Late last month, the president of Vietnam, Tran Dai Quang, met with Pope Francis for a private audience at the Vatican.
Though the meeting was described by the Holy See Press Office as “cordial,” relations between Rome and Vietnam have been bumpy for the last several decades.
One of five remaining Communist nations, Vietnam has been ranked as the world’s 20th most oppressive country for Christians by the non-profit Open Doors USA.
And yet the nation’s Catholic population—which has been listed at roughly seven million—continues to grow.
Though Portuguese Catholic missionaries came to Vietnam in the early 1500s, it was French Jesuits in the following century who had the first significant success in winning converts and establishing a Church presence.
When Vietnam split in 1954, many thousands of Catholics headed from Communist North Vietnam into South Vietnam.
When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the two sections reunified under a Communist government.
The Church persevered, though, and there now are 26 dioceses and three archdioceses, along with more than 2,600 priests and 2,200 parishes, according to catholic-hierarchy.org.
Most would agree that Vietnam is not as repressive as it was in 1975.
That said, “Strong authoritarian rule [tolerates] no dissent, especially not from ethnic or religious minorities… As a result, human rights violations continue to accrue,” reports the Christian persecution watchdog group Voice of the Martyrs.
In 2014 it was reported that the Vietnamese government has actively tried to create dissension among Christians.
In one case, the government organized a fake Catholic organization to influence the Church from within.
There also have been incidences of Vietnamese Catholics being physically coerced into renouncing their faith.
In May 2016, shortly before President Obama’s visit to the country, a prominent dissident priest, Nguyen Van Ly, was given early release from prison. His liberation was “widely seen as a goodwill gesture” ahead of the President’s much-anticipated arrival, according to the Associated Press.
Four months before Obama’s visit, the Catholic press agency AsiaNews reported that a Catholic priest was severely beaten by a group of 20 assailants.
In a separate incident, a Benedictine monastery was ransacked and its monks were assaulted, AsiaNews reported.
The Asian Catholic news outlet UCANews reports that Catholics were attacked by police while gathering for prayer at a private residence on June 19 of this year. It was the third incident of this sort within a month.
An October 2015 UCANews article describes a scene of uncertainty and vicissitude for Vietnamese Catholicism: “What is permissible in some areas may be met with jail time in others. Authorities who look the other way for years might suddenly decide to crack down without warning.”
The same article, however, describes a Church on the rise. Catholic-run schools continue to spread, “normalizing the religion in the eyes of millions.” The number of Jesuits in the country has increased nearly tenfold since 1975.
Despite such normalization, a 2013 Ecumenical News article reported that large numbers of Vietnamese Catholics are fleeing to Australia to escape religious religious persecution. That report states that, following a period of loosening restrictions at the turn of the 21st century, “the situation in Vietnam in recent years for Catholics and other Christians has deteriorated.”
However, not everyone feels that the situation has “deteriorated.”
Father Joachim Hien, a priest of the Spokane, Washington, diocese, says he has seen a marked improvement in the Vietnamese Church’s position in recent decades.
Father Hien is intimately acquainted with both Vietnamese and Church history. His hometown is Da Nang, a major port city in Vietnam, but he was born in 1946 in a mountain village, where his mother had taken refuge from French bombardment.
At that time, both his father (the leader of Catholic Action in Central Vietnam) and his uncle (a Christian Brother and director of a major LaSalle college in the South) had been taken as prisoners. They later would escape captivity, and his father would ultimately become the principal of the cathedral school in Da Nang (1946-1955).
Entering the seminary at age 11, Hien was ordained in Vietnam in December 1974, just four months before the Vietnam War ended. As a vulnerable “baby priest” in a newly reunified Communist Vietnam, he was dispatched to the US, where he was stationed briefly in Arkansas and Seattle, before arriving in 1977 in Spokane, where he has served in several parishes.
Father Hien officially retired in 2012, but continues to remain active in the Vietnamese Catholic community and travels to many related events.
“The Church in Vietnam has made major inroads in education and health,” he says, though he acknowledges that “media is still strongly in the hands of the government.”
Describing the current relationship between the Church and the government, he says it’s “not as tense as it used to be in the 1970s and 80s… After many years of tension, the situation has improved since about 1990…[the Church and government] can live together now.”
The government “used to use spies and tap phones.” But these practices are no longer nearly so pervasive.
“Priests can even say something against Communism,” Father Hien said. “Priests do a lot of protesting,” whether it’s against political corruption or in favor of environmental protections. Such criticism is fair game, “just as long as they don’t try to stir up any [organized] revolt.”
He adds that Communist ideology in Vietnam is currently “not as strong” as it is in China.
The Vatican does not have full-scale diplomatic relations with Vietnam, but in recent years the government has accepted a “non-residential representative.”
On November 23, Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, in a meeting that was described by the Vatican press office as a “cordial” one during which “the good relations between the Holy See and Vietnam were recalled.”
About Vietnam’s troublingly high ranking on the list of countries that persecute Christians, Hien says that the nation’s secret police—still going strong—is likely a huge factor. He points out, though, that the secret police are “not openly rounding up people like in the past.”
That said, the government still has a tight grip on mass media. The Church can circulate its own “yearbooks, newsletters, bulletins, and magazines, but it’s not allowed any national radio or newspaper,” Father Hien said.
Despite longstanding media restrictions, the view of the Church has improved in the eyes of non-Catholic Vietnamese, and the Catholic faith is no longer associated with French colonialism.
“That was propaganda spread by Communists back in the 1950s,” Father Hien says. “These days, the Vietnamese people see the Church as part of the Vietnamese tradition, and even non-Catholics respect the Church for its charity work.” He adds, “Government officers send their kids to Catholic schools, where they know their children will receive the best education.”
Father Hien is especially optimistic about seminaries in Vietnam, reflecting on how, “in the old days, any seminary had to ask permission” to enroll a seminarian.
“Now the government allows many young men to go to the seminary, and you can ordain anyone you want,” he said. “The Church is growing with evangelization. There are tons of young people entering the religious vocation. Seminaries have become very selective. There are 1,000 candidates waiting to enter one particular seminary outside Saigon.”
Noticing a trend among recent seminarians, Father Hien remarks, “More people from the rural areas go into the religious vocation. Less so in the cities,” where people have a greater chance of being enticed by materialism.
Regardless of any urban distractions, Father Hien describes Catholic churches in Vietnam as “prosperous and packed.”
In the southern city of Saigon (officially known as Ho Chi Minh City), where Catholics have traditionally enjoyed the highest amount of freedom, “there are churches right and left every two seconds.”
Father Hien recalls that, “Even during the fiercest government repression,” Christmas in Saigon was a festive affair. And these days, “Christmas in Saigon is more celebratory than in Rome.”