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 Today's Take:  NCR's daily Web column
Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

April 24, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 14




global perspective Vietnam's 400-year Catholic History

by Thomas C. Fox, publisher of NCR

As I am in Vietnam, for "Today's Take" I thought I might provide a brief overview of Catholicism in Vietnam. First the numbers: Vietnam's population is approximately 78 million. Out of this about 5 million are Catholics. Vietnam is made up of two archdioceses and eight dioceses. It has some 2,300 priests, 1,500 seminarians, 9,300 sisters and 1,200 brothers. About 70 percent of the Vietnamese people claim to be Buddhists; 10 percent Cao Dai and six percent Hoa Hao. Most Vietnamese worship their ancestors, including Catholics.

It was in the 16th century, Western missionaries started their work in Vietnam. The first to come were Portuguese Franciscan missionaries followed by Spanish Dominicans who accompanied some Vietnamese merchant ships.

From 1613 to 1645, Portuguese Jesuit missionaries based in Macau (China) came to Vietnam. According to official Church records, they were able to attract some 50,000 followers during 20 years while training about 40 Vietnamese clerics.

One of the most famous French Jesuits to work in Vietnam in the mid-17th century was Alexander de Rhodes who Romanized Vietnamese script to bring Scripture to a wider section of the Vietnamese populace. De Rhodes worked out a plan to persuade the king of France as well as the French elite to establish the Paris Foreign Missionary Association. In 1664, it was officially set up and was assigned by the pope to carry out missionary work in Vietnam.

Vietnamese society during the 17th and 18th centuries experienced many vicissitudes and complexities that created favorable conditions for the development of Christianity. In a period of civil wars the Church proved to be a stable force of many Vietnamese. Church records reveal that by the early 20th century, the number of Christian followers in Vietnam had already grown to nearly one million.

Coming to Vietnam after Buddhism, Catholicism has developed for 400 years or so. Right from its first days on this land, this religion was exploited by the French colonialists in their scheme to occupy Vietnam and many missionaries played an important role in its implementation. At various stages Catholic armed units assisted French colonial forces to oppose national liberation movements. However, many Catholics also joined resistance forces against French colonialism.

In 1954 when Vietnam was divided many anti-communists Catholics came south and became the mainstay behind Ngo Dinh Diem and the South Vietnamese government. When the country was united in 1975 many Catholics were treated with suspicion by the new government. Slowly since then Catholics and the Communist-led government have been working out a rapprochement.

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