Until quite recently, a papal visit to Vietnam would have seemed fanciful, like a pontifical trip to the North Pole or Mars. But this week, it began to look like a genuine possibility.
That is surprising, given that no pope has ever set foot in the Southeast Asian country officially known as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and home to almost 100 million people, around 7 million of whom are Catholic.
It’s also remarkable given that Vietnam is an officially atheist, one-party communist state and one of the few countries lacking full diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
So, why is a papal visit suddenly looking feasible?
A painful history
The answer is that it’s the result of gradual developments in the early 21st century, followed by a rapid series of advances in recent months.
The 20th century gave the Holy See few opportunities to improve its ties with Vietnam. The Communist Party of Vietnam, founded by Ho Chi Minh, came to power in North Vietnam in 1954. It established its rule over the whole country in 1975, following the fall of the South Vietnamese government.
South Vietnam’s first president was Ngo Dinh Diem, a committed Catholic who antagonized the majority Buddhist population. The Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, who famously set himself alight in 1963, did so in protest at Diem’s religious policies. Diem was assassinated months after Quang Duc’s self-immolation.
The incoming communist rulers saw the Catholic Church as a product of French colonialism (though it dates back to the 16th century in Vietnam), associated it with the anti-communist South Vietnam, and made it difficult to practice the Catholic faith.
Among the Catholics who suffered persecution was the future Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, a nephew of Diem, who was imprisoned for 13 years. His prison messages, chronicling his remarkable spiritual journey, were collected in the book “The Road to Hope,” and he was declared Venerable in 2017.
Against this painful background, Vietnam’s then-Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung met with Benedict XVI at the Vatican in 2007. It was a momentous breakthrough because it was the first time that a Vietnamese leader had held face-to-face talks with a pope.
A body called the Vietnam-Holy See Joint Working Group held its first session in 2009 and met regularly thereafter. In 2011, the pope appointed its first diplomatic representative to Vietnam. The Italian Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli was designated as the Vatican’s “non-resident representative” to Vietnam.
‘The dialogue is open’
In March 2023, the 10th meeting of the Vietnam-Holy See Joint Working Group secured a breakthrough. A press release said that the two sides were “essentially in consensus” on the creation of a resident papal representative in Vietnam.
On Aug. 7, Vo made his first trip to the headquarters of Vietnam’s bishops’ conference in Ho Chi Minh City.
During a Sept. 4 in-flight press conference on his return from Mongolia, the pope was asked about the prospect of a trip to Vietnam.
“With Vietnam, the dialogue is open, with its highs and lows, but it is open and slowly moving forward,” he said. “There have been some problems, but they have been resolved.”
“With regard to a journey to Vietnam, if I don’t go, John XXIV certainly will! There will indeed be a visit, because it is a land that deserves to progress and that has my affection.”
Pope Francis wrote a letter to Vietnam’s Catholic community, dated Sept. 8, in which he described the steps leading to a landmark agreement enabling the Vatican to have a resident papal representative.
He said: “On the basis of the reciprocal trust built up step by step over the years, which was strengthened by the annual visits of the Holy See’s delegation and the meetings of the Vietnam-Holy See Joint Working Group, both sides have been able to move forward together and further progress will be possible, recognizing convergences and respecting differences.”
Archbishop Joseph Nguyen Nang, the president of Vietnam’s bishops’ conference, wrote to Pope Francis Oct. 4, thanking him for the letter and inviting him to visit.
In December, it was reported that Vietnam’s President Vo Van Thuong had also invited Pope Francis to visit, marking another huge breakthrough in Holy See-Vietnam relations.
This week, the pope received a delegation from the Communist Party of Vietnam. Afterward, the Vatican “foreign minister” Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher said that he planned to visit Vietnam in April and Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin would likely travel there later this year.
“We’ll do things gradually,” Gallagher commented, adding that there was a real prospect of a papal visit to Vietnam.
“But there’s a few further steps to be taken before that would be appropriate,” he said.
Aside from Pope Francis’ fluctuating health, the major obstacle to a papal trip is the lack of full diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the Holy See.
But given the rate at which ties have been strengthened since March, it’s not unreasonable to think that this problem could be resolved.
Commentators point to the case of Myanmar (Burma), another strongly Buddhist Southeast Asian nation that had never received a papal visit.
In February 2017, the Vatican suggested the establishment of full diplomatic relations. Myanmar’s parliament unanimously approved the proposal in March that year. In May, the two sovereign states announced that they had agreed to the step. And in November, Pope Francis touched down at Yangon International Airport, at the start of a historic four-day visit.
Holy See diplomats may have a similar fast-track idea in mind for Vietnam. Whether they succeed will depend not only on the 87-year-old pope’s health, but also the continued goodwill of Vietnam’s communist leadership.
For now, the omens are looking good.