After a brief meeting between Pope Francis and a delegation led by President Tran Dai Quang of Vietnam, the Vatican released a statement that acknowledged the good relations that exist between the Holy See and Vietnam, “sustained by a common spirit of dialogue” and a mutual effort to find areas of further progress. The Holy See also recognized the collaboration between church and state in various areas of the local society in Vietnam.
Tran Dai Quangis the second Vietnamese president to visit the Vatican—after Nguyen Minh Triet, who visited Benedict XVI in December 2009. Elected president of Vietnam last April for a five-year term, he came to the Vatican after visiting Peru and Italy.
His visit comes two years after the country’s prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, visited Pope Francis. Before that encounter, the prime minister told me in an exclusive interview for America, that his visit “manifests the great importance Vietnam is attaching to our relations with the Holy See and our consistent policy to respect and ensure the legitimate freedom to religion and belief, [and to] encourage Vietnam’s Catholic Church to engage itself actively in the cause of socio-economic development and national building process.”
It was the first meeting between the pope and the Vietnamese president, the latest in a series of top-level visits from Vietnam to the Vatican over the past nine years.
The Vietnamese leader arrived seven minutes late for the audience with the pope, accompanied by a nine-person, all-male delegation that included the deputy ministers of foreign affairs and of public security, together with the first secretary of the communist party of Hanoi.
The president presented the pope with a bronze mini-tambourine, while a relaxed and smiling Pope Francis gave him a medallion, which he said expressed joy, and the three major documents of his pontificate: “Evangelii Gaudium,” “Laudato Si’” and “Amoris Laetitiae.”
Afterwards, the president had private talks with the secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and the secretary for relations with states, Archbishop Paul Gallagher.
Today’s visit is along the same lines and comes one month after the Joint Working Group established in 2009 met for the sixth time in the Vatican. The group agreed to meet again in Hanoi in 2017. The working group was set up with the aim of paving the way to the establishment of diplomatic relations. In June 2010, Vietnam had agreed that the Holy See could have a nonresident special envoy to the country appointed by the pope.
Since then, there have been several positive developments: the papal envoy has visited all 27 dioceses; the Federation of Asian Bishops Conference held its plenary assembly in Vietnam in December 2012; Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited Pope Francis on Oct. 18, 2014; and the country’s first Catholic university opened in September 2016.
The Holy See would like this relationship developed further through full diplomatic relations. The October J.W.G. communique said the Holy See “reaffirmed that Pope Francis has a keen interest in the development of Viet Nam - Holy See relations.”
But clearly the time is not yet ripe for Vietnam to take further steps. Sources say there are “local irritants” that involve relations between the church and local authorities in some parts of the country. There is also the question as to whether it is convenient for Vietnam to establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See before China, its “elder brother,” does so.
If it were to move first in establishing diplomatic relations with the Holy See this could upset Beijing and those in Vietnam’s communist party’s central committee that are close to the Chinese. Consequently, diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the Holy See are not imminent.
When the Communists gained control of Vietnam on April 30, 1975, they broke diplomatic relations with the Holy See, but they never persecuted the Catholic Church in the way China has, allowing a degree of religious liberty that has increased notably in recent decades with high-level visits from each side, starting with Cardinal Etchegeray’s visit in 1990. Subsequently, both sides reached a mutually important agreement regarding the appointment of bishops that has worked well since.
Relations between the Holy See and Vietnam have continued to improve since then and are generally good in this land of 91 million people where Christianity is the second largest religion after Buddhism, including six million Catholics. The church enjoys religious freedom, and today it has 27 dioceses, several seminaries and more than 10,000 places of worship. It does much charitable work by assisting internal migrants who find themselves in difficult situations and helping AIDS victims.
Tensions have arisen at at national or local level in relation to positions taken by one or other bishop or local church communities regarding issues of justice, religious freedom and the return of church properties confiscated by the Communists in the north in 1954 and countrywide in 1975.