Americans often associate Vietnam with the long U.S. military involvement there, but because of its earlier connections with France, the country is also home to a sizeable Catholic community. The Church in Vietnam owes its existence in part to the work of the Paris Missionary Society (Missions Etrangères de Paris, MEP), a secular institute that has been sending missionaries to Asia since 1658.
Each year, MEP priests meet in one Asian country to reflect on their missionary work. Gathering in Vietnam this past January for the first time since their expulsion in 1975, MEP priests got a chance to see the state of the Church there.
Father Étienne Frécon is an MEP priest studying Chinese in Taiwan. Ordained in 2011 and with previous pastoral work in France and England, he now celebrates Mass for French and English expatriates in Taipei.
He spoke with the Register about his visit to Vietnam and his impressions of the Church there.
You and other MEPs recently visited Vietnam. What was the purpose of the trip, and what did you do there?
Every year, we gather in one Asian country to build priestly community, reflect on missionary work and discover another local Church. This year, we spent 10 days in Vietnam, a very symbolic place for us because two apostolic vicars sent there by the pope in the 17th century to establish the hierarchy in Vietnam also represented the starting point of the MEP. We had to flee Vietnam with the communist victory in 1975 and have since been unable to send missionaries there.
We nevertheless tried to keep up contacts and, in 2013, were able to visit the churches set up by — and the graves of — our confreres. The bishops of Vietnam, most of whom studied at our house in Paris, invited us.
What were your impressions of the Church in Vietnam?
It’s amazing to see the vitality of the Vietnamese Church. With many martyrs and forsaken for so many years, the Church today is blooming. Eight percent of Vietnam is Catholic, most of whom are practicing and living real lives of discipleship. There are many priestly and religious vocations. Churches are full of life and have activities to reach out to youth, the poor and non-Christians.
Vietnam is a communist country whose government has been cited by some as violating religious freedom. What is the situation of Catholics in Vietnam? Can they worship freely? Does the government interfere in episcopal appointments?
The communist regime limited the Church’s freedom for many years, trying to get involved in ecclesiastical life to control the Church from the inside. There were, for example, quotas on the numbers of seminarians, and the work of religious communities was very controlled.
Today, the Church-state relationship is somewhat better. People can worship more freely and are allowed to go on pilgrimages. The Holy See appoints all bishops, and there are no vacant sees. Still, while the Church has more freedom to live its vocation, it can’t get involved in public issues. Human rights, defense of the poor and the dignity of the person remain issues where the Church can’t yet say very much.
Your community played a role in founding the Church in Vietnam. Can you tell us something about that work?
Most of the dioceses in Vietnam were set up by the MEP, long before French colonization. In 1650, a missionary in Tonkin, Jesuit [Father] Alexandre de Rhôdes, went to Rome to ask Pope Innocent X to send secular priests (not belonging to a religious order) to Asia to build up the local Church. In 1658, the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith sent a group of French priests there, the beginnings of the MEP. One apostolic vicar was sent to the North (then called Tonkin); the other to the South (then called Cochinchina).
For the next 350 years, more than 900 priests labored there, and many became martyrs. With the communist takeover of the North in 1953, missionaries were expelled, many fleeing south. In 1975, they all had to leave. While we are still now allowed in, we help in many ways. We help lots of Vietnamese diocesan clergy to come to Paris to study theology, thus being faithful to our original charism: to build up local Churches.
Many Americans may not even know of the MEP. What else has your community done and is doing outside of Vietnam?
Historically, MEP sent missionaries to China, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma and India. We were expelled from many places in the 20th century as local dictatorships arose. After a period without any vocations, we are now in the process of a great renewal: Twenty-seven seminarians are preparing to be missionaries. They will go to Asia to support local Churches: help form clergy, reach out to the poor, assist ethnic minorities and foster interreligious dialogue.
Every year, we also send 150 young laypeople for several months up to two years to experience missionary life in Asia. We respond to Jesus’ call: “Go and make disciples of all nations.”
You’ve been in Taiwan for half a year, ministering to French and English-speaking expatriates here. What is your impression of the Catholic Church in Taiwan?
I am in Taiwan to learn Chinese. Because I can’t yet minister in Chinese, I help the foreign community, ministering in French and English. I will be posted in Singapore to work with Chinese communities there — and in Malaysia. The Church in Taiwan is far different from what I experienced in other places. It is small but quite old, well represented among ethnic minorities and does lots of social work. Her worship shows her inculturation into Chinese life. But, as in many secular countries, it’s hard to reach the young. As for my future, I will let the Holy Spirit, my superior and the bishop of Singapore decide — “Be it done according to your word!”
Register correspondent John M. Grondelski writes from Taipei, Taiwan.
Paris Missionary Society website: MEPAsie.org