See is applying the same policy of appeasement in mainland China. We pray that what we fear is not happening in reality.

The bloody experience provided by many of high ranking communist officers from Vietnam or any other country, as well as by those who awaken from the communist nightmares can be helpful for the Holy See's diplomats to gain knowledge and insights from when working with Vietnamese communist authorities, particularly when exchanging ideas on establishing diplomatic relationship between the Vatican and Vietnam. Russian Vladimir Putin had once said: “Those who believe in what the communists said have no brain. Those who listen to the communists have no heart”. And Mikhail Gorbachev, once General Secretary of the Communist Party of the former Soviet Union said: “I've devoted half my life to the communist ideal. Today it's painful to say that the Communist party only spreads propaganda and lies”. Hopefully, what happened to Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet will not repeat in the case of bishop Paul Nguyen Thai Hop of Vinh diocese. Let us hope that the Holy See would not seek diplomacy at any cost of her flocks and faithful people in Vietnam.

The Bishop Conference of Vietnamese should courageously undertake the responsibility of navigating the Church in a more proactive approach, and timely provide experts of both profession and loyalty to work side by side with the Vatican.

Above was our take on the Church's current situation in a country where the people are suffering from a party-controlled, totalitarian communist regime. This country is also being threatened by Chinese invasion by wicked yet sophisticated means. Our assessment may be imperfect or needs modification, but it is written with sincerity and prompted by the love for the Church and beloved country Vietnam. Our conviction: follow the path of missions (x. NvTm No. 120) in the spirit and by means of Queen Esther and the Israelites. The path to repentance and evangelization will help the Church to move forward and contribute to the liberation of the Vietnamese people from internal and external enemies.

Orange County, November 25, 2016

+ Most Reverend Micae Hòang Đức Oanh, D.D., Retired Bishop of Kontum Diocese.
+ Most Rev. Dominic Mai Thanh Lương, D.D., Retired Auxiliary Bishop of Orange Diocese.

Monsignor Francis Phạm Văn Phương, Riverdale, GA, USA.
Rev. John Trần Công Nghị, VietCatholic, Garden Grove, CA, USA.
Rev. Michael Mai Khải Hoàn, Garden Grove, CA, USA.
Rev. Stephano Bùi Thượng Lưu, DanChua Magazine Stuttgard, Germany.
Rev. Paul Văn Chi, Sydney, NSW, Australia.
Rev. Anthony Nguyễn Hữu Quảng SDB, Brunswick, VIC, Australia.
Rev. Barth. Nguyễn Đình Phước, CSsR, San Diego, CA, USA.
Sr. Thùy-Linh Nguyễn FMA, Melbourne, Australia.
Mr. Nguyễn Long Thao, San José, CA, USA.
Mr. Trần Mạnh Trác, Houston, Texas, USA.
Mr. Đặng Minh An, Perth, Australia.
Rev. Joseph Phạm Minh Văn, Geneve, Suisse.
Rev. Jean Hoàng Ngọc Thanh, Lausanne, Suisse.
Mr. Trần Kim Ngọc, Liege, Belgique.
Mr. Paul Nguyễn Văn Tánh, Bruxelles, Belgique.
Rev. JB. Đinh Xuân Minh, Münster, Germany.
Rev. Pascal Nguyễn Ngọc Tỉnh, OFM, Saigòn, Vietnam.
Rev. Phạm Trung Thành, CSsR, Saigòn, Vietnam.
Rev. Anton Lê Ngọc Thanh, CSsR, Saigòn, Vietnam.