Ho Chi Minh City cardinal on church growth in Vietnam

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- The Vietnamese Communist Party took control of Northern Vietnam in 1954 and all of Vietnam in 1975. The situation between Catholics and the communist leaders of Vietnam has been a major factor in the shape and growth of the church for these past decades. Catholics have generally responded in one of two ways: Confronting and attacking the state leaders or looking for ways to work with them on common concerns. Cardinal Pham Minh Man, archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City, falls into the second camp.

Born in 1934, in southern Vietnam, he studied in Can Tho, the largest city in the Mekong Delta, and then in Ho Chi Minh City (then Saigon). He was ordained in 1965 for the diocese of Can Tho.?He was appointed Coadjutor Bishop of My Tho in 1993. He was promoted to Archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City in 1998.?? Pope John Paul II elevated him to the College of Cardinals in on October 2003. I interviewed Man Feb. 19 in his office in Ho Chi Minh City. The cardinal answered questions in Vietnamese and they are translated here.

I have heard it said that the Ho Chi Minh Archdiocese has been one of the fastest growing in Vietnam? What’s the secret to this growth?

I’d say first we are growing because of a high birth rate here in Vietnam. But it is more than that. Each year in our archdiocese we have between 5, 000 and 7,000 new adult baptisms. You have to add to this the great influx of migrants from the countryside to Ho Chi Minh City. They come seeking employment. Twenty years ago we had 191 parishes in the archdiocese; today we have 200. Then we had 169 priests; today we have 327. Then we had 524, 281 parishioners; today we have grown to 662,148. It’s a growing archdiocese.

At another level I see deep reasons for the growth. With love, God sows many Christian seeds. Blood of early witnesses to the faith made that land fertile and now the life of piety, praying, charity and sacrifice – the generous contributions many Catholic families – is bearing the fruit of seeds sown many years back.

What do you feel has been your greatest challenge as head of the archdiocese?

We finished a Vietnam synod last year. It now becomes a challenge to live out the new energy and mission that grew out of that synod. At the bottom we always need to renew and widen the communion of Christ’s church here so that we can integrate better into the social life of the people where we can live and proclaim the gospel. We need harmony with God, and then all people so we can better communicate and serve in our society. That’s how we proclaim the faith.

Do priests still have to be approved by the government in order to be ordained? Does the government still limit ordinations?

Since 2007, I have not had to ask for permission to receive new postulants for the priesthood or for ordination or for moving priests from one diocese to another. The number of priests in Vietnam is on the rise and we have postulants waiting to enter our seminaries, which are full. In the past years we were allowed 10 new priests for the diocese each year; but now this number has doubled.

How many women religious have taken vows ? Have these numbers been limited by the government?

For the past several years we have not had to ask permission to have women or men enter the religious life. This is a change. So the numbers are growing. In the last 12 years the number of religious priests has increased from 169 to 327 in our diocese. The number of women and men religious nationwide has increased from 2,655 to 4,754. This does not include Vietnamese living outside Vietnam who are entering religious life in some 50 congregations

I have heard that with this fast growth comes with other problems, including problems with adequate formation. Can you speak about this?

Right now in our diocese there are 10 institutes in charge of religious formation. Generally speaking, religious people as well as priests and lay people need to escape from an ingrained self-defensive framework in order to open up to truly accompanying Christ on the road of integration and service and love for all human beings. We are called to this love and it requires self sacrifice so that there can be new life and unity throughout the human family in this newly globalized world of ours. Teaching this is the primary challenge we face.

I have heard abortions are very high in Vietnam today ? What are the numbers ? What is the church doing to lower the abortion rate ?

It is said that every year there are 2 million abortions yearly in Vietnam. This evil works against our traditional sense of morality and culture. Where does this lead us as a national community? After I spoke about this ten years ago the government authorities also began to take this issue into account, publicly warning that we were headed to a catastrophe. Both Catholic and non-Catholic organizations had found many ways to help pregnant women avoid abortions. But now a new evil has appeared. We are finding more and more new-born abandoned babies. So far both secular and religious organizations are finding ways to repair the evil of this culture of death. But we are still not adequately mobilized. All elements in society need to come together to work on this, to look at new lifestyles.

How is the process for naming bishops agreed upon with the government working ? What are the components of that agreement ?

Normally bishops recommend a list of candidates and submit it to Vatican. The Vatican selects the persons and sends their names to the government of Vietnam for its opinions. After that the Vatican announces the appointment. Generally speaking, except in a few cases, the system has been working well. There have been some difficulties and the Vatican has had to overcome these.

You have said once that lay formation and leadership is a major goal ? How is this going?

For nearly 30 years after 1975, lay people had no opportunities to widen and improve their knowledge of faith and ministry. We established a pastoral center in 2004 to meet these needs, especially for parish pastoral organizations, including more than 5,000 members of the pastoral councils, more than 5,000 catechists, many members of 900 choirs of 200 parishes, and 25 lay apostolic organizations. Every year 6,000 participants attend courses, training classes at the pastoral center. This is all aimed at helping lay people bring into play their full capacity to participate in the work of building up the church and to renew their spiritual lives. We have many organizations working to build lay leadership. These include children, young people and family organizations. Also we have offices on Migrants, Catechism, Vocation, Liturgies, Sacred Music, Mission, Caritas, Communication, Catholic Culture, Catholic Education, Inter-religion Dialogue, Justice and Peace. So there is a lot of work going on here to build leadership.

How would you characterize church state relations? How has it changed? Is there still a difference in the way the church deals with the state between northern an southern Vietnam?

During the last to Vietnamese Ad Limina in Rome, the Vietnamese bishops were reminded by the two popes, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI that the church needs to be persistent in its way of dialogue and cooperation with all people in our society, including the government. This is the ways we believe we can best work to serve the Gospel and the life of all human beings, Catholic or not. This is the way we can develop our country. The political, economic, historical and cultural situations are different between the north and the south. So there is difference in thinking as well as in behavior in these two regions. This is normal. We hope, however, that through building communication and building communion in our church these differences will gradually be lessened.

Is there a possibility of a papal visit to Vietnam in the next two or three years?

I expressed this hope at least twice, the first time to the Pope John Paul II. He asked me about how the communists and China would look at this. The second time I spoke to the Pope Benedict XVI. I told him a visit would bring more stability and hope. He raised two hands in the air, inviting me to pray and seek out God’s will. I didn’t understand in his gesture if he was speaking about the uncertainty of his health or the world situation today, or both?

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