Could Pope Francis become the first pope to visit Vietnam?

Could Pope Francis become the first pope to visit Vietnam?

Pope Francis receives a delegation from Vietnam’s Communist Party government at the Vatican on Jan. 18, 2024. VATICAN MEDIA

By Courtney Mares

Catholic News Agency

January 19, 2024

ROME— Vietnam has one of the largest Catholic populations among countries never visited by a pope. According to the Vatican’s foreign minister, Pope Francis is keen to visit the Southeast Asian country.

Pope Francis received a delegation from Vietnam’s Communist Party government at the Vatican on Jan. 18. Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican secretary for relations with states, described the meeting as “very positive,” according to Reuters.

The meeting comes amid a warming in Vatican-Vietnam relations after Vietnam agreed to allow the Vatican to send an official papal representative to live in the country and open an office in Hanoi.

Gallagher said he thinks a papal trip to Vietnam will take place but added that “there are a few further steps to be taken before that would be appropriate.”

“But I think the Holy Father is keen to go and certainly the Catholic community in Vietnam is very happy to want the Holy Father to go. I think it [a papal trip] would send a very good message to the region,” he said.

Vietnam is home to an estimated 7 million Catholics. An additional 700,000 Vietnamese Catholics live in the United States today, many of whom are refugees or descendants of refugees who fled by boat during the Vietnam War.

Last month, Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Marek Zalewski, a Polish Vatican diplomat, as the resident papal representative to Vietnam.

Zalewski’s appointment was a historic step toward the possibility of someday establishing full diplomatic relations. Vietnam severed ties with the Holy See after the communist takeover of Saigon in 1975.

With the new appointment, Vietnam is the only Asian communist country to have a resident papal envoy live in the country.

Archbishop Joseph Nguyen Nang, the president of the Vietnamese bishops’ conference, called Zalewski’s appointment the “fruit of progress” of 14 years of dialogue through the “Vietnam-Vatican Joint Working Group.”

Zalewski previously served as the Holy See’s nonresident papal representative to Vietnam when he was made the apostolic nuncio to Singapore in 2018.

Gallagher shared that he has plans to visit Vietnam in April and that Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin could also make a trip to the country later this year, which would be an historic high-level visit.

The Catholic Church in Vietnam has also seen a rising number of religious vocations in recent years. The country has 8,000 priests and 41 bishops, according to government data. More than 2,800 seminarians were studying for the priesthood across Vietnam in 2020, 100 times more than in Ireland.

More than 20,000 Vietnamese Catholics attended a Mass last Saturday in the Diocese of Phan Thiet, according to Asia News, to mark the opening of the cause of beatification of Monsignor Pierre Lambert de la Motte, a 17th-century French missionary who was the first bishop of Dang Trong, Vietnam.

In September 2023, a delegation of 90 Vietnamese Catholics and seven bishops traveled to Mongolia to see Pope Francis during the pope’s visit to the Asian country.

“We came to Mongolia to ask the pope to visit Vietnam,” Father Huynh The Vinh from Vietnam’s Diocese of Phu Coung told CNA in Ulaanbaatar.

Kimviet Ngo, a Vietnamese Catholic who joined the delegation from her home in Washington, D.C., added: “I really hope that someday the pope can come to Vietnam, because if the pope comes to Vietnam it will change a lot [of] the religious freedom in our country.”

The Vietnamese Constitution guarantees individual freedom of belief and individual religious freedom. However, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which advises branches of the U.S. government, recommended that Vietnam be designated a “country of particular concern” in its 2024 report released this month.

The report cited government persecution of religious groups, especially unregistered independent communities, including Protestant and Buddhist communities. Local authorities have also pressured some attendees of state-controlled Protestant churches to renounce their faith.

Pope Francis was asked about the possibility of a papal trip to Vietnam during his in-flight press conference on his return from Mongolia on Sept. 4.

The pope joked in reply: “If I do not go [to Vietnam], I’m sure that [a future Pope] John XXIV will go!”

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