The Catholic Church in Vietnam battles heavy government restrictions on its freedom to be involved in charitable works, health care and education, but it will survive as it always has, says a bishop who leads Vietnamese Catholics in California.
Vietnamese by birth, Auxiliary Bishop Dominic Luong of Orange County, California emigrated from North Vietnam more than 50 years ago for studies. He was trained in seminaries in New York state and, due to the difficulties of returning to his homeland, has been serving as a priest in the U.S. since his ordination in 1966.
Although he was ordained to the Diocese of Danang, Vietnam, his priesthood has been spent between New York, Louisiana and California. He is now an auxiliary bishop for southern California's Diocese of Orange County, where he serves the 300,000-person strong Vietnamese Catholic population.
As the largest ex-pat population in America, they keep in close contact with their roots. They often support Catholics in Vietnam with charitable assistance. They quickly responded to appeals for help from Vietnamese bishops after recent floods, he recalled.
That tight connection led Bishop Luong to travel with a small group from his diocese to participate in the closing celebration of the Jubilee Year of the Catholic Church in Vietnam this month.
The celebration of 350 years of Catholicism in Vietnam was "spectacular," Bishop Luong told CNA in a telephone interview on Jan. 27.
Some people would not have imagined that the Catholic Church in Vietnam had the freedom to put together such a large celebration where they were free to worship, he said. He called it a "big advantage for both the Church and development."
But, he said he also witnessed a Church that has not been allowed to fully express itself.
Unfortunately, the woes of the Catholic Church in Vietnam are not over. "As far as freedom of religion in Vietnam, many, many aspects were very restricted, you know. That has been known for years," he said.
The communist government keeps a firm grip on the Church. Church property, including schools, is confiscated and redistributed, candidates for bishops must be approved by the State and generally the role of the Church in society is held to a minimum.
Catholics have been detained and beaten for attempting to defend the property rights of their churches. Just this week, on Jan. 25, Human Rights Watch singled out the Vietnamese government for its harsh treatment of believers.
"There are numerous restrictions from the government," said Bishop Luong. "They make up the law as they go along sometimes."
As recently as Christmas eve, one Vietnamese bishop was prohibited from celebrating Mass after traveling to the border of Cambodia to be with villagers there.
The people are used to such hassles. "It happens, you know, it's all over (the place)," said the auxiliary bishop.
Although the Vietnamese are free to worship, the restrictions have had their effect even on Church life.
Bishop Luong said that many remain "pre-Vatican II Catholics." Lay faithful are struggling to "catch up" and learn their "duties as a member of the Church in a post-Vatican II" era where lay members participate more in Church activities, he said.
While they have the freedom to worship, "they find freedom of religion a concern," he said. "Freedom in education, in helping the poor, in a thousand activities, all these things are limited.
"You know,” Bishop Luong observed, “without schools, without services to the poor, without services to the elderly and the handicapped, I mean what else is the Church doing?"
Cardinal Ivan Dias, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and papal envoy to the Jubilee celebrations, spoke in the closing Mass on Jan. 6 about evangelizing in every sector of society.
Bishop Luong seconded this statement. "Everybody has to bear witness to their faith, but I think that in Vietnam, you know, it's really limited," he said. "You're not as free as you think in other countries. Only when you live there do you experience the many restrictions and do you know what it is."
Even as a Vietnamese himself, it takes him a while to readjust when he returns to California.
He's hopeful that the Church will eventually be permitted to participate in activities for the benefit of society like organizing charity for the poor and working in education and health care.
"Vietnam is really in great need, but they don't allow us to help. So, I think there are a lot of hopes, a lot of things that we need to long for, but the reality is so far away."
He longs for the government to begin treating Catholics as important citizens. Instead of being suspicious of Catholics, “they ought to have them participating in different areas to rebuild the country."
Pope Benedict XVI's appointment of a non-resident representative, Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, as diplomatic envoy to the nation is a step in the right direction, he said. He hoped that the representative might not only improve relations between the Holy See and Vietnam, but also better those between the local Church and the government.
"I don't think the Church in Vietnam has the leverage to be able to talk, maybe the non-resident representative, a mediator, could do that," he said.
In an attitude typical of missionary efforts that brought Catholicism to Vietnam, he shook off all negativity, saying "nevertheless, as you and I know, the Catholic Church has always survived because Christ is always with us."