On May 21, 2018, the Holy See announced Pope’s Francis appointment of Archbishop Marek Zalewski of Poland as the Apostolic Nuncio in Singapore, and the non-resident representative of the Holy See in Vietnam.

Archbishop Joseph Nguyễn Chí Linh, president of the Vietnamese Bishops' Conference, welcomed the decision. “Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli concluded his tenure as Vatican Representative in Vietnam in September 2017, and I believe that all Catholics in Vietnam are eagerly awaiting his replacement,” said the prelate.

Referring to Archbishop Girelli, the former papal envoy, Archbishop Joseph Nguyễn remarked, “I was aware of the fact that the most burning desire in his excellency’s tenure was that he could raise the relationship between the Holy See and Vietnam to a higher level.”

The bishop went on to elaborate further on the issue.

“I also noticed that Archbishop Girelli regularly consulted to great extent with the Vietnamese Bishops' Conference on from the biggest to smallest files of the Church in Vietnam and of each diocese, each congregation. Pursuant to the regulations of the Vietnamese government, each non-resident representative of the Holy See in Vietnam can only stay for one month. He always abode strictly the diplomatic rule. But at the same time, as a shepherd, he did not mind the challenging distances and road conditions, to reach out to parishes in remote and isolated areas, visiting the underprivileged and the unfortunate, regardless of their religion, to share love,” he added.

Referring to the possibility of normalization of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Vietnam, the Hue’s archbishop said:

“After 1957 in the North and after 1975 in the South, the Vietnamese government did not maintain a diplomatic relation with the Vatican as the previous political regimes did. But according to bilateral agreements, when there is a need arising, one party can send envoys to the other for negotiation or exchanging of information. It was not until 2011 that the Holy See was allowed to appoint a representative in Vietnam, but only with a non-permanent status, that is, at the lowest diplomatic level, someone who is allowed to work, but not to stay in Vietnam on a permanent basis.”

“The recent history of the Vietnamese people is a complicated history as it has been made that way due to the cold war’s mentality still deeply rooted in the minds of many Vietnamese people. It is also due to people’s minds are not in unison and to the pressure coming from East and South Asia. The relationship between Vietnam and the Holy See has been established in such rough context, so it is not surprising when it encounters many obstacles.”, the prelate lamented.

“Currently, one of the political goals the government sets is to promote the integration of the country into the international community. I think the relationship between Vietnam and the Holy See will be improved if the Vietnamese government also integrates its diplomatic views with the Holy See’s, as in most other countries in the world,” he assesses.

Regarding the restrictions on religious freedom that the Church in Vietnam is still facing, the President of the Vietnamese Bishops’ Conference states:

“Objectively speaking, there still are many restrictions, especially in the area of appointing bishops. Under the agreement between the Holy See and the government of Vietnam, the proposition of bishops is the right of the Holy See, the Vietnamese State has no right to nominate candidates but has the right to refuse or approve.

In the past, this was quite a tough issue, but I have to acknowledge that the most challenging task today is the appointment of the archbishops to the archdioceses of Hanoi and Saigon. In the rural dioceses, since the two sides have been becoming more sensitive to each other, the appointment of bishops to any other than the two archdioceses mentioned above has become relatively easier than before.”

“There are still blockages between the Vietnamese government and the Catholic community that have not been removed. For instance, the Catholic community to this day has not been allowed to involve in facilitating health, educational, or social activities at the national level. Nevertheless, in comparison with the period of reforms, many religious activities have been partially untied, such as celebration, ordination, and construction activities. We still hope that the government would keep going and accelerate the process of untying on a deeper and broader scale”, he said.

The most current thorny issue is the land dispute between the Church and the government.” Land is a hot file, not only for the Church in Vietnam but also for many other social components. Official statistics show that as many as 73% of complaints are related to land and housing. Of course, on matters related to Church properties, the Vietnamese Catholic Bishops’ Conference has the responsibility to speak up in a certain way. The problem is how to speak up and with whom should she speak up? I think speaking out to the public and to the media is a very sensitive issue. Without adequate consideration, it can mess up the relationship and belief. Catholics are both Christians and Vietnamese citizens. Having to be loyal to both statuses at the same time in a monolithic society like Vietnam is not a simple matter. Nevertheless, the Vietnamese Catholic Bishops' Conference must take a position which is to speak out when necessary, speak out straightforwardly yet delicately, I mean, their voice must be heard and acknowledged as the message of a well-intentioned community which wants to construct, to improve, not to attack and cause misunderstanding.”