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Signs of Openness in Hanoi

Interview With French Prelate Who Toured Vietnam

ROME, JAN. 26, 2007 (Zenit) - Vietnam is a country that is showing signs of openness, says a member of a delegation of French bishops who were recently invited for a 10-day tour of the Communist nation.

Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard, archbishop of Bordeaux, headed the delegation of French prelates who visited the country from Nov. 26 to Dec. 5, at the invitation of Vietnam's episcopal conference.

In this interview with us Archbishop Bernard-Nicolas Aubertin of Tours, who formed part of the delegation, evaluates the visit.

Q: How do you feel after this 10-day tour of Vietnam?

Archbishop Aubertin: It seems clear to me that the episcopal conference of Vietnam wanted an effective reinforcement of our relations. If for no other motive, because of the historical reasons linked to the fact that one of the first apostles of Vietnam, Alexandre de Rhodes, was a Jesuit missionary from Avignon.

There has also been the great influence of the Foreign Missions of Paris. This has given France an enormous role in the evangelization of Vietnam. From this point of view, I think it is clear that the episcopal conference wished to mention these very important and ancient ties. But it was also a way of saying that the Church of France certainly still has a role of aid to carry out, especially in the formation of priests.

Q: You were invited by the episcopal conference. Were your contacts merely official?

Archbishop Aubertin: Evidently there was an official aspect. We were welcomed in Hanoi by the chairman of the conference, in the presence of a group of bishops who came from the three ecclesiastical provinces of Vietnam.

Present were the archbishop of Hanoi, the archbishop of Hue and that of Ho Chi Minh City -- Saigon -- who wanted us to visit each of their ecclesiastical provinces. A kind of relay movement then began. We were received by the bishops of the place who, after taking us to some of their dioceses, accompanied us to the next province, and so on.

We have truly had an outstanding reception and desire of presence. Having said this, our contacts and our conversations were absolutely frank and simple. There were not only official speeches. In each meeting, they described the communities we were meeting, communities of women religious and of seminarians. And then we were asked to answer questions. Yes, there was dialogue. We spoke in an absolutely fraternal and free way.

Q: The last visit of French bishops to Vietnam goes back to 1996. On your return, did you express admiration for the progress made by and for the Catholic community of Vietnam? Ten years later, do you feel that a step forward has been taken?

Archbishop Aubertin: Personally, I did not take part in that trip then, but I have visited Vietnam since 1990. And this trip, at the beginning of December, was my eighth stay. I have had the opportunity to witness enormous changes.

It is obvious that the Christian, the Catholic community, has greater possibilities of expression. Little by little, seminaries have authorization to reopen. Not all, of course, but there has been a change from contingents of extremely regulated seminarians to a much greater openness. And, little by little, a certain number of confiscated buildings and goods have been restored. Not all: We are still very far from that. But, little by little one can see that they have been restored to the Church.

Moreover, permissions have been given to build churches. The building of seminaries is permitted and authorizations for ordinations have been granted quite abundantly. All this shows that the Church is moving toward a much more favorable situation.

Q: Since last year, the Vietnamese government allows the large seminary of Hanoi to receive new seminarians every year, whereas before admission was granted only every two years for a limited number of students. Is this another encouraging gesture for the Church in Vietnam?

Archbishop Aubertin: Certainly, and given that the seminary today is very populated with its close to 230 seminarians, the government has even authorized the building of a minor seminary.

Q: What are the greatest concerns of the Church today in Vietnam?

Archbishop Aubertin: The greatest concern refers to the formation of candidates to the priesthood or to religious communities, the formation of men and women religious. The men and women candidates are extremely numerous and it is not easy to ensure a solid and, lets say it, free formation; to not allow family and social pressure to be too strong and to allow those who commit themselves to do so in the freest way possible, and to see that they are formed in the best possible way.

All this works, but with relatively reduced personnel. There is truly a problem of staff. And, at this level, I think much help is expected from the Church of France -- and not only of France, but also of other countries.

Q: Vietnam remains on the list of countries that are "worrying in the matter of religious liberty." Is this a delicate issue for you when you go there and for them when they receive you? How does the state show visitors its desire to give a new image of itself?

Archbishop Aubertin: In all that I was able to see in the course of my first trip and what I was able to confirm in my last visit, there is, in any case, a huge openness. During our visit, there were important gatherings, open-air celebrations with thousand of people, and all this with the necessary authorizations.

This means that, at the level of the authorities, it is evident that the Vietnamese government, vis-ŕ-vis the exterior, must give proofs and guarantees of its concern for liberty. And I believe that one way of showing it is to allow this reception. However, it is not only this reception; there is also the fact that the local communities can live their faith more easily than in other times. I am not saying that everything is wonderful and that there are no problems. What we have seen, to a degree, is that permissions have been granted everywhere. However, it is necessary to ask for permission.

Q: At the social level, does the state accept somewhat more the idea of collaboration with the Catholic Church? Have steps been taken in regard to Church-state cooperation?

Archbishop Aubertin: Mentioned to me in this regard was the case of Mother Teresa, who some 15 years ago offered her services saying: "I want to send communities of sisters to ensure a presence close to the seriously ill, the elderly, the dying, the victims of AIDS and other epidemics."

Vietnam then responded: "We have no need of you, but we need money." They meant: "We are sufficiently grown-up to address all this."

Today it is evident that the tone has changed. We have seen that the religious communities, for example, are profoundly involved in the service of handicapped people, orphans, children of leper families who must be in a safe place so as not to be infected. There are at present programs that are about to begin for AIDS sufferers. The state realizes that there is a form of presence, of dedication, perhaps even of competence, which is recognized and not only recognized but even, perhaps, expected. Yes, things are changing!

Q: Therefore today, do you think that these signs of openness, this change of attitude you have perceived by going there and this reinforcement of good relations between the Church of France and the Church of Vietnam constitute, after your trip, a step forward to contribute to advance the process of normalization of relations between the Holy See and Vietnam?

Archbishop Aubertin: I think so! There are in fact changes. Things are really progressing, slowly, perhaps, but advancing. One must take into account, of course, the complexity of the situation in Vietnam, of the political situation, but the margin of maneuver of each of the provinces is sufficiently large. There are provinces that are more open than others. In any event, there is an orientation in the sense of openness and rapprochement. The country is not uniform. I think there are close to 50 provinces and each province has its margin of maneuver.


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Hanoi, Vietnam, French, Ricard, Aubertin, Tours

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