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Archive for February, 2008

Good News from Vietnam

cathedralestjosephhanoi.jpg

Catholic World News reports the following:

Vietnamese government officials have tentatively agreed to return the former offices of the apostolic nuncio in Hanoi to the Catholic Church.

In a stunning victory for Catholic activists who had been organizing daily prayer vigils outside the former nunciature in Hanoi, pleading for return of the building that had been confiscated by the Communist leadership in 1959, the government has agreed to turn the building over to Church leaders.

The concession by the Vietnamese government came just hours after the publication of a letter from Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State, urging Hanoi’s Catholics to avoid confrontation with police. Informed sources in Hanoi said that the government had agreed to allow the Catholic archdiocese to resume use of the building, in exchange for a promise that the daily prayer vigils would stop.

Read the story in its entirety for more details.

The Jesuit who taught freshman Scripture at my high school was Vietnamese. Short by American standards, he cut an imposing figure and commanded the respect of the 14-year-olds he taught. His thickly-accented English at times presented a challenge to the untrained ear, and deciphering his lectures was a skill my fellow students and I had to acquire in the first few weeks of class. A stickler for details, he employed an insane grading scale to our exams: more than one or two wrong answers out of, say, thirty questions, and our chances of getting a passing grade diminished rapidly. He had a short fuse and didn’t hesitate to call students out for laziness or disruptive behavior; my introduction as a Protestant to the Catholic priesthood, he was the first teacher I had encountered who occasionally swore at his students.

Of course, we all loved him. Engaging and at times even playful, he also revealed to us an intellectual seriousness that I had never before encountered in the study of Scripture. And, though I couldn’t articulate this at the time, he conveyed to me the spiritual depth and sincerity of the Catholic faith. (Neither did he shy away from talking about evil: we watched The Exorcist in class near the end of the year.) From ninth grade on, I became an outspoken defender of Catholics to my fellow Protestants, due at least in part to his witness.

Furthermore, he clearly cared about and enjoyed talking to his students. Warm and approachable outside of class, he was an adult whom I sensed that I could trust—which, for a young teenager, was saying a lot. This may have been due in part to his vocation as well: I didn’t necessarily understand the Reconciliation or hold to its efficacy, but I was keenly aware that he had not only to listen to confessions but keep silent about them as well. Each year, probably during Lent, the school held penance services where several priests would make themselves available for confession. At one of these services, compelled by guilt over sins I had committed, I actually went in to speak with him; he didn’t absolve me, of course, but he gave me some advice and a blessing. (I had forgotten that incident until recently, and now I can’t help but see it as foreshadowing my conversion to Catholicism. Though I didn’t understood its necessity or historical precedence until recently, the Sacrament of Penance has always made a lot of sense to me on an intuitive and emotional level.)

As the year drew to a close, he eased up on the workload somewhat and devoted class time to regaling us with stories of his homeland. He was one of many South Vietnamese who had been airlifted out of Saigon in 1975. Yet his tales only touched on the war incidentally, and the bulk of what he told us focused on his life as an ordinary teenager there—he was 16 when Saigon fell. He spoke wistfully of the young women who rode their bicycles to school, their long dresses rippling in the wind. He recalled the rivalries between high schools that would flare up when a boy from one campus started seeing a girl from the other; he showed us the scars on his arms that were the result of these rivalries. (Bicycle chains were apparently the weapon of choice. Like I said, Father cut an imposing figure.) Finally, at the end of the year, he told us his birth name, which we’d been asking him about almost from day one: up until that point we only knew the name he had taken as a priest. We saw this revelation as a concession, though I’m sure he was just holding it back to keep us in suspense.

Life hasn’t been easy for Catholics in Vietnam—since the communists took over, certainly, but apparently in the centuries prior to that as well. It’s a country from which the Church can claim thousands and thousands of martyrs, many of whom have been canonized as saints. I’m no expert in such matters, but I get the impression that Catholics made up a disproportionately percentage of those who left the country in the American war’s aftermath; I don’t know if this particular priest has been back there since.

What has happened in Hanoi is something I find meaningful because I care about Catholic matters and, I like to think, about human freedom. But to the men and women who fled the country at least in part because of their faith—I wonder what the return of these offices means to them? Light in the darkness, perhaps: a visible sign of God’s justice and mercy for His adopted children. And perhaps, for such as my freshman Scripture teacher, the sign that home will one day feel like home again.

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