Vietnam took another significant step forward in its relations with the Catholic Church last month when it hosted the 10th Plenary Assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC).
The FABC, a fruit of the Second Vatican Council, is the umbrella organization of the 19 Catholic bishops’ conferences and nine associate members from 28 countries in Asia, a continent where 60 percent of the world’s population live, 3 percent of whom are Christian.
Significance of location
“It’s an absolutely historic event. The government invited us. I am very hopeful,” Cardinal Oswald Gracias, 67, archbishop of Mumbai, India, and the FABC’s secretary general, told Our Sunday Visitor before the Dec. 10-16 assembly. “I don’t anticipate any major problems. I’m very keen that it goes off successfully for the sake of the Church in Vietnam. This will be a great moment because we are meeting in a country where the Church is small but full of vitality, and we want to be with them. People realize the importance of going to Vietnam.”
Seventy-one cardinals, archbishops and bishops from 22 countries were among the 100 delegates at the opening Eucharistic celebration and ceremony at Xuan Loc Pastoral Center, Dong Nai Province, northeast of Ho Chi Minh City, on Dec. 11.
Representatives from the bishops’ conferences of Oceania, Europe and Latin America, and the heads of the various FABC offices were also present, together with a Vietnamese government delegation.
Pope Benedict XVI designated Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales, archbishop emeritus of Manila, as his special envoy to the assembly, and the cardinal presided at the opening Mass.
In his homily, he recalled the FABC’s history since Pope Paul VI approved its establishment in 1972. He evoked the Gospel image of Jesus the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go out and find the lost one, and observed that since only 3 percent of Asia’s 3.8 billion people are Christian, “the Church in Asia has a kind of reverse challenge, it leaves the one in its fold as it tries to reach out to the other 99.”
The official opening ceremony, which took place after Mass, showcased the presence of government officials from Vietnam’s Religious Affairs Bureau, including Deputy Interior Minister Pham Dung, who expressed Vietnam’s appreciation for the helpful role played by Catholics and the Catholic Church in the cultural, political and moral growth of the country. Catholics make up about 7 percent of Vietnam’s population of 85 million.
During the assembly, participants discussed a 30-page document prepared by Filipino Archbishop Orlando Quevedo on the theme “The FABC at 40 Years: Responding to the Challenges of Asia,” which reviewed the FABC’s achievements and explored the directions it should take in the future. It listed “megatrends” that “shape the evangelizing mission of the Church in Asia”: globalization, culture, poverty, migrants and refugees, indigenous peoples, population, religious freedom, threats to life, social communication, ecology, laity, women, youth, Pentecostalism and vocations.
It also offered a theological basis for the Church’s proclamation and evangelizing mission, and briefly described the prophetic role of the Church embodied in a New Evangelization based on the FABC’s understanding of a “new way of being Church in Asia.”
Commenting on the text, Archbishop Peter Nguyen Van Nhon of Hanoi, president of the Vietnamese Catholic Bishops’ Conference, urged the FABC and the Church in Asia to strengthen its triple dialogue: with the poor, with the religions and with the cultures of Asia, particularly when confronted by forces of globalization and secularization that undermine people’s traditions and values.
The document was finalized at the Vietnam meeting. It will now serve as a roadmap for the Church in Asia over the next four years.
Earlier, Cardinal Gracias told OSV the relations between the Holy See and Vietnam “are improving,” a view endorsed by a senior Vatican official.
After the historic visits of the country’s prime minister and president to the pope, Vietnam and the Holy See agreed to set up a bilateral commission to prepare the path for the establishment of full diplomatic relations.
As a first step, in June 2010, the Vietnamese government agreed that the Holy See could appoint a non-resident representative to the country. Pope Benedict designated Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli for this post in January 2011, naming him also nuncio to Singapore, where he resides.
His appointment marked a major breakthrough in Vietnam-Holy See relations. It was the first time since the communists came to power in April 1975 that the Holy See has been able to have an official representative accredited to the country.
Since then, Archbishop Girelli has been able to visit all the country’s 26 dioceses, and meet Church leaders and senior government officials at the national and local levels. He was also present at the FABC plenary.
Hope amid challenges
Nobody denies that the Church in Vietnam still has some outstanding problems with the authorities there, related to property and the Church’s and Catholics’ roles in society, especially in the field of education and health services. Concerns have been raised, too, at the government’s recent decree governing religious organizations.
Nevertheless, the Holy See and the Vietnamese Church leadership are confident that with goodwill on both sides, the different problems can be resolved through patient dialogue.
While the establishment of full diplomatic relations is a shared goal, a senior Vatican official told OSV recently that “Vietnam appears to be not yet ready for this step,” but he felt confident it would happen in the not-too-distant future.
Gerard O’Connell writes from Rome.