A delegation of 90 Vietnamese Catholics and seven bishops have travelled to Mongolia for the chance to see Pope Francis and deliver a special message.
“We came to Mongolia to ask the Pope to visit Vietnam,” Father Huynh The Vinh from Vietnam’s Diocese of Phu Coung told CNA on September 3.
Unlike Mongolia, which has one of the smallest Catholic populations in the world, Vietnam is home to millions of Catholics, yet no Pope has ever visited the southeast Asian country.
Vietnam and the Holy See have never had full diplomatic relations, a usual prerequisite for a papal trip, but Vietnamese Catholics remain convinced that a papal visit could have a positive impact on the situation facing Christians in the socialist country.
“I really hope that someday the Pope can come to Vietnam, because if the Pope comes to Vietnam it will change a lot [of] the religious freedom in our country,” Kimviet Ngo told CNA.
Speaking at the papal Mass in Ulaanbaatar, Ngo described how she had seen Pope Francis’ visit bring hope to the Mongolian people and said she believed a similar trip to Vietnam would “be very meaningful to both overseas Vietnamese people and to people in Vietnam.”
Hung Nguyen, a 20-year-old Vietnamese-American from Houston who came to see the pope in Mongolia, told CNA that a papal visit could help “strengthen the faith of the younger generations of Vietnamese Catholics.”
Vietnam has the fifth-largest Catholic population in Asia with an estimated seven million Catholics. An additional 700,000 Vietnamese Catholics live in the United States today, many of whom are refugees or descendents of refugees who fled by boat during the Vietnam War.
The Catholic Church in Vietnam has also seen a rising number of religious vocations in recent years. More than 2,800 seminarians were studying for the priesthood across Vietnam in 2020, 100 times more than in Ireland.
Pope Francis was asked about the possibility of a papal trip to Vietnam during his in-flight press conference on his return from Mongolia.
The Pope said that he was “very positive about relations with Vietnam,” despite the problems in the past in the Holy See’s “slow” dialogue with the country’s socialist government, adding that he thinks that any future problems can be overcome.
Pope Francis joked: “If I do not go [to Vietnam], I’m sure that [a future Pope] John XXIV will go!”
The 86-year-old pope added: “To tell the truth, travel is not as easy for me as it was in the beginning.” He added that he has some physical limitations with walking that can make traveling more difficult, but he is looking into the possibility of visiting a small country in Europe.
The Vatican has been engaged in formal bilateral discussions with Vietnam since 2009 and earlier this year, during the visit of Vietnam’s President Vo Van Thuong to the Vatican, the Vietnamese government agreed to allow a permanent papal representative in the country.
A resident papal representative is considered an intermediary step in diplomatic relations, below an apostolic nuncio.
The Vietnamese Constitution guarantees individual freedom of belief and individual religious freedom. However, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which advises branches of the U.S. government, in its 2023 report recommended that Vietnam be designated a “country of particular concern” due to worsening religious freedom conditions.
The report cited government persecution of religious groups, especially unregistered independent communities, including Protestant and Buddhist communities. Local authorities have also pressured some attendees of state-controlled Protestant churches to renounce their faith.
Harassment of Catholic communities also increased in 2022, according to the USCIRF report. In Hoa Binh province, local officials disrupted a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Joseph Vu Van Thien of Hanoi. There are also continuing land disputes between Catholics and local governments.
Pope Francis said he believes that Vietnam “merits” a papal trip someday and that it is “a land that deserves to go forward.”
The next step forward in building upon the bilateral relationship could be the first high-level visit of a Vatican diplomatic official to Vietnam.