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The Vatican is making headway in Hanoi. Will Beijing be next?

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State (Getty Images)

On August 15, the solemnity of the Assumption, 80,000 people gathered at the shrine of Our Lady of La Vang in Vietnam. You might have expected the local archbishop to be pleased with the turnout. But Archbishop Joseph Nguyên Chi Linh told the congregation that he hoped to see at least 200,000 pilgrims next year.

This episode illustrates the vitality of the Church in Vietnam. Although Catholics have suffered persecution since the communists came to power in 1976, they have remained steadfast in the faith. They have faced harassment, indoctrination, imprisonment and forced labour, but still they evangelise their society courageously. Each year they welcome many Buddhists and Protestants to the shrine, which commemorates a Marian apparition in 1798. (The shrine was destroyed in 1972, during the Vietnam War, but later rebuilt.)

The Church in Vietnam may seem remote, but Western Catholics should pay attention to it. It is surprisingly large: there are more than six million Catholics, representing roughly seven per cent of the 97 million population. Vietnam has the fifth largest Catholic population in Asia, after the Philippines, India, China and Indonesia.

Catholicism has been deeply embedded in the country’s history since missionaries arrived from Portugal at the beginning of the 16th century. It was the Jesuits who created an alphabet for the Vietnamese language, using a Latin script with abundant diacritical marks. This system, called chữ Quốc ngữ (“national language script”), is still used today.

The Vietnamese Church has also produced many saintly figures, including Cardinal Nguyễn Văn Thuận, who spent 13 years in a communist re-education camp (nine in solitary), before serving as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in Rome.

All of the foregoing suggests why the Holy See takes a keen interest in Vietnam. The two countries have never had diplomatic relations; nevertheless, they appear to be on the verge of a breakthrough. Last week members of the Vietnam-Holy See Working Group held a two-day meeting at the Vatican. In a statement, they expressed hope that a resident papal representative would be able to set up office in Vietnam “at the earliest possible date”.

This is a highly significant development. Since 2011, the Holy See has had a non-resident papal representative to Vietnam (currently Archbishop Marek Zalewski, the nuncio to Singapore). Last year both countries agreed that the representative should reside in Vietnam.

If a papal representative does take up residence, it will be a triumph for Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, who has overseen the outreach to Vietnam. During an earlier posting at the Secretariat of State, he helped to negotiate an agreement with the communist authorities on the appointment of bishops. The Vatican would present the government with three candidates for each vacant see and Vietnamese officials would select their favoured one. This was, of course, controversial, but it appears to have removed a major obstacle to cordial relations.

Since his appointment as Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin has attempted to replicate this success with another Asian communist country: China. But Chinese officials appear to have rejected the Vietnamese model. Although the text of the “provisional agreement” announced last September has never been made public, it seems that the
Holy See has granted China more influence over episcopal appointments than it has Vietnam.

We cannot be certain how the system works. But it seems that Chinese officials may present the Vatican with three candidates and Holy See must then choose one – the Vietnamese system in reverse. Alternatively, the communist authorities may indicate just one candidate and the Vatican either accepts it or vetoes it. So, in the words of China-watcher Massimo Introvigne, “At first sight, Cardinal Parolin got a worse deal in China than he did 22 years ago in Vietnam.” This is sad but hardly surprising given that the Church’s bargaining position is so much weaker in relation to Beijing than to Hanoi.

Given the significant differences between the two countries, it would be naïve to think that the impressive progress in relations with Vietnam will be replicated automatically in China in the decades to come. As we approach the first anniversary of the provisional agreement, it is still not clear whether the Holy See and China are heading for a similar breakthrough in the coming years.