Christian Joy Lived in a Land of Oppression

Father Timothy Radcliffe OP

Vietnam's communist government is considered among the most oppressive regimes in the world. Church workers and humanitarian organizations cite widespread human rights abuses including harsh prison conditions, the use of forced labor, the detention of political prisoners, and limited religious freedoms.

Although predominately Buddhist, Vietnam is also home to 8 million Catholics—about 10% of the total population. The Dominicans are the largest religious order in the country.

Father Timothy Radcliffe, head of the Dominican order, recently returned from a two-month visit to Vietnam and the Philippines. He spoke about the Church in Asia with Register correspondent Stephen Banyra at the Dominican headquarters in Rome.

Father Timothy Radcliffe OP

Current position: 85th successor of Saint Dominic as Master of the Order of Friars Preachers, popularly called the Dominicans (founded in 1216).

Background: Born in London, 1945; made solemn profession to the Dominican order, 1968; ordained a priest, 1971; prior of the Dominican Convent of Blackfriars at Oxford for two periods; elected master of the Dominican order, 1992; actively promoted peace and justice issues in England during term as president of the National Conference of Religious.

Banyra: Pope John Paul II said earlier this year his thoughts were with the Church in Vietnam, “which is still aspiring to better conditions of existence.” What did you find during your visit there?

Father Radcliffe: You can see that for most people in Vietnam, there is a great deal more freedom than there was in the past. But the Church is still very controlled.

It's almost impossible, for example, for people to be ordained. Usually there is a limitation for most dioceses of two ordinations a year. So you have many young people who are ordained deacons but they wait almost interminably for ordination as priests.

Another big restriction is that it's hard to be assigned from one district in Vietnam to another or to leave the country to do further studies. So there is a lot of control.

What is astonishing though, is that despite all the difficulties, there is incredible joy among Christians in Vietnam. They may feel watched at times and under the eye of the government but there is a spontaneity, a vitality, and an enthusiasm that is immensely refreshing.

You say restrictions on the Church have been somewhat eased in recent years. What was it like in the past?

What I could say is that there was a time when, for our brethren to survive at all, [it] was immensely difficult.

Many were imprisoned for years.

Many were tortured—forced to eat uncooked rice, which expanded in their stomachs.

Some were kept in tiny cages for years on end, and when they left, many had to earn their living as rickshaw drivers—doing anything they could. So the whole situation is enormously improved recently.

What prompted your visit to Vietnam?

Part of my role as master of the order is to visit all the priories and all the provinces of the Dominican order and to meet every single brother individually during nine years—and it's quite a challenge to get around to them all!

However, this time, I was doing a visitation of our provinces in Asia. That's because Asia is emerging as an important priority for the order.

More than half of humanity is Asian and when you visit the Churches in Asia you'r e bowled over by their enthusiasm and their creativity.

I believe it's very important for us as Dominicans to think of the future mission of the order in Asia. Vietnam is obviously one of the pillars of the Dominican lifestyle.

Do the Dominicans have vocations there?

Yes. We have about 60 students in formation right now all over Vietnam, and I can honestly say, I don't think I'v e enjoyed anything as much as getting to know these young people who are so dynamic and so vital.

Often in the evening when we had finished all the interviews of the day, my assistant and I would travel with the students into Ho Chi Minh City. We would go and eat noodles with them and try to understand their lives as young people who want to give themselves to the preaching of the Gospel.

Do you think the harsh persecution of the Church in Vietnam has resulted in this flourishing of vocations?

Certainly. There have been persecutions throughout much of the history of Vietnam.

Right from the very beginning, there has been a tradition of martyrs—of brothers and sisters and Dominican laity laying down their lives. Thus, the faithful are formed within a tradition of complete generosity and I think that's one reason why the Church there is so vital.

In addition, Asian people often strike me by their profound sense of God—even in countries where there is no persecution.

After Vietnam, I went to the Philippines. In the nine days leading up to Christmas, they celebrated the dawn Mass at 4:30 in the morning. Each day there were at least 5,000 people coming to the Eucharist and 90% of them were under the age of 30! I think this springs from that deep sense of the mystery of God that you can find in so many places in Asia, which is so enriching for the entire Church.

Would you describe some of the work being done by Dominican sisters in Asia?

In Vietnam, just to start there, they run many schools and colleges. But some of them also work with the poorest people. It is a moving experience to visit the poorest parts of Ho Chi Minh City and find our sisters there.

That would also be true in the Philippines. There the brothers and the sisters run more than 100 schools, colleges, and universities educating some 200,000.

How extensive is the Dominican presence in Asia?

It varies a great deal. Asia is such a fantastically rich and diverse culture. In some countries, we have very large provinces. In others we are just beginning and are very small.

One of the beautiful things about traveling around Asia is to see the growing collaboration among all religious orders.

Sometimes, when I was young, there was a foolish sense of competition between orders. Yet what I find now whenever I travel to Pakistan or India, Korea or Japan, is that we have come to realize how much we have to give each other and to receive from each other. So increasingly, you find religious orders opening their communities to each other in common projects. I think that's wonderful.

Could you name a highlight of your visit to Asia?

One deeply moving experience in the Philippines was to visit one of the six leprosaria that are run by the Dominican family. I went there and met not only the brothers who run it—half of whom are lepers themselves—but also many of the patients.

We sang hymns for Christmas and Epiphany and I was so moved to think we celebrated the birth of the Christ who came and touched the lepers and healed them. And with leprosy still widespread throughout much of Asia, much healing still needs to be done.

I met a woman who must have been about 60 years old. She told me she had been a leper since the age of 14 and only now was she coming out of her shell—daring to appear in public after a lifetime of fear of being rebuffed because of her deformities. Now, late in her life, she has discovered she can be a disciple and an apostle. And she is joining the Dominican mission in a way—going out and talking to people about leprosy and how to join in the fight against it.

For me, it was an immensely moving experience of how love and Christmas joy can triumph over even the worst suffering.

Do you think the Church in Asia has a lesson to offer to the Church in other parts of the world about evangelization and missionary outreach?

The cooperation I so often see between the priests, the sisters, the religious, and the laity in Asia is one very important lesson we can learn. Everywhere you see how we must work together.

A second lesson is the centrality of prayer. Asia is the home of many deep spiritual traditions with a profound sense of the mystery at the heart of reality.

In Buddhism and in a different way in Hinduism, we see traditions that have much to teach us about meditation. If we are to be preachers in the West, there is something to be learned from that contemplative tradition of the East.

Would you agree there currently seems to be a fascination in the West, even if superficial, with Eastern spirituality?

Yes, there certainly is a fascination. I would have two things to say. First, sometimes we forget the deep mystical tradition which is also in the West. We fail to learn from the masters that we have: people in the Dominican tradition such as Meister Eckhart, Johann Tauler, Henry Suso, and people in the Carmelite tradition such as St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. So let us learn from the East, but let us also value the mystical tradition of the West.

Second, what they often understand in eastern contemplative communities is the hard, persistent discipline needed if a person is to draw near to the mystery that is at the heart of reality. It is not enough to merely be a spiritual tourist.

—Stephen Banyra