Testimony on Peace Reconciliation and Religious Freedom in Vietnam

A Statement by Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza
National Conference of Catholic Bishops/
United States Catholic Conference
November 24, 1999 - Feast of the Martyrs of Vietnam

From August 26 to September 2, 1999, a delegation of our Conference paid what many in Vietnam referred to as an historic visit to that country. It was a visit of friendship and solidarity with the Church in Vietnam, a response to the invitation of the President of the Vietnamese Episcopal Conference, the Cardinal Archbishop of Hanoi, His Eminence Paul Joseph Pham Dinh Tung, and his fellow bishops.Accompanying me were bishops representing the committees of our Conference most related to the issues: Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, chairman of the Committee on International Policy, Bishop John Cummins, member of the Migration Committee, and Bishop John Ricard, chairman of the board of Catholic Relief Services.

In one brief but eventful week, we met with the bishops and numerous clergy, religious and laity in each of the three areas visited, north, central and south. We celebrated public Masses in the packed cathedrals of Hanoi, Hue, and Ho Chi Minh City with the joyful participation of thousands of devout Catholics. We visited seminaries, religious houses, centers of formation, schools, clinics and orphanages, and paid prayerful homage to Our Lady of La Vang, whose national shrine is the site of pilgrimage from all over Vietnam.

We met as well with the civil authorities, without whose concurrence the visit could not have taken place. In each city, we were received by the leadership of the People's Committee and of the Religious Affairs Bureau, and in Hanoi by the Permanent Deputy Prime Minister, with each of whom we engaged in respectful but clear dialogue. We expressed our genuine gratitude that the government saw fit not only to permit the visit but to grant virtually all of the requests put forth by our hosts, the Vietnamese Episcopal Conference.

We offered words of appreciation for the unquestioned improvements in the daily life of the people that recent years have witnessed. We expressed our sincere hope that the relations between Vietnam and the United States would grow stronger and more amicable with every passing year and that both of our peoples would become ever more reconciled to one another after the horrors inflicted on both sides by the war that still haunts us.

And while we expressed satisfaction with a number of improvements in the matter of religious freedom in general, a not unmixed picture, and in the life of the Catholic Church in particular, we could not fail to urge that the remaining restrictions on the life of the Church be removed as soon as possible. One of the most questionable practices is the tight control over the admission of candidates to study for the priesthood, especially the long delays imposed before being admitted to the seminary. We strongly encouraged a rethinking of measures that seem to express a fear of the Catholic community, a tenth of the Vietnamese people, who seek only to be patriotic and productive citizens, free to express their commitment to Jesus Christ and to His Church.

Until recently, the government's rejection of certain episcopal appointments by the Holy See and its delay in permitting new bishops to take possession of their dioceses were major sources of tension.With the successful settlement of the dispute over the archbishopric of Ho Chi Minh City, and this year's rapid acceptance and ordination of five new bishops in the country, a very welcome step forward in church-state relations seems to have been taken.

Other factors have contributed to an improved climate: the restoration of relations between our two governments, the persistent efforts on the part of the Holy See to maintain regular contact with the Vietnamese authorities, the gradual lifting of some of the more restrictive measures that have long hampered the free exercise of religion in that country. The fact that the year-long observance of the200th anniversary of the apparition of Our Lady at La Vang went without incident, with over 100,000pilgrims participating in August 1998 and up to twice that number last August, did much to allay the unfounded fears of some.

Most recently, the Vietnamese bishops have been informed that their request for building a second facility at Xuan Loc for the Major Seminary of Ho Chi Minh City has been approved, that dioceses will be allowed to organize pilgrimages to Rome for the Jubilee Year 2000, and that some restrictions on what the Church may publish are being lifted. Nevertheless, the government evidently still feels the need to maintain its total control over most aspects of life in Vietnam, and especially over the expression of religious believers. The latest decree on religion, issued last Spring, while largely a restatement of the existing policy regarding the officially recognized religions, including the Catholic Church, shows little tolerance for other, non-traditional, beliefs.

It is our fervent hope that the authorities come to understand that the responsible exercise of religious belief not only does not threaten the peace and good order of Vietnamese society but can positively enhance the general well-being of all. And as the rest of the world is able to observe Vietnam's growing respect for religious expression, it will be less reluctant to pursue amicable relations in a variety of spheres, including trade and investment, with that society.

Those who know Vietnam cannot fail to be struck by the beauty of the country, the richness of its millennial culture, the warmth and friendliness of its people. Those who are privileged, as we were, to enjoy the hospitality of and share in worship with the vibrant Catholic community of Vietnam, came away with a new appreciation of the spiritual dynamism of a people who have suffered as much as any other in this violent century, and who have every right to look to the Church in other countries to offer them solace, solidarity and support.

We pray that the Catholic community here may find many ways of expressing solidarity and support,as we continue to strive for full religious freedom and reconciliation both within the Vietnamese family,among those in this country as well as in the homeland, and between our two nations. We commend these petitions to the maternal care of Our Lady of La Vang.