Washington and the Vatican Strengthening Diplomatic Ties With Hanoi — for Different Reasons

NEWS ANALYSIS: Devout Vietnamese Catholics pray it helps their nation.

President Joe Biden (6th from L) and Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (4th from R) hold talks in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Sept. 10, 2023.
President Joe Biden (6th from L) and Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (4th from R) hold talks in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Sept. 10, 2023. (photo: Kyodo / AP)

WASHINGTON — On the eve of 9/11 this year, President Joe Biden visited Hanoi to announce a new strategic partnership. For those who remember the Vietnam War, it’s a startling reminder that God “causes the changes of the times and seasons, establishes kings and deposes them” (Daniel 2:21).

The United States and Vietnam have steadily increased economic ties; the U.S. is currently Vietnam’s largest export market. But Washington also is cultivating Asian nations wary of Beijing’s military expansion in the South China Sea. Already under discussion are a plethora of weapon sales to the Vietnamese army.

Meanwhile this summer, the Vatican and Vietnam announced a diplomatic breakthrough that was in the works for more than 30 years. A papal representative will take residence in the capital city of Hanoi. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, called it a “new beginning.” 

There’s a possible link between these two developments: Vietnam appears willing to step out from China’s shadow as it emerges as a regional power in its own right, whether dealing with trade or the rights of religious minorities. 

The respective objectives of Washington and the Holy See are obviously very different. One is driven primarily by profits and building military blocs. The other reinforces the presence of the Catholic Church as a strong local institution in Vietnam: indigenous, active, and growing.

In the decade 1965-1975, between 790,000 and 1.141 million Vietnamese civilians and soldiers died as a result of war while the US military suffered over 58,000 casualties. wiki public domain
In the decade 1965-1975, between 790,000 and 1.141 million Vietnamese civilians and soldiers died as a result of war while the US military suffered over 58,000 casualties.

Tracing the Vatican’s step-by-step approach in Vietnam — revealed even in State Department documents — offers useful insight into the Holy See’s diplomatic method, with interesting implications for the Church’s relationship with the Chinese government. 


WikiLeaks Reveal Extensive Consultation 

Step by step, patience and persistence mark Vatican diplomacy; relations between Rome and Hanoi typify this practice. Vietnam is a good example of where the Vatican worked quietly for decades to strengthen the local Church and increase its autonomy by gaining the trust of political leaders. 

After the U.S.’ anarchic evacuation of Americans in 1975, the Communist Party took power, reunified the country, and suppressed the Church. No priests were ordained between 1976 and 1990, but atheism couldn’t eliminate an institution with its roots in the 17th century with millions of devoted followers. In 1989, Pope John Paul II sent Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, to visit Hanoi and establish rules of the road for cooperation with the government.

Classified U.S. State Department cables published by WikiLeaks revealed regular consultation among Vatican officials, Catholic bishops and U.S. officials on a myriad of subjects including Vietnam. In the early 2000s, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s current Secretary of State, served as undersecretary for relations with states under Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. His name is evoked often in cables regarding Rome’s efforts to support Catholics in Vietnam. 

For example, in May 2004, a Vatican diplomat shares with the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See the Church’s happiness that a delegation led by Msgr. Parolin was allowed to visit Xuan Loc, the country’s largest diocese, where some 30% of the people are Catholic. Twelve previous delegations from Rome had failed to win access to the faithful in Xuan Loc.

Then in January 2007, a major political breakthrough was reported by the Americans: At Vietnam’s request, Pope Benedict met with Vietnam’s prime minister, who said the country wanted to work more closely with the local Church. 

As the cable explains, “Vietnam now appreciates the helpful role the Church can play in areas such as education and health care (especially HIV/AIDS and leprosy). Indeed, the regime recognizes that younger priests and bishops have skills (e.g., foreign language) which are needed by the nation and which the government itself may lack.”  

Msgr. Parolin, leading Rome’s diplomat strategy in Vietnam at the time, checked in with the Americans a month before leading the 2007 country visit. 

He explained, “Years ago … the Holy See was concerned about helping people get out of the country, and worried about their well-being once they left. Now … the Vatican [is] focusing more on the situation for those [Catholics] who remain in Vietnam, trying to work prudently to improve their opportunities for religious freedom — and their general well-being.”

Four years later, Pope Benedict met Vietnam’s president, and the two leaders noted increased freedom in the country for the Catholic Church, including appointment of a nonresident representative (based in Singapore), allowing a bilateral relationship just short of full recognition as well as a collaborative process for selecting bishops.

Just weeks before his resignation in 2013, Benedict met with the country’s communist leader, an unusual step, but one signifying how important the relationship is to the Holy See because, overall, this diplomacy of patience with Vietnam has paid off. 

The Catholic Church continues to grow in membership, vocations, and the number of schools it manages. New churches are built, even in remote mountainous regions, financed mainly by parishioners. The Church collaborates well with Vietnam’s largest religion, Buddhism, especially in caring for HIV/AIDS patients and other charitable work. 

During an invitation-only press opportunity in Washington in January 2019, a Catholic journalist from Vietnam looked surprised when Cardinal Joseph Zen (who said he was recently back from a visit to Vietnam) told her, “Congratulations, you succeeded in Vietnam!” referring, ironically, to achievements engineered by Cardinal Parolin, Cardinal Zen’s nemesis when it comes to negotiations with China. 


Meanwhile, in the Pews

Four generations of faithful filled Our Lady of Vietnam Catholic Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, one early Saturday evening this August — no evidence of summer slacking among people known for great devotion. Among the litany of prayers is one offered for the Church back home, in Vietnam, where some 7 million people, out of a population of 97 million, are Catholic. 

Our Lady of Vietnam is a vibrant hub. Lay members of the Apostles of the Divine Mercy wearing bright blue shirts emblazoned with St. Faustina’s iconic image helped with the offertory, ushering, and choir. Parishioners lifted the roof with throaty song. After Mass, some flocked downstairs to eat pho together in the parish hall, while Pastor Tam X. Tran returned to the altar area for a personal prayer of post-communion Thanksgiving. 

“We have an active community,” the lively priest told the Register. 

Meanwhile in Ho Chi Minh City, about four hours after parishioners at Our Lady of Vietnam were pulling out of the church parking lot, Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong sat down with nine Catholic bishops to discuss his visit with the Holy Father on July 27. At the center of this discussion was an agreement signed by the Holy See and Hanoi, bringing the two states a step closer toward full diplomatic relations: Vietnam would now accept a resident papal representative — not quite an ambassador, but very close. (Since 2011, Vietnam recognized a papal envoy covering relations with the Holy See, based in Singapore.) And the president promised to reopen Catholic schools.

Across the U.S., Vietnamese Catholics model how the Church can shape and direct life, while on another dimension, the Holy See negotiates with Hanoi to try to model diplomatic relations with an autocratic regime. 


A Devout Community

In early August, more than 75,000 Vietnamese Americans gathered in Carthage, Missouri, as they have since 1978. (The location is a seminary where 185 displaced Vietnamese Catholic priests found refuge in 1975, after the communist takeover of Saigon.) The event is part pilgrimage and part reunion; worship is central to daily events. 

Last month, some 25,000 people participated in Marian Days at the Diocese of Orange County’s Christ Cathedral. The majority were Vietnamese Catholics who form the cathedral’s backbone: Some 40% of registered parishioners share this ethnicity; daily Mass is given in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.   

A 12-foot-tall white marble statue to Our Lady of La Vang stands outside Christ Cathedral, the only freestanding U.S. shrine to this Marian apparition: Mary, with Baby Jesus, appeared in 1798 to persecuted Catholics sheltering in the jungle to avoid death. She quietly instructed them to make tea of certain tropical leaves to stay healthy. The community survived; the persecution ended and the miracle entered the Church in Vietnam’s collective conscience. 

Although not officially recognized by the Holy See, Our Lady of La Vang is as ubiquitous and meaningful to Vietnamese Catholics as Our Lady of Guadalupe is to Mexican Catholics. 

At the shrine’s dedication ceremony, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Holy See’s ambassador to the United States, observed that the painful dislocation experienced by Vietnamese Catholics, in living memory, gives their faith depth and power.

“Vietnamese Catholics do not understand faith as merely a set of teachings. Faith is not lived as something purely formal or abstract; it is a lived reality. There has been an existential experience of suffering, which has led to greater conformity to the Crucified One. This experience has an evangelizing power,” the archbishop, and soon-to-be cardinal, stated


Double Displacement

Vietnamese Catholics experienced double displacement in one generation. 

An estimated one million Catholics fled from north to south in 1954-55 when the country was partitioned at the Geneva Conference giving control of territory north of the 17th parallel to communists led by Ho Chi Minh (known as the Viet Minh) who had defeated the French in the Indochina War (1945-54). A year later, in 1955, the French-backed emperor in South Vietnam, was dismissed through a referendum organized by Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic, supported by the United States. 

Twenty years later, many Catholics sought to escape the country entirely when communist forces invaded, taking over Saigon. 

Jesuit Father Quang D. Tran (no relation to the Silver Spring pastor) tells how his maternal grandparents carried a silver crucifix with them during the “first migration” from north to south Vietnam. Then the precious sacramental — “a sign of life’s triumph over death” — was hastily packed with the home altar as the whole family (Father Tran’s grandmother had recently given birth to her 13th child) jumped on a boat to escape to the United States.  

One member of Father Tran’s family stayed behind: his uncle, a seminarian, one year from ordination. The uncle explained to his parents, “Who will keep the faith?” if young priests all left. 

But because the new government closed seminaries, Father Tran’s uncle served as a celibate catechist for some 20 years, smuggling hosts into prisons to be consecrated by jailed priests (wine was disguised in bottles of soy sauce). 

Eventually, the silver crucifix was erected at the family altar in New Orleans, where the first Vietnamese Catholic parish was planted in the United States. Also eventually, Father Tran’s uncle was ordained as a priest. And when this uncle, “the family hero,” made it to the United States to concelebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving with Father Tran, his wisdom for the family was, “All is grace. We live for the next life.” 

Father Tran visited Vietnam this summer. “The people I spoke with seemed happy about the establishment of diplomacy. In fact, there have been rumors of Pope Francis visiting the largest diocese in Vietnam, Xuan Loc Diocese,” he told the Register. “People are hopeful, although they still face struggles with the government.” 


Denied Re-Entry 

Our Lady of Vietnam’s Father Tran says he left Vietnam in 1990 at age 23 because he wanted to become a priest.

“My dad was a Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) police officer who was put in a labor camp after 1975,” he recounted. “In the late 1980s, the communist government let people like my dad and their families leave, who they considered ‘anti-revolutionaries’ because they did not trust us. So I left legally, fortunately with my whole family.” 

“But if the government of Vietnam had let me go to seminary, I might have stayed,” the priest added. The discrimination his family faced meant he was barred from higher education. “I left to go to seminary.” 

In 2010, as an American citizen, Father Tran flew back to Vietnam for a visit, but when he arrived in Saigon (as many still call Ho Chi Minh City), he was barred from entry — because after he was ordained, he was involved in fighting for religious freedom and human rights in Vietnam. 

Regarding diplomatic relations between Rome and Hanoi, Tran is skeptical that the government can be trusted. 

“In the last few decades, on a certain level, there are fewer restrictions facing the Church in Vietnam,” he explained. “The state does not have a uniform policy on religion; or if it did, the enforcement is not the same in every place. In rural and mountainous areas, a strict control over religion has remained the same and changed only little.”  

Yet, Father Tran confirms priestly and religious vocations remain strong, mainly in rural dioceses (there are 27 dioceses (including three archdioceses) with 2,228 parishes and 2,668 priests in Vietnam.