In Vietnam's three northwestern provinces, where religion was once prohibited, Catholics are coming back to the faith
Father Joseph Nguyen Van Thanh sprinkles holy water on Catholics at Son La church during the Easter Vigil on April 8. (Photo courtesy of giaophanhunghoa.org)
Paul Tran was born into a Catholic family but did not attend a church for decades until 2021.
The 76-year-old man is one of the most active Catholics in his village Chieng Pha Phong Lai mission station in Vietnam’s mountainous Son La province.
“I have found heady joy in living out my faith life since I met my parish priest for the first time two years ago,” said Tran, a farmer.
Just like Tran, hundreds of people, both lapsed Catholics and people without religion, join the Church every year in the area, where practicing religion was once prohibited, Church sources said.
Tran credits his return to the church to the pastoral visit of the parish priest, Father Joseph Nguyen Van Thanh, in 2021.
He recalled that when he moved to the area from Nam Dinh province after his wedding in 1971, most people were not practicing any religion because of government restrictions.
As there was no Christian church or priest at the time, Tran too followed no religion. But two years ago, Father Thanh came to his home with some Catholics.
The priest asked Catholics to fix power lines at Tran’s home. They had a pleasant conversation and the priest invited him to attend Mass, he said.
Tran now attends Sunday Mass regularly at the house of a local Catholic family. Recently, Tran also gifted an electronic organ to the mission station.
“It is my penitence for abandoning my religious life” as “it will help people to get closer to God through singing hymns,” Tran said.
Mission to find the lost sheep
The majority of Catholics active in the mission are like Tran, who stopped practicing faith decades ago, said Father Thanh, who began the re-evangelization efforts in Son La.
Until a decade ago, Christianity was banned in three provinces of Dien Bien, Hoa Binh, and Son La. Catholic priests were allowed to live there only in 2015.
But the new Catholic communities established in these provinces are growing steadily, shows 2022 church data.
Currently, the three provinces have 13 parishes and more than 100 sub-parishes and mission centers with a total of 16,000 Catholics served by 20 priests.
Each year, some 500 Catholics join the church, despite state restrictions.
For example, the government has approved only one parish in each province. Other parishes remain “unrecognized” and are allowed to hold religious activities based on certain conditions on space and participation.
Religious activities should be restricted within their worship places and a list of participants should be given to the government. They should also report their annual religious plans to local authorities. Besides, the Church is not permitted to own properties.
Despite restrictions Catholics are growing in numbers as seen in Son La, Vietnam’s third-largest province, which borders Laos. Although religion was once banned, the province now has 9,000 Catholics in its eight parishes served by 12 priests.
Some 300 people join Catholicism annually in Son La, Church sources said.
Father Thanh, who was assigned to Son La Parish in 2021, explained that in the 1970s government sent hundreds of people to these sparsely populated areas aiming for their development. The government also banned religions, forcing most to abandon their faith.
In 2005, the government allowed just one priest -- Father Joseph Nguyen Trung Thoai -- to visit and work in Son La after Bishop Anthony Vu Huy Chuong of Hung Hoa secured permission from the local government. Later, more priests were allowed.
As part of the re-evangelization efforts “we visit homes, offer them material and spiritual support, and live in harmony among them,” said Father Thanh, who heads Hung Hoa Diocese’s Evangelization Committee.
The evangelization and re-evangelization of the provinces where local people live in poverty, lack facilities, and have limited access to pastoral care are the top priority for the local church, the priest said.
Dialogue breaks the ice
Father Joseph Nguyen Ngoc Ngoan, the first pastor of Dien Bien Parish in the neighboring Dien Bien province, said the province has 3,000 Catholics from four parishes but the government recognizes only his parish.
“Our priority is to offer them plenty of opportunities to attend religious activities,” said Father Ngoan, who started working in the province in 2016.
He said local priests need to travel on steep winding roads to reach people in far-flung areas, some of them more than 200 kilometers away from the parish.
“We attempt to engage in direct dialogue with local authorities to convince them that we work also to save people from drug abuse, human trafficking, child marriage, and other social evils,” he said.
The government ignores local Hmong communities who gather at people’s houses for prayers as Hmong are not yet recognized. Government officials watch them closely to prevent their gatherings from causing social disorder.
Dien Bien province, which borders China and Laos, is home to at least 16 ethnic groups.
Hmong Joseph Giang A Sinh from Nam Bo Parish, 200 kilometers away from Dien Bien Parish, said local Catholics were not allowed to gather for prayers until 2018. It changed after Father Ngoan began regular pastoral visits, he said.
The priest built five wooden chapels for people and sent a priest to reside with local Catholics. The community can now avail clean water and some 100 students get free accommodation and food in church-run facilities.
The parish serves 1,800 members from five sub-parishes and two mission stations.
“Local people and government authorities enjoy a friendly relationship, so we hold religious work without any problems,” the father of six said. “We hope our parish will be soon approved by the government.”
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