Pope receives Vietnamese president for first time

Pope Benedict XVI received in audience Nguyen Minh Triet, president of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam on Friday. The president subsequently went on to meet with Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone SDB who was accompanied by Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, secretary for Relations with States.

This was the first meeting of a president of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam with His Holiness and with high-ranking officials of the Secretariat of State.

In a statement: "The Holy See expressed its pleasure at the visit, a significant stage in
the progress of bilateral relations with Vietnam, and expressed the hope that outstanding questions may be resolved as soon as possible.

"The cordial discussions provided an opportunity to touch upon certain themes concerning co-operation between Church and State, also in the light of the Message the Holy Father sent to the Church in Vietnam for the opening of the current Jubilee Year. Attention likewise turned to the current international situation, with particular reference to the commitment of Vietnam and of the Holy See in the multilateral field".

No announcement was made about the establishment of diplomatic relations or a papal visit to Vietnam as Vietnamese Catholics had hoped for.  In an interview released on Saturday by Églises d’Asie, Mgr Barnabé Nguyên Van Phuong, from the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, said that he has been a member of every Vatican delegation that visited Vietnam since 1990. “Each time,” a delegation was in the country, there was “rapprochement and understanding,” he said. On both sides, “there is a desire to establish diplomatic relations.” Yet, whatever the goal, “time is needed” to normalise relations.

The prelate answered questions about the issues that have caused tensions between the government and the Catholic Church, in particular over property like the former compound of the apostolic delegation in Hanoi. He said:  “a section of the property has been turned into a public garden,” but “the building is still intact. Naturally, when diplomatic relations are established the issue has to be raised, so that it can be settle justly. but it is still a public garden.”

Mgr Van Phuong also addressed the issue of priests beaten up by police in some areas, adding: “When the time comes, the Holy See will express its position on such issues.”

President Triêt was accompanied by a ten-member delegation that included some ministers, including one woman. The 40-minute discussion was held in an atmosphere described as “cordial” by the journalists who saw him on his arrival.

When it was time to exchange gifts. President Triêt gave the Pope a silk cloth with an embroidered lotus flower, symbol of the country, and a porcelain vase. The Pontiff gave the Vietnamese leader a medallion of his pontificate.

Relations between the Vatican and Vietnam have been tense in recent years because of a number of problems as well as the government’s repressive attitude towards Catholics following unification, and this despite statements by Pope Paul VI against US air strikes against North Vietnam. At the time of the Vietnam War, the Pope made public appeals and
especially sent letters to US President Lyndon Johnson and the leaders of the North and South Vietnam (1967). He also made private entreaties in favour of a negotiated solution to the various governments.

In October 1998, in response to an invitation by Vietnamese bishops, John Paul II said he was prepared to come in pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of La Vang. However, the Vietnamese government informed the Vatican through channels that “it had no intention of inviting the Pope, for the time being.”

The failure to set up a Chinese-styled ‘Patriotic Church’ and the steady action by the Vatican to convince the government of the usefulness of working with the Catholic Church have led to a modus vivendi on Episcopal appointments and gradually given Catholics more leeway to act.

The current position of the Vietnamese government is informed by the belief that the Catholic Church can be useful in helping the poor and the disabled through its management of kindergartens and health facilities, which are theoretically the prerogative of State institutions.

Deputy Prime Minister Wu Khoâng was the first top official to enter the Apostolic Palace on 29 November 2002 when he met John Paul II’s ‘foreign minister’, the then Secretary of State Card Angelo Sodano. On that occasion, he also met Mgr Jean-Louis Tauran. 

Back in the 1990s, the two parties had also held private meetings.

Over the past 20 years, Vatican delegations have visited Vietnam 16 times, almost once a year, and each time they have been warmly received by the authorities. On those occasions, almost all of the country’s dioceses were visited.

During Pope John Paul II's funeral, the authorities allowed the installation of a screen in front of Hanoi Cathedral so that people could follow the ceremony.

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