The Vatican is hailing an agreement it recently reached with Vietnam as the “first step on the road to diplomatic relations” with the country. 

The Vatican broke the news with a June 26 press communiqué from the Secretariat of State that Pope Benedict XVI will appoint a nonresident representative to the government of Vietnam. It said the agreement was reached at the second meeting of the Vietnam-Holy See Joint Working Group, held at the Vatican June 23-24. 

Msgr. Ettore Balestrero, undersecretary for relations with states, led the Holy See’s delegation, while Vietnam’s delegation was headed by deputy minister of foreign affairs Nguyen Quoc Cuong. 

The agreement was reached “in the context of an in-depth and comprehensive discussion on bilateral diplomatic relations,” the Vatican stated. 

“It is a first step on the road to diplomatic relations; others will follow. It’s a historical step; it [has been] 35 years since we’ve had something like this. It has created a good atmosphere,” Mgsr. Balestrero told Our Sunday Visitor. 

Twofold objective 

There are several significant points in the agreement that are worth noting. 

The Holy See’s representative will most likely be a member of the Vatican’s diplomatic service, but will not be accredited as a diplomat to Vietnam. His status would change with the normalization of relations. 

For now, it is envisaged that he will be given all the facilities he needs to carry out his role as papal representative, including freedom to visit Vietnam often and to travel freely within the country to meet the Catholic community and its leaders. 

His role is twofold. First, he will work “to deepen the relations between the Holy See and Vietnam.” This will ensure ongoing, and often face-to-face, communication between both sides and facilitate the rapid resolution of any problems that may arise, such as the conflicts that developed in recent years over property matters.  

The second, though no less important aspect of his work will be “to deepen the bonds between the Holy See and the local Catholic Church,” the Vatican said. In other words, he will promote greater communion, mutual understanding, support and cooperation between Rome and the Church in Vietnam. This role will also enable him to get to know and gather information on potential candidates to become bishops. 

Improving relations 

When the communists came to power in Vietnam on April 30, 1975, they broke diplomatic relations with the Holy See, though never persecuted the Church in the way China did and always allowed it a certain degree of religious liberty, which has increased over the years. Nevertheless, since then, the Holy See has not been able to have an official representative to this country of 85 million people, including more than 6 million Catholics. 

Over the past 20 years, however, the Holy See has engaged in an increasingly constructive and fruitful dialogue with the authorities in Vietnam, with delegations from both sides meeting almost every year. 

This has resulted in even greater religious freedom for the Church in that country and increasingly warmer relations between the Holy See and Vietnam, marked by historic visits to Pope Benedict XVI from Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in January 2007 and President Nguyen Minh Triet last December. 

“The results of these high level meetings affirmed the desire and goodwill for cooperation by both sides,” Cuong, the foreign affairs deputy minister, told Vietnam’s News Agency (VNA) after the Joint Working Group’s meeting in June. 

That group was established after the prime minister’s visit to the pope, with the explicit goal of paving the way to the establishment of diplomatic relations. It held its first meeting in Hanoi in February 2009. 

At its second meeting last June, the Vatican said the group discussed “international issues” (Vietnam is currently a member of the UN Security Council and is chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), as well as matters “related to bilateral relations and to the Catholic Church in Vietnam.” 

The Vatican reported that the Vietnamese delegation, led by Cuong, recalled its country’s “consistent policy of respect for freedom of religion and belief as well as the legal provisions to guarantee its implementation.” 

Cuong later told VNA that his delegation also reaffirmed his country’s “policies and regulations on land related to religions.” He emphasized that Vietnam’s central and local administrations “paid due attention to the Catholics’ need for the construction of churches” and, for example, in 2008, gave land to the Church in the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak, in the central city of Da Nang, and in the central province of Quang Tri for the La Vang shrine. 

Msgr. Balestrero, speaking for the Holy See delegation, noted the points he made and went on to ask “that further conditions be established so that the Church may participate effectively in the development of the country, especially in the spiritual, educational, health care, social and charitable fields.” 

It seems clear from the Vatican statement that the Holy See recognizes that demands for the return of Church properties in a country where there is no right to private property for anyone is a dead end, and only leads to unnecessary conflicts and tensions, whereas progress can be made in other areas. 

In this context, the Holy See delegates took their Vietnamese counterparts to visit the Bambino Gesu, the top pediatric hospital in Rome, which is run by the Vatican and already has developed a program of cooperation with Vietnam. 

Key developments 

During the Vatican meeting, both sides acknowledged “encouraging developments in various areas of Catholic life in Vietnam,” especially in relation to the local Church’s Jubilee Year, which concludes Jan. 6. 

They mentioned, in particular, two important interventions by Pope Benedict: his address to the Vietnamese bishops during their “ad limina” visit June 2009; and his message to the Catholic Church in Vietnam on the occasion of opening its Jubilee Year last November. 

“Both sides agreed that these teachings of the Holy Father would serve as an orientation for the Catholic Church in Vietnam in the years ahead,” the Vatican statement said. 

Speaking to VNA, Cuong hailed them as “milestones in relations between Vietnam and the Vatican.” 

At last month’s gathering, both sides expressed appreciation at “the positive developments” in bilateral relations since their last encounter in Hanoi, February 2009. They cited in particular the very friendly and constructive meeting between Vietnam’s president and the pope last December. 

Gerard O’Connell writes from Rome.

Pivotal Appointment? (sidebar)

It has been reported that the Vietnamese delegation expressed appreciation that Pope Benedict XVI had appointed a new archbishop to Hanoi, Pierre Nguyen Van Nhon, president of the Vietnamese bishops’ conference, to succeed Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet. The Vietnamese authorities had blamed Archbishop Kiet for conflicts with the Church and the authorities in Hanoi over property issues. But there is no reference to this in the Vatican statement.