A New Apostolic Era in Vietnam

After nine years in Communist prisons and labor camps in Vietnam, Joseph Nguyen Doan emerged with his faith not only intact but deepened, and with a determination to continue serving his people in his native land. A Jesuit, he is now the episcopal vicar for religious in the archdiocese of Ho Chi Minh City and also regional superior for Vietnamese Jesuits. During a visit to America House this past fall, he described some of the changes that have taken place in Vietnam over the past years—both positive and negative.

Among the latter, he spoke of roadblocks put by the Communist government in the way of the appointment of bishops. “We have two long-vacant sees in the northern part of Vietnam,” he said, “and every year a delegation comes from the Vatican to present government officials with the names of candidates whom the Vatican would like to see installed. But until recently, every year the government declared that none is acceptable—and no real reasons are given.” Just this past fall, though, the delegation came again and proposed six bishops; the government, however, accepted only two of them. Father Doan also said that the government has continued to be unresponsive to the need for a coadjutor to the cardinal, Paul Joseph Pham dinh Tung—now in his 80’s, and in declining health. “Each time the Vatican suggests the name of a possible coadjutor for the cardinal, the government asks that another name be submitted,” he observed.


On the positive side, the church in Vietnam is experiencing what he called “an explosion of vocations.” But here too, government restrictions are holding back the development of this explosion into productive results. Although Vietnam has 25 dioceses, only six seminaries are allowed—two in the north, two in the central region and two in the south. Each diocese therefore struggles with long waiting lists for young men wishing to enter one of the half-dozen seminaries. A partial compromise seemed close in the case of the largest archdioceses, of Ho Chi Minh and Xuan Loc. Father Doan explained that the central government did give its permission for an annex to the seminary to be opened in Xuan Loc. The local government, however, has so far refused its permission.

Further complicating the matter is the government’s requirement that new candidates for the diocesan priesthood be allowed to enter the seminaries only every two years, creating yet another stoppage in the pipeline leading to more priests for the Catholic population. “The government always finds one reason or another to impose further limitations. In this case, they say that if Catholics are permitted to have more seminarians, the other religious groups will want more too. But the real reason is that it doesn’t want the Catholic Church to develop too fast.”

However, vocations to religious congregations—Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits and others—though plentiful, are dealt with by the government differently from the way it deals with vocations to the diocesan clergy. With one exception, religious orders are allowed no seminaries of their own. To address this difficulty, Father Doan said, “we share courses in common in borrowed space.” But here too, imposing one restriction upon another, the government permits religious orders to have the necessary courses taught only six months at a time, rather than sequentially for four straight years leading to ordination. “At the end of each six-month period,” he observed, “permission must again be requested for the next six-month period.”

Father Doan explained that the historical background for this cumbersome and inequitable arrangement dates from the Geneva treaty of 1954, when the country was officially divided in two, north and south. The religious congregations in the north were then forced to migrate to the south. “So for the next two decades, the government in the north, which was already Communist, lost all understanding of what religious orders were about.” Consequently, after the south also fell under Communist rule in the mid-1970’s, the government initially recognized only the diocesan clergy, not the religious-order priests. “But now,” he said, “the government realizes that as religious, we exist as a fact, and so to some degree we are allowed to grow.”

This growth includes women’s congregations. Indeed, including secular institutes, women account for more vocations than men. Some, Father Doan said, have as many 40 novices. Again because of state restrictions, their apostolic work centers on maintaining kindergartens. The government keeps a monopoly-like hold on education beyond this most basic level. However, they are allowed to do catechetical work in parishes and to offer medical assistance in dispensaries. The latter type of apostolic activity has assumed new and pressing importance with the advent of AIDS. The Daughters of Charity, for example, were permitted to open a home for people in the last stages of the disease.

As for other religious groups, the Buddhists are by far the largest, though Protestant groups also exist in significant numbers. While no serious tensions exist among them, Father Doan observed that neither is there much in the way of ecumenical dialogue. The Protestants, especially the fundamentalists, are not very open, he said. Greater contact with the Buddhists might be possible were it not for their own internal divisions. “One segment is recognized by the government, but the other is not, and this puts us in a quandary—because if the Catholic Church were to be friendly with the former, the other side would say that we want only to stay on the government’s good side.” On the other hand, he went on, “if we were on too-good terms with the side that is unfriendly with the government, we could be accused of being part of an anti-government coalition. So the situation tends to be very delicate.” But at the grassroots level, a certain amount of collaboration with Buddhists does take place in areas like social outreach to the poor in the countryside.

Drug addiction and drug trafficking have created major social problems for religious groups in general, and for the state as well. “Vietnam is near the Golden Triangle, made up of Burma, Laos and Thailand,” Father Doan said, and as a result drugs, particularly heroin, are coming into Vietnam from those countries in significant quantities. AIDS and the drug trade have become increasingly connected with the economic scene. Although various forms of industrial development have been taking place in the major cities, Vietnam remains primarily an agrarian society. Because of the drop in prices of two of its main export products, coffee and rice, the rural areas have been falling deeper and deeper into poverty. “Vietnam is the next-to-largest producer of rice in the world,” he said, “and as for coffee, we are second only to Brazil.” The lowered price of its main agricultural products has meant that more and more people are abandoning the countryside to move into the cities in search of work. “But there are not enough jobs for them,” he noted, “and though some try to survive as street vendors, others become caught up in the drug trade.” Young women, he went on to say, are especially at risk of being drawn into prostitution as a means of survival—and this in turn has accelerated the spread of H.I.V. and AIDS.

As for the Communist Party itself, Father Doan said that its biggest worry centers around its struggle to maintain its power. Memories of the Solidarity movement in Poland in the early 1980’s haunt the Communist administration, fearful as it is of a similarly threatening development in Vietnam. But change, he emphasized, is nevertheless taking place “and it is irreversible.” Some of the pressures for change are coming from the outside, through the forces of globalization. Others, though, are taking place on the inside. He gave the example of increasing numbers of young people studying abroad. They are now allowed to do their studies in other countries—France, Germany, the United States—“all the capitalist countries,” as he put it. “Even officials of the party frequently send their children abroad for their studies, and once they return, they add to the pressure for change that is building up from the inside.”

The Catholic Church too, is being affected by this relatively new practice of the government allowing its citizens to study beyond its borders. “Some of the younger bishops, in fact, studied in Western countries,” Father Doan said, giving as examples two of them who, as priests, had done further studies in France before being ordained bishops upon their return. The two new bishops whom the government agreed to accept last fall also studied in France. This kind of situation has prevailed only since the mid-1990’s. The studies of Vietnamese priests in France have been financed primarily by the Missions étrangères de Paris, a missionary order that focuses on Asia and Africa. Thanks to this group, between 20 and 30 priests are currently pursuing studies of various kinds in Paris. Part of Father Doan’s own visit to the United States, in fact, was—in his role as regional superior of the Jesuits in Vietnam—to visit Vietnamese Jesuit scholastics and priests studying here and in Canada.

As to Father Doan himself and the government’s view of him, that too has changed. When he was arrested and imprisoned in 1981, “they considered me dangerous because I had been working with the bishops while they were writing their first pastoral letter in an effort to implement the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, especially Gaudium et Spes. But overall, the bishops were simply trying to assist in the re-building of the country after so many years of war. Now,” he concluded, “the government realizes that no subversive intention lay behind my work with them, and so the Communist authorities have come to accept me.” A positive change indeed. As for his nine years in jails, prisons and labor camps, he continues to look back on them as a graced time, not least because he was able to serve his fellow prisoners. He secretly ministered the sacraments to those among them who were Catholic; and at his labor camp he found means to obtain medication for prisoners with tuberculosis. As he put it, “those years were a significant apostolic period.” A new apostolic period is now well under way.

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