Church's Mission in Vietnam needs renovation
J.B. An Dang3/6/2009

Seminars have been held in the Archdiocese of Saigon to address growing concerns on the ineffectiveness of the Church’s evangelization and to plan strategies for a new impulse to renew the Church’s missionary efforts.

For decades, the growth of the Church in Vietnam has been persistently much smaller than the population growth. That was the conclusion of seminars held recently in the Archdiocese of Saigon.

“The latest official statistical figures from the Church in Vietnam show that the Catholic population in 2007 was 6,087,700 among 85,154,900 people, or a rate at about 7.15% of national population,” said Fr. Anthony Nguyen Ngoc Son, a key speaker at the seminars. “This indicates a decline in number of registered Catholics comparing to 7.2 % in 1933 or 7.5% in 1939,” he warned.

It is even more alarming that while the rate of Catholic population in Vietnam has decreased within the last 50 years, other Christian denominations have enjoyed a surge in people joining their churches. In 1999, these denominations had 400,000 members. This number has quadrupled to 1,500,000 in 2008 according the latest report.

“These figures are a clear indication of the ineffectiveness of the Church’s mission in Vietnam during the last 50 years,” Fr. Anthony Nguyen lamented.

Also, seminar attendees raised a pressing concern on the alarming rate of adult converts who do not keep on practicing their faith after their baptism. Within the past 7 years, there have been approximately 35,000 adult conversions to Catholicism annually, 80-90% of these through marriage. Unfortunately, the number of converts through marriage who remain active in practicing their religion gone down dramatically due to complications many people have to face after converting to Catholicism such as losing privileges and promotions at certain jobs, or facing subtle discrimination from the atheist government.

While various factors can contribute to the problems the Church has faced in its missionary efforts, the indifferent attitude towards the missionary duty among the faithful has been noticeable. Many assume that the clergy is solely responsible for evangelization, not lay people. In addition, many Catholics have not been living their lives to bear witness to Christ and to make Him known to all those who have not yet received the Gospel message. Their personal and religious lives have not made any good impression on their non-Catholic neighbors and friends.

Furthermore, “the clergy has not assumed the much needed responsibility for the mission ad gentes in the country,” said Fr. Anthony Nguyen. "Missionary efforts seem to be a personal, sporadic crusade for volunteering individuals and religious orders, " he explained. In total agreement with him, Sr. Marie Nguyen from Saigon added: “Dioceses and the Church in Vietnam as whole lack zeal, a comprehensive missionary strategy and investments of means and tools for evangelical mission, especially in the rural or remote areas.”

A priest was barred from celebrating Christmas Mass in Son La
The government persecution also plays a significant role in worsening the situation. In many remote areas of the Central Highlands and in northern mountainous provinces, pastoral activities are often hindered by governmental bureaucracy and harassment. In these areas, missionary activity has often been described as an “offense against national security”, and the local officials made no effort to hide their hostility toward the church's effort to perform pastoral duties at these location.

The persistent smearing policy against the Church at all levels of education also makes youth so confused and discourages them to show their Catholic identity in order to avoid being objects of ill repute. “Faith is often limited to something within a personal sphere that many Catholic youth try to make it as invisible as possible. They try to avoid religion-oriented debates, hence lose chances to bear witness to Gospel,” Sr. Marie Nguyen, a sociologist, added.

Facing pressing concerns on the expansion of the Church, attendees have discussed on various aspects of the Church’s mission.

The first question is in a country full of social, political, and economic bad news, how is the Christian message "Good News" for our people? In the midst of an all-pervading despair, where lies the hope and optimism which the Gospel can bring about?

Secondly, how the image of the Church as a family of God can be built? How Christian families become authentic domestic churches? What are the roles of cultures in evangelization? What are necessary efforts towards inculturation needed in order to facilitate the integration of the Gospel into Vietnamese culture? What need to be done to relay the Christian message to the socio-cultural, religious, political and economic reality of Vietnam?

Among all aspects, Christology is the one that has received most attention, since the decisive element of every Christian life lies in the response that must be given to the question Christ asked: "Who do you say that I am?" (Mt 16:15). Without a correct understanding of the person of Christ, of His nature, of His significance and of His message addressed to the human race, Christianity lacks authenticity.

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