Diary of late bishop reveals dangers of being a Catholic bishop in Vietnam
J.B. An Dang9/30/2009

The archdiocese of Hanoi has revealed part of the diary of a late bishop, who passed away recently, in which a thorough analysis of difficulties in the dialogue with the communist government was presented along with suffers of the Church in Vietnam and in particular of Catholic bishops.

Bishop Paul Le Dac Trong, Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus of Hanoi, passing away on Sept. 7 at the age of 91, has long been seen as a credible eyewitness to the history of the Church in Vietnam. Born in Kim Lam in 1918, he was ordained priest on April 1, 1948, and later was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of the capital in March 23 1994.

Soon after his death, probably according to his last wish, part of his book titled “Stories about an era”, written in the form of a diary of events was revealed with the introduction written by Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet.

In the first part of his book, Bishop Paul Le summarized the situation of the Church in northern Vietnam before and right at the time of the communist takeover in 1954. When the communist troop seized Hanoi, he wrote, “facing the potentials of being persecuted, Catholics fled to the South in massive numbers, their priests, especially those with an insightful knowledge of what had happened in Russia, in Spain, and in China where Catholics had been killed in large numbers by communists, went with their faithful leaving northern dioceses deserted.” Bishops urged their priests to stay. Some even threatened those priests who went to the South with disciplines.

The migration of a large number of priests to the South caused so many difficulties to northern dioceses. Having described in details the situation of each diocese in the North in 1950s, he exclaimed: “It was a disaster. In a short time, Catholicism was almost swept out of the North.”

However, the late prelate argued that the “run-away” of such a large number of priests was not bad. “It helps Southern dioceses flourish so quickly,” he stated. Also, “those who stayed had to be strong or otherwise they might harm the Church.” A large number of priests were imprisoned and harassed. Some of them ended up with their join to the “Liaison Committee for Patriotic and Peace-Loving Catholics”, born in March 1955 in an attempt to set up a state-controlled Catholic Church loyal to the Party, not to the Pope.

The Liaison Committee made bishops’ life so much harder and complicated. As they persisted on the union with Rome and the Successor of Peter, bishops have seen the committee a great and imminent danger for the Church. While the Church was not allowed to have its own media, the committee has run a couple of weekly magazines in which “good news of the Church have never been covered while they have never ignored any scandals of the Church in anywhere around the world, and have kept spelling out frequent attacks against the pope and the Vatican. Even worse, they did all those on behalf of the official authority of the Church,” the prelate lamented.

Soon after the communists took control the entire country in 1975, a “Committee for Solidarity of Vietnamese Catholics” was also born in the South with its “Catholics and People” magazine first published on July 10th, 1975. The prelate spent a significant part of his book to criticize the magazine for its fierce and frequent attacks against Pope John Paul II and the Vatican.

Those bishops who tried to forbid their priests to join these committees faced imminent dangers for their own safety and enormous difficulties in their diocesan administration: harsh restrictions on the recruitment of seminarians, and on the ordination, appointment and transfer of priests. The carrying out of the Church's normal activities involving travel, holding meetings, developing new pastoral initiatives would all be subjected to approval by the civil authorities. Even worse, their faithful in rural areas were also forced to cease religious activities.

The communist government, who closely monitors religious activities, keeps telling Catholics that the reason for the existence of the Liaison Committee and the Committee for Solidarity is to facilitate the dialogue between the State and the Church. However, the late prelate frankly rejected it arguing that such committees do not benefit both the State and the Church. “They only cause deeply distrust by threatening the government and Church leaders with unreal risks in order to have their intermediate role recognized. The born of such committees was a great mistake of the communists. It is the time to disband them,” he stated.

Living in such a society hostile against their faith, bishops in Vietnam tend to be extremely prudent and discreet as their statements may result in heavy consequences against them and their faithful. In the meeting with Hanoi People’s Committee on Sep. 20, 2008, Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet said: “Religious freedom is a natural human right everyone is entitled to, not at the mercy of those in power. A government ‘for the people’ must have the responsibility to relax conditions for everyone to enjoy it. It is not a grace poured out on us at your mercy. No, it’s not. Again, religious freedom is a human right, not a grace granted only if requested.” For his statement, he suffered a smearing campaigns lasting for months in state media. Recently, Archbishop Stephen Nguyen Nhu The and his Auxiliary Bishop Francis Xavier Le Van Hong of Hue Archdiocese have shared the same fate with Archbishop Joseph Ngo just because of their calls for peaceful dialogue between the State and the Church.

Most Catholics in Vietnam, therefore, do not know in details suffers and difficulties of their shepherds. Many have expressed their desire to see the book of the late prelate soon to be published widely – a wish hard to come true in Vietnam. But thanks to Internet, an electronic version was posted to the Net. Also, efforts to translate it into other languages are on the way.

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