The Catholic church in Vietnam has both survived persecution and grown in faith during the past four decades, since the fall of the Saigon government, on April 30, 1975.
After the North communist army captured Saigon, the capital of a U.S.-backed South Vietnam, and reunified the country, the Hanoi government confiscated and shut down religious facilities – including schools, hospitals, churches and other properties – and began a program aimed at strictly controlling all religious activities.
In the years before the changeover of regimes, the Catholic church in the south had played a major role in South Vietnam’s social and political activities. The shift was abrupt and terrifying to most Catholics.
In the days, months and years that followed, well more than one million Vietnamese fled the country, by sea and road, to escape persecution and even starvation, caused by harshly enforced communal agricultural policies.
Hundreds of thousands more died at sea, trying to escape, as well as in prisons and “re-education” camps.
For at least a decade, the church in Vietnam, like the wider country itself, was cut off from the rest of the world.
Banned from performing church ministries, many clergy and religious were imprisoned or sent to labor camps. Church activities, to the degree they were allowed at all, were confined to church grounds.
Catholics lived in a constant state of fear. But during those darkest of years, Archbishops Paul Nguyen Van Binh of Ho Chi Minh City Archdiocese and Philip Nguyen Kim Dien of Hue Archdiocese, bravely spoke their minds, calling upon Catholics “to remain with the poor,” “bear witness to Jesus Christ,” and “serve the church in misery.”
The temptation for clerics and religious was to flee the country on boats, as tens of thousands of other Vietnamese, some successfully, some not, were doing. But nearly all stayed.
“Religious men and women in Saigon quickly responded to their leaders’ invitations, nearly all accepting to stay in the country instead of fleeing abroad,” said Sr. Elizabeth Tran Thi Quynh Giao, former Franciscan Missionaries of Mary provincial superior in Vietnam.
“We found that it was a good opportunity for Catholics to sacrifice themselves for other people in spite of the challenges and difficulties facing us ahead,” Quynh Giao said, adding that “real Catholics do not escape and compromise with any regime, but rather serve and love others as a base for their action.”
She was a woman religious in her early 30s when the Saigon government fell in April 1975. She recalled that superiors of congregations would gather together at a Franciscan monastery on the first Friday of month, regardless of a government ban on such meetings. They and the Saigon archbishop would exchange information, discuss ways to continue training young religious, and plan limited pastoral activities.
Later monthly meetings were expanded to all religious, especially young ones who were not officially recognized by government authorities. It became government practice to forbid Vietnamese from entering religious orders.
Quynh Giao, former secretary of the Union of Major Superiors of Vietnam, said authorities consequently threatened some religious superiors and sent a class of novices to prison for one month.
She also said during the harshest communist era, from 1975 to 1989, Catholics secretly would find ways to receive limited numbers of religious books from abroad. They would translate these books, secretly print and distribute them among religious.
“I drove a motorbike to collect translations from translators, concealed them from the police under sandals and pans and brought them to the printing place,” she said.
Years later the archdiocese’s Committee of Religious decided to launch summer courses on theology for young religious, but,“We told authorities that courses were aimed to educate young people on patriotism and how to work with local officials so that we could get their approval.
“Some religious, including myself, also persuaded the government to approve a list of priests who would be allowed to teach the courses. We waited for their approval, sometimes hanging on after their lunchtime. They finally approved the list worn down by our dogged determination and smooth-tongued skills,” she said.
There were 500 religious at the first one-month course in July 1989, and attendances rose in the following sessions. Students studied the Scripture, church, spirituality and dogma and were given theology certificates after finishing five courses and passing exams.
To enhance the nuns’ studies, two-year theological courses were also launched for them in 1992. At first, congregations sent two members each to the courses.
Quynh Giao said the government harassed religious men and approved courses for them under the strict condition they did not “take part in politics or work to overthrow the government.”
“We told the government that religious do nothing except study God’s word to live their faith,” Quyeh Giao said. “They replied: ‘You do not know that only one verse from the Bible is strong enough to start a revolution overthrowing a government.’”
Finally the courses opened to a wider audience. Through 2013, 611 students graduated from the courses and 445 of them were ordained to the priesthood. (The church in Vietnam did not keep close records in the years following the war; church records are strongest starting in 2000.)
The courses continue to this day.
The Hanoi communist-led government has continued to open slowly to the needs of local religious. In recent years, the Franciscans, Redemptorists, Dominicans and Jesuits have all established their own philosophy and theology institutes.
Quynh Giao said theological formation for religious in Vietnam will soon be enhanced even further following a move by the Vietnamese bishops to found a national theology institute. It was approved by the Holy See last year.
“This is great news for religious to further their studies serving their ministries,” she noted.
Quynh Giao, who serves as a superior of Incarnation-Visitation-Redemption Society for women at the request of its founder, the late Cardinal Joseph Mary Pham Dinh Tung of Hanoi, said the church’s achievements are thanks to slowly winning the trust of the communist-controlled government.
“We owe it to our lives of selfless service to the nation, trust in God’s love, and for bravely giving witness to the Good News under these circumstances,” she said.
She said the younger religious now need to learn faith examples from more senior ones “to strengthen their faith, to be generous in commitment to the church and go out of themselves to awaken the world and serve as a bridge between religious and secular life.”
[Joachim Pham is a correspondent for Global Sisters Report, based in Vietnam.]