British Archbishop Paul Gallagher closed a 5-day visit to Vietnam over the weekend after meeting with top civil and ecclesial authorities, and telling seminarians to persevere in joy and charity, even amid difficulty.

The Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, Gallagher visited the communist-led nation of Vietnam from April 9-14, meeting with Vietnamese Minister of Foreign Affairs Bui Thanh Son, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chính, and Minister of Internal Affairs Phạm Thị Thanh Trà.

During his visit, he celebrated Mass at Saint Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi, and traveled to the Archdiocese of Huế, where he met with students of the area’s Major Seminary and celebrated Mass at Huế’s “Phu Cam” cathedral.

He also visited the Archdiocese of Ho Chi Minh City, where he celebrated Mass in the city’s Notre Dame Cathedral and met with members of the Vietnamese bishops’ conference, speaking to them about the situation of the local church.

In his meeting with seminarians in Huế, Gallagher, according to Vatican News, spoke about the importance of being joyful priests and missionaries of charity throughout the world.

Gallagher in his remarks said he himself was experiencing joy “to be with you during my first official visit to Vietnam,” telling the seminarians, “we have gathered to meet one another, to build a relationship, to get to know and love one another.”

He recalled how Pope Francis after his election spoke of joy in an address to the seminarians of the world, saying joy is a distinctive sign of a priest that must be understood in depth and which priests must learn how to live.

“Naturally, being joyful doesn’t mean not experiencing sadness or suffering, moments of difficulty or doubt,” Gallagher said, and, to this end, quoted Saint Paul Le-Bao-Tinh, a Vietnamese martyr, who in an 1843 letter to seminarians of Ke-Vinh spoke of his experience in prison.

In his letter, Le-Bao-Tinh said, “The prison here is a true image of hell on earth: to cruel torture of every kind – iron chains, handcuffs – are added hatred, revenge, slander, obscene speeches, arguments, evil actions, swearing, curses, as well as anguish and pain.”

However, he said that “In the midst of these torments, which usually terrorize others, I am, by the grace of God, full of joy and happiness, because I am not alone, Christ is with me.”

“This is the true joy,” Gallagher said, and invited each of the seminarians to reflect on their own ability to be joyful people.

He pointed to Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who in her writings indicated that for over 50 years she experienced a spiritual darkness feeling the absence of God in her life.

Despite this feeling, Mother Teresa “was always smiling, full of joy in her eyes! With her smile, she carried this joy to all those she met: lepers, homeless, abandoned, and people affected by addiction and illness,” Gallagher said.

In this spirit, he said it is the task of priests to be “missionaries of charity, sent into the world, full of that joy that pushes them to say, ‘yes’ to Jesus Christ, also in the midst of sacrifices and difficulties.”

These words of encouragement hold a special significance in Vietnam, which has a complex history of religious persecution and where religious freedom guarantees, while enshrined in the country’s law, are in practice an ongoing struggle.

Gallagher in his remarks to seminarians said that to live joy amid struggle does not come automatically, but rather “requires a constant effort and a serious preparation,” which he said is why the formation of priests is so important for the church.

“Its pastors must not only live the faith, but they must be capable of transmitting it and teaching others to live it authentically,” he said.

Gallagher urged seminarians to read Pope John Paul II’s 1992 post-synodal exhortation Pastores dabo vobis, in which John Paul outlined four pillars of priestly formation, offering what Gallagher said were “reflections on the identity of the priest, his relationship with Jesus Christ, and on some specific challenges that must be faced in living the Christian faith in the modern world.”

He then took questions from seminarians, saying at the end, “May you always remain full of courageous zeal, of joyful hope, and ardent charity.”

Gallagher’s visit to Vietnam comes amid an ongoing rapprochement process between the Holy See and Vietnam, after a delegation from the Communist Party of Vietnam visited the Vatican in January.

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As part of their reconciliation efforts, Vietnam and the Holy See struck an agreement last year allowing the appointment of a resident papal representative in the country, a deal that was reached during a visit Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong made to the Vatican in July 2023.

In December 2023, Polish Archbishop Marek Zalewski, the Vatican’s ambassador to Singapore, was also appointed as papal representative to Vietnam.

Vietnam and the Holy See have had no formal ties since 1975, when the last Vatican envoy was expelled from the country after the communists took control of South Vietnam. Ever since, the relationship between Rome and Hanoi has also been seen as a bellwether for the Vatican’s approach to China, which is a key agenda item for Pope Francis.

Vietnam currently has the fifth-largest Catholic population in Asia, with an estimated seven million Catholics comprising roughly seven percent of the total population of around 97.5 million. The Church in Vietnam has 3,000 parishes across the country, 7,700 other facilities, and 11 seminaries served by 8,000 priests and 41 active bishops.

An additional 700,000 Vietnamese Catholics live in the United States, many of whom are descendants of refugees who fled by boat during the Vietnam war.

Given Vietnam’s proximity to China and the fact that both are led by communist parties, the Vatican has long sought to use a similar approach to both, striking a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops with Chinese authorities in 2018 that is similar to one the Vatican had struck with Vietnam.

Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin is expected to visit Vietnam later this year, as a follow up to Gallagher’s trip, with both sides hoping that a papal trip will happen sometime in the future.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen