At a former Catholic school in Vietnam, long ago confiscated by the government, a statue of Mary still stands. Michael Reardon, a veteran Oregon educator now working in the Southeast Asian nation, asked the communist headmaster why he never took down the image.
The puzzled official said, "Because it's always been there."
For Reardon, a Catholic who formerly chaired the Portland State University history department, the situation sums up the ambivalent situation for Catholicism in Vietnam: the church persists and is visible, but the government's looming presence still limits its advance.
There are still arrests and the government has not returned much of the church's land, says Reardon, who now serves as co-president of Eastern International University in Binh-Duong Province in southern Vietnam. But since 1992, "the situation of the church has improved significantly," Reardon said April 8 during an adult faith formation session at St. Mary Cathedral in Portland.
Catholic leaders in Vietnam tell Reardon that communist officials no longer vet seminarians or limit the number of seminarians or candidates to enter convents, common practices after the end of the war in 1975.
The church's status has slowly improved as the Vietnamese economy has boomed. Becamex IDC, the giant government-owned business conglomerate, has even given money to build a Catholic church, as well as a Buddhist temple, near a large industrial park in Binh-Duong Province, north of Ho Chi Minh City. Intel is building a plant in Vietnam. Officials want to keep workers happy and catering to religion seems to be part of the strategy.
Reardon, a Georgetown University graduate, attends Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception in Ho Chi Minh. He says Masses are full, including a liturgy in English. But Catholic schools are now allowed.
The status of the Catholic church is a "touchy subject" in Vietnam, says Reardon. Catholicism has long been associated with the west, first linked to the imperial designs of France and then to anti-communist fervor. Many Vietnamese recall that Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York was an ardent supporter of the American strategy during the Vietnam War, in large part because he saw the church being persecuted.
Vietnam's Catholics have experienced horrendous opposition for centuries, interspersed with peaceful periods. Often there is ambiguity. For example, the late Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan was jailed for 13 years after the war, but now is seen as a hero in his homeland.
Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary who became prime minister, did not want to go the Chinese route, forming an insulated Catholic patriotic association. He wanted the church to remain linked to its universal roots. That heritage has helped the church make whatever progress has come. Still, things go both ways for Catholics.
Monasteries have opened up in Vietnam, including many Cistercian abbeys. But monks and priests who speak out against the government are arrested, especially in the north. Reardon says Vietnamese Redemptorists are among the most outspoken orders and so feel the most pressure.
If the government has continued to compromise, so has the church. Officials allowed an elderly nun to develop a rite that incorporates honoring ancestors, an ancient Vietnamese customs that early missionaries deplored.
Whatever the varying conditions for the church in Vietnam, it is growing. There are now 10 million Catholics in the nation of 96 million and each year, Reardon reports, 6,000 Vietnamese enter the church. In addition, seminaries and convents are full.