While falling short of formal diplomatic relations, the agreement is a significant step forward.
The Vatican and the government of Vietnam have reached an “Agreement on the Status of the Resident Papal Representative and the Office of the Resident Papal Representative in Viet Nam,” according to a joint press release issued by both parties on July 27, 2023. The occasion for the announcement was the visit to the Vatican by the President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Vo Van Thuong.
The term “apostolic nuncio” is not used, and the establishment of formal diplomatic relations has not yet been announced despite there being regular communication between the two parties. Nevertheless, both parties express their desire to “continue advancing bilateral relations.”
During the Vietnamese head of state’s discussions with Pope Francis on the afternoon of July 27, and then with Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, “the two sides expressed high appreciation for the noteworthy progress in the relations between Viet Nam and the Holy See, and the positive contributions by the Catholic community of Viet Nam thus far,” the press release stresses.
“Both parties express their confidence that the Resident Papal Representative will fulfill the role and mandate given in the Agreement,” the joint statement goes on to say. “The representative will be a bridge to advance relations between Viet Nam and the Holy See,” it says.
“Good Catholics and good citizens”
The joint text specifies that his role will also be to support Catholics in respecting “the spirit of the law” so that, inspired “by the Magisterium of the Church,” they can “fulfill the vocation of accompanying the nation” and be “good Catholics and good citizens,” in order to “contribute to the development of the country.”
Until now, the Apostolic Nuncio in Singapore has also had the mandate of non-resident Papal Representative for Vietnam, and has therefore only made temporary visits. The post is currently held by Archbishop Marek Zalewski, of Polish nationality, who was assigned there in 2018.
The July 27 announcement follows the 10th meeting of the Joint Working Group between Vietnam and the Holy See, held at the Vatican on March 31, 2023.
From persecution to growth
This development marks a significant breakthrough in relations between the Holy See and Viet Nam, a country with a Communist regime that exercised severe repression of Church activities after the takeover of Saigon in 1975. The Catholic Church was then associated, in the minds of Communist leaders with the former regime of President Ngô Dinh Diêm, in power from 1955 to 1963. This U.S. ally was himself a traditionalist Catholic.
Archbishop François-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuân, coadjutor archbishop of Saigon and nephew of former president Diêm, was imprisoned from 1975 to 1988. He then took refuge in Rome under the protection of John Paul II, who made him a cardinal in 2001.
Since the 1990s, following the fall of the Communist regimes in Europe, the Vietnamese government has softened its stance, and contacts with the Holy See have been rekindled. One of the government’s concerns was to secure international support, particularly in the West, in the face of the growing power of the People’s Republic of China, ideologically close but geopolitically a rival.
Without establishing formal diplomatic relations, agreements were reached between Vietnam and the Holy See to ensure the continuity of the episcopal hierarchy and boost the activities of the local Catholic Church. The country has seen a spectacular rebound in priestly and religious vocations since the early 2000s.
Cardinal Parolin’s diplomacy
Cardinal Parolin, Secretary of State of the Holy See, had worked with the Vietnamese authorities as Under-Secretary for Relations with States between 2002 and 2009. The ties he forged during this time earned him a visit from a Vietnamese delegation at the consistory of February 22, 2014, during which he was elevated to the cardinalate. The delegation, which was not officially accredited to the Holy See, included a former president.
The Catholic community in this country of nearly 104 million inhabitants, which has never been visited by a pope, is a minority — comprising around 7% of the population — but is very fervent.