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Pope Francis has appointed the first “pontifical resident representative” in Vietnam, in the person of Archbishop Marek Zalewski, the Holy See Press Office announced on December 23, 2023. This step forward in relations between Rome and Hanoi, although not yet official diplomatic relations, was announced last July.
Bishop Zalewski, 60, is a Polish national. He has been Apostolic Nuncio to Singapore since 2018. Until now, he has also been the non-resident pontifical representative in Vietnam, where his visits have been temporary.
On the occasion of the visit of the President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Vo Van Thuong, to the Vatican on July 27, 2023, the two parties reached an “Agreement on the Status of the Resident Papal Representative” and his office in Vietnam.
The joint communiqué did not, however, speak of an “apostolic nuncio,” nor did it announce the establishment of formal diplomatic relations – broken off in 1975 – although contacts are regular.
“The representative will be a bridge to advance relations between Vietnam and the Holy See,” the statement said. The text specified that his role would also be to support Catholics in respecting “the spirit of the law” so that, inspired “by the magisterium of the Church,” they can fulfill their vocation “to accompany the nation” and “to be good Catholics and good citizens,” to “contribute to the development of the country.”
Following this announcement, last September Pope Francis sent a letter “to the Catholic community of Vietnam,” welcoming the recent improvement in relations between the Holy See and the government. The country’s Catholic faithful, the Pontiff assured in his letter, can fully realize their identity by being “good Christians and good citizens.”
A significant step forward
The appointment of a resident representative marks a significant breakthrough in relations between the Holy See and Vietnam, a country with a Communist regime that had exercised severe repression of Church activities after the takeover of Saigon in 1975. 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 relaunched, notably through the establishment of a Joint Working Group.
Without establishing formal diplomatic relations, agreements have been reached between Vietnam and the Holy See to ensure the continuity of the episcopal hierarchy and revive the activities of the local Catholic Church, which has seen a spectacular rebound in priestly and religious vocations since the early 2000s.
One of the main architects of this rapprochement is the Holy See’s current Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who 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 made cardinal. The delegation included a former president, who was not officially accredited to the Holy See.
Opening the way to a papal visit
Vietnam, which has a small but fervent Catholic community of around 7% of its population of 104 million, has never received a visit from a pope.
In a letter reported by Asia News on December 15, President Vo Van Thuon officially invited the pontiff to visit his country.
On the return flight from his August 31-September 4 trip to Mongolia, after having celebrated mass before a large delegation of Vietnamese Catholics, Francis had said that there would “surely” be a trip to Vietnam in the years to come, but that it would probably be made by “John XXIV” – the name he jokingly attributes to his successor.