ROME – After meeting Vietnamese officials Thursday, a top Vatican diplomat has said he will travel to Vietnam this spring as the two countries continue to make significant strides toward rapprochement, and that a papal trip is a likely possibility at some point in the future.
A delegation representing the Communist Party of Vietnam visited the Vatican Thursday, holding private meetings with Pope Francis, Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, British Archbishop Paul Gallagher.
The meeting comes several months after Vietnam and the Holy See last year struck an agreement for the appointment of a resident papal representative in the country.
Speaking to journalists on the margins of a Jan. 18 press conference for activities commemorating the bicentenary of the death of Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, a legendary Secretary of State under Pope Pius VII in the Napoleonic era, Gallagher described his meeting with the delegation of the Communist Party of Vietnam as having gone “very well.”
“I can’t speak on behalf of the Holy Father or Cardinal [Pietro] Parolin, but the meeting I had with the chairman went well. It was very much focused on the fact that we have come to this agreement of a resident papal representative and building on that in the near future,” he said.
“It was a very positive meeting and we’re very hopeful that it will be of benefit to the Catholic community in Vietnam, to the bishops, the clergy, and the people, and also with our relations,” he said.
Gallagher said Vietnamese officials are eager for a papal visit, and he acknowledged the country’s growing regional influence, saying Vietnam is “a little bit of an economic miracle.”
Not only has Vietnam’s attitude toward the international community changed, but so has its attitude toward the Church, he said, saying the Vatican is currently trying to encourage Vietnam to offer greater assurances of religious freedom, “which they have in their constitution and that they’re practicing, but obviously it’s a work in progress.”
In terms of next steps after the appointment of a resident papal representative, Gallagher said he will visit Vietnam in April, and that Parolin will likely visit later in the year, “and then we’ll take it from there.”
“We’ll do things gradually, but we’re confident things will move forward,” he said, voicing optimism that a papal trip will happen further down the line.
“I think it will, but there’s a few further steps to be taken before that would be appropriate. But I think the Holy Father is keen to go, certainly the Catholic community in Vietnam is very happy to want the Holy Father to go, and I think it would send a very good message to the region,” he said.
The agreement allowing a resident papal representative and the establishment of the Office of the Resident Papal Representative of the Holy See in Vietnam was struck during a visit of President Vo Van Thuong of Vietnam to the Vatican in July of last year.
The Vatican and Vietnam have had no formal diplomatic 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.
Both parties have been engaged in a decades-long process of rapprochement, and in 2011 Vietnam agreed to let the Vatican appoint a nonresident papal representative, at the time seen as a major step forward in the process to normalize relations.
A three-member Vatican delegation traveled to Vietnam in 2022 for a week-long working visit in a bid to accelerate the rapprochement process, and last summer those aspirations finally came to fruition with the agreement allowing a resident papal representative.
In December, Polish Archbishop Marek Zalewski, who is also the Vatican’s ambassador to Singapore, was appointed as papal representative to Vietnam.
In September Pope Francis penned a letter to Vietnamese Catholics in light of the significant steps taken in the rapprochement process, voicing hope that the new papal representative “will be a bridge in order to advance reciprocal relations,” and expressed gratitude for Van Thuong’s July 2023 visit.
Throughout the various stages of dialogue between the Holy See and Vietnam, both parties “were able to walk together, listening to each other and arriving at a mutual understanding.”
“Although each of them came from different backgrounds and experiences of life, it did not prevent them from seeking together the best way forward for the good of the Vietnamese people and the Church,” the pope said.
He underlined the Church’s emphasis on charity and social works, as he did during his recent visit to Mongolia, and said the church’s commitment to helping others allows faithful to “live out their own identity as good Christians and good citizens.”
“In this regard, the Catholic faithful can foster dialogue and engender hope for the country whenever conditions favorable to the exercise of religious freedom are implemented,” he said.
Pope Francis also voiced hope that the nations of the world would “come to a fairer realization of one of the cardinal duties deriving from our common nature: namely, that love, not fear, must dominate the relationships between individuals and between nations.”
Vietnamese Catholics, several of whom traveled to Mongolia for the pope’s Aug. 31-Sept. 4 visit to Ulaanbaatar, are themselves also anxious for a papal visit.
Speaking to Crux at the time, several Vietnamese women who performed a dance for Pope Francis during his final Mass in Mongolia voiced hope that a papal visit would happen soon, with one woman, Pham Kim Duyen, saying, “We really hope, we wish one day the pope will come over to Vietnam, this is our dream!”
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 – relations with which have been a key priority of the Pope Francis papacy – and the fact that both are led by communist parties, the Vatican has long sought to use a similar approach to both.
Should a papal visit to Vietnam come to fruition, the “positive message” Gallagher said it would send to the region would undoubtably not be lost to its biggest neighbor.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen