HANOI, Vietnam — The Holy See held a fifth round of talks with the Vietnamese government to strengthen and develop their bilateral relations, which have been in disrepair for nearly 40 years.
“The Holy See delegation emphasized that Pope Francis has followed with interest recent developments in Vietnam, Holy See relations, and encourages the Catholic community in Vietnam to continue to contribute to the country’s major goals,” stated a communique issued after the Sept. 10-11 Vietnam-Holy See Joint Working Group.
The communiqué stressed that both the sides are encouraged by the positive developments in Vietnam-Holy See relations, which have been shown “by increased exchanges and contacts at all levels.”
With 6 million adherents to the faith — nearly 7% of its entire population — the Church has a notable impact on Vietnamese society, a fact acknowledged by the government’s desire to dialogue with the Holy See.
Diplomatic relations between the two states were dissolved in 1975, when the communist North overran South Vietnam.
But since then, the visits of more than 20 Vatican delegations led to the 2007 visit of prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung to Benedict XVI.
After the 2007 meeting, the Holy See and Vietnam began talks to re-establish diplomatic ties, and for this purpose, the joint working group was established in 2009.
In 2008, after decades, the Holy See was finally able to appoint seven new bishops in Vietnam, and the bishops ordained hundreds of priests.
The talks led to the appointment of Archbishop Girelli as non-resident special envoy to Vietnam in 2011.
The following year, Nguyen Phu Trong, secretary of the Vietnamese communist party, visited Benedict, thus showing that Vietnamese authority really wish to normalize diplomatic relations.
Further improvements on the diplomatic side are expected for the sixth meeting of the working group, which should take place in the Vatican.
The working group was established in 2009 and met this week in Hanoi in a “sincere, candid and mutually respectful atmosphere.”
It is co-chaired by Msgr. Antoine Camilleri, Vatican undersecretary for relations with states, and Vietnamese Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Bui Thanh Son.
By custom, the working group meets alternately in Vietnam and at the Vatican; its last meeting was held at the Vatican in June.
During this fifth round of talks, the Holy See “reaffirmed that it attaches great importance to the development of relations with Vietnam in particular, and Asia in general, as evidenced by the recent and coming papal trips to the continent.”
The Holy See acknowledged that the country “has facilitated working visits to Vietnam by the non-residential special envoy of the Holy See to Vietnam, Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli.”
Archbishop Girelli has in fact been able to visit each of Vietnam’s 26 dioceses since his appointment in 2011.
“The Holy See delegation appreciates the support given by the competent authorities at all levels to the Catholic Church in Vietnam for the accomplishment of her mission” and also “took note of the development in the religious policies of Vietnam, reflected in 2013 amended constitution,” the joint communiqué also noted.
The new Vietnamese constitution was approved in November 2013 and came into effect from Jan. 1, 2014.
The constitution preserves the communist party’s dominant role and keeps religious freedom under state control, though it also includes clauses that protect the right to practice or not to practice religion.
The joint communiqué reads that the Holy See, “together with the Catholic Church in the country, wishes to make more active contributions to the country’s development where the Catholic Church has strengths, for example health care, education, charity and humanitarian works.”
And the Vietnamese “reiterated the consistent policy of the state and party in respecting freedom of religion and belief of all people and supporting the Catholic Church in Vietnam to actively participate in national social-economic development.”