Saturday, February 2, 2008

Hanoi and the Catholic Church, A New Age?

Hanoi Catholics Protest

The Catholic Church and the Vietnamese government have been walking a tightrope. Viet Nam would like to normalize relationships with the Vatican. This is after years of being suspicious of foreign influence. It is part of Hanoi’s increase opening up to the world. Viet Nam has 5 million Catholics out of a population of 78 million people.

The suspicion reflects years of dealing with colonial powers. The first Catholics came in the 16th century and were Portuguese Franciscans, Spanish Dominicans and Portuguese Jesuits. However, it was the French Jesuits who had the most influence. They established the Paris Foreign Missionary Association in 1664. The Pope assigned missionary work in Viet Nam. The final result is the 2nd largest Catholic population in Southeast Asia.

After the nation was unified many churches were closed, seminaries were disbanded and active church attendance dwindled. This was similar to the experiences of the Vietnamese Buddhists. Things began to turn around for the church in the 1990s when the nation began to interact with the larger world. Today there are: two archdioceses and eight dioceses, 2,300 priests, 1,500 seminarians, 9,300 sisters and 1,200 brothers.

So, if things are getting better what is the problem? Change gives rise to hope and hope demands more change. During the reunification many church lands were confiscated. Now, as new churches are built each month many of the faithful are demanding that old churches be returned to the Church.

For the past month protesters in Hanoi have set up tents and marched. They demanded that the government return St. Joseph's Cathedral. The church had served as the Vatican’s embassy in pre-communist Viet Nam. Other sites were also the target of protest. The protests have been going on since Dec. 18. These were substantial protests, at times there were 1000 protesters at one site. That may seem small by Western standards but is large in a country that strongly discourages public criticism of the government.

Both sides are showing flexibility and are focused on problem-solving. Hanoi's People's Committee met with Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet. The Archbishop reports that parishioners will dismantle their tents and a large cross they set up near the cathedral. They have agreed to let negotiation take the place of public protest. The Vatican has also asked that protesters cease their mass prayer meetings and work with the government.

This move toward a more peaceful resolution to the controversy reflects the desire by both sides for closer ties. Last November a Vatican emissary ordained 57 priests in the Hanoi Cathedral and then met with Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan. Many are hoping that warmer relationships may also eventually lead to a visit by Pope Benedict XVI. After watching opposing sides in Kenya turn protest into a gruesome body count it is good to see two very different sides decide to talk instead of fight. Let’s pray the talks continue.

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