A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
A Bishop's Life in North Vietnam

Bac Ninh Prelate Tells of Government Surveillance and Thousands of Youth Seeking the Church

ROME, 16 DEC. 2011 (ZENIT)
Bishop Cosme Hoàng Van Dat of Bac Ninh, in North Vietnam, says he would not describe the Church of his homeland as a "persecuted Church." Yet he states with simplicity that he's sure the government watches his every move.

The 64-year-old bishop's estimation of things is clearly marked by his simplicity and deep faith. His life as a bishop is simply a mission from Christ, he notes. Marie-Pauline Meyer for Where God Weeps in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need spoke with Bishop Hoàng about his ministry and the beautiful faith found in his diocese.

Q: Is it difficult to be a Catholic bishop under a Communist state?

Bishop Hoàng: It is not difficult because I think that a bishop is the successor to the apostles that Christ sent to every corner of the world and communist countries are a part of the world and is it is necessary that there are some of His disciples in this part of the world. Vietnam is a communist country and it is difficult sometimes, but it is necessary that a bishop be present. 

Q: Do you have a feeling that the government is always watching you? 
Bishop Hoàng: I am sure the government watches everything I do. 

Q: Would you say the Catholic Church in Vietnam is a persecuted church? 

Bishop Hoàng: Many years ago yes but now, no. Years ago, the Church faced difficult times. Almost every priest and seminarian was put in prison; my vicar general spent nine years in prison when he was just a seminarian. We are now freer. 

Q: You are a Jesuit. What attracted you to the Jesuits? 

Bishop Hoàng: I joined the Jesuits in 1967 and I was 19 years old. It was during the Vietnam War. I thought at that time that war and weapons were not a good solution for the country. Two figures are prominent in my decision to join the Jesuits: St. Francis Xavier and Fr. Alexander de Rhodes, one of the first missionaries to Vietnam, both were Jesuits. So I applied to join the Jesuits to become a missionary and at that time I imagined my life later on as a missionary in Africa, but up to this time I have not been to Africa. 

Q: What did your parents say when you told them that you wanted to become a priest? 

Bishop Hoàng: My father died when I was six years old and I lived with my mother, who is very religious. She always thought of me as a young man whose preoccupation was just having fun. When I decided to join the Jesuits she told me that she could not refuse anything to God but she thought that I could never become a priest. 

Q: Vietnam is growing very fast economically. Will this material progress affect the youth in their Catholic faith, or any other religion for that matter? 

Bishop Hoàng: There is progress in the economic situation in Vietnam and this has many influences on the people including the Catholics. I, for instance, was content with a simple life. I was happy planting flowers. I do not need many modern things to make life comfortable. I do not know the other areas but in my diocese there is a very good tradition and the Vietnamese people cling to the traditions of their ancestors. If the parents and grandparents are pious there is no danger of us becoming atheists. For instance, during Palm Sunday I invited the youth to come to the bishop's house. I was expecting about 2,000 but 5000 showed up. Incredible!

Q: How did they all fit in your house? 

Bishop Hoàng: They did and we gave them bread and a little milk, which they gladly accepted, that is all. We are poor and they accepted everything. 

Q: But as a bishop you have to have material things? 

Bishop Hoàng: As a bishop, I have to have these -- computer, car -- but when I was a priest, I travelled with a bicycle. Moreover, prior to my nomination as a bishop, in Hanoi I went to celebrate Holy Mass traveling on a bicycle for 15 kilometers (nine miles) one way. I was happy with just a bicycle. Now I am not able to travel on a bicycle. 

Q: Your diocese is Bac Ninh in the north of Vietnam. Can you describe it for us? 

Bishop Hoàng: We have more than 8 million people and 125,000 Catholics. Most are farmers. We are poor, poorer than in Hanoi. You cannot even compare it to Europe. We face many difficulties. We have lost most of our properties and 50% of our churches were destroyed during the war. 

Q: How would you describe the faith, despite the small Catholic population? 

Bishop Hoàng: Catholics in my diocese have a very strong faith but they do not have a strong spiritual and intellectual formation. It is very difficult but I think their faith is very good. They go to church every week, sometimes even twice or three times a week in many villages, and I think that with such a faith we have a future. 

Q: You have worked with lepers for a long time. What was your initial reaction?

Bishop Hoàng: Initially I was afraid of them but with my better understanding of them, my heart overcame the fear and I learned to care and love them. It was difficult at first to eat with them but after some time, I was able to eat with them without any problem. 

Q: Do they live outside the city? 

Bishop Hoàng: They are free and are allowed to live anywhere but they have decided to live together to provide each other support. They often do not receive visitors when they live with their families or are refused hospitality when they wish to visit outside their families. I have many leper friends. 

Q: What can we do for the Catholic Church in Vietnam? 

Bishop Hoàng: We firstly need your prayers and material help. We need money for the formation of priests, nuns and lay catechists. We also need churches for the Catholic farmers because a church is very important to the life of a Catholic farmer who goes there two or three times to pray. We need a small and simple church for these people. It is a sign of their faith and also very necessary for the consolidation of the faith and the education of the faith of the children. 

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This interview was conducted by Marie-Pauline Meyer for "Where God Weeps," a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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