Vietnam: The Church in the Midst of Chinese Shadows

November 07, 2022
Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Saigon

On November 1, 2022, Pope Francis appointed Fr. Joseph Bui Cong Trac as Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Ho Chi Minh City, the most populous archdiocese in Vietnam. The challenges are great for the prelate within a Church losing momentum.

Fr. Joseph Bui, rector of Saint Joseph Major Seminary in Ho Chi Minh City, better known as Saigon, in southern Vietnam, has become auxiliary bishop of an archdiocese that has about 900 priests and 6,000 religious for 700,000 Catholics and 203 parishes.

Born in 1965 in the cathedral parish of Dalat, Fr. Trac studied philosophy and theology at Saint Joseph Major Seminary in Saigon before being ordained a priest in 1999.

In the space of 20 years, Bishop Trat is the sixth bishop from this seminary, which has been in the country for 156 years. But beyond appearances, Vietnamese Catholicism is experiencing the beginning of a decline that could jeopardize its future.

According to statistical data of 2015, the Church of Vietnam, which was once called “the eldest daughter of the Church in Asia,” with an average of 8% Catholics for the decade of 1950, is today only ranked fifth behind the Philippines, South Korea, East Timor, and Lebanon. Catholics now represent only 6.50% of the population.

After the reunification of the country under the aegis of the communist regime in 1975, Christians experienced very difficult years, but beginning in the 1980s, with the perestroika initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev in the former Soviet Union, the situation has gradually relaxed.

Today, churches are still very busy, but clergy note that the practice is decreasing among young people, a category increasingly affected by a Western and secularized way of life.

But another hypothesis is put forward to explain this decline: it comes from several priests and bishops from the Vietnamese diaspora who, because of their situation, are more free to speak than their colleagues back home.

According to them, the concessions to which the Holy See had to accept after 1975, faced with the communist regime, have had multiple consequences, in particular with regard to the choice of candidates for the episcopate, who are chosen from among the most docile of the regime.

“In the communist era under which we live, our country is threatened by China, which seizes our archipelagos and upsets all our fields of activity. Inside, great poverty makes the population dissatisfied.

“The Vietnamese Bishops' Conference maintains the greatest silence, an attitude which could well be a barrier preventing many non-Christians from joining the Church, and which could also exclude many Catholics,” notes Msgr. Dominic Mai Thanh Luong, Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Orange County (USA).

The prelate also regrets the fact that “priests and religious (are) formed with reference to European or American culture,” in seminaries “where there are many teachers and few formators,” not to mention the fact that “the apparent wealth displayed by certain clerics and religious constitutes a real obstacle to the propagation of the Gospel.”

And Msgr. Mai Thanh Luong sees the link between the situation of the Church in Vietnam and that of Catholics in China: “It seems that this policy of concessions is being applied in mainland China. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen.”

Words that have a very special warning the day after the renewal of the provisional agreement between the Holy See and China.