HO CHI MINH CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - After a 60-year ban, Vietnam will see the opening of its first Catholic university — a result of negotiations between the Communist government and the Vatican. The move coincides with the start of the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
The idea was kickstarted by the Vietnamese bishops, who issued a pastoral letter in 2011 requesting that the government "open the door to religious people of good will who wish to get involved in school education."
By 2011, there were 23 private universities established by foreign countries in Vietnam, which prompted the bishops to request a private school of their own. "The Catholic Church can offer the educational philosophy and experience that belong to it," the letter states, "to train people responsible for the good of others and society as a whole."
With the Communist takeover of the North in 1954, Catholic schools — ranging from kindergarten to higher education — were banned; the same regime was applied in South Vietnam when Saigon fell to the Viet Cong in 1975, with approximately 2,000 schools shuttered.
Commenting on the historic new university, the archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City, Paul Bui Van Doc, said, "The relationship between the Vatican and the Vietnam government is becoming better and better, so we asked and they accepted."
Bishop Dinh Duc Dao, president of the Bishops' Commission for Education, expressed high hopes about the new venture. "The nascent theology institute is a point of arrival but also a point of departure. ... [W]e wish to share our faith, which established itself here almost 500 years ago and helps bring the Gospel first and foremost to Asia and then ad gentes [to the people]."
The Faith came to Vietnam in the 1500s through Portuguese missionaries, but it would take two French Jesuit priests — Fr. Alexandre de Rhodes and Fr. Antoine Marquez — who came to then-Indochina in 1620 to spread the Faith and help it take root. Six thousand souls converted within seven years of their arrival, and many thousands more would come to the Faith in the following centuries, in spite of multiple periods of bloody persecution by pagan rulers.
By the turn of the 20th century, the Faith had reached its high point. Persecution ended with the Franco-Annamite Treaty of 1886, which placed all power in the hand of France. Under the protection of French colonial rule, the Church saw Her period of greatest flourishing: Catholicism held favored status, and the average number of converts per year numbered a stunning 50,000. Native clergy were more numerous than in any other missionary country in the world.
That came to an end when Communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh declared himself president of the Democratic National Republic in the North in 1954, taking over the South in 1975. Under the new regime, the Faith was placed under interdict, Catholic institutions shut down, Catholic priests and religious persecuted. In a short time the Catholic population dwindled, until it is now only a fraction of the populace.
The new Catholic university is based in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), currently at the bishops' headquarters until the construction of a new building is complete. It will be granted pontifical status, and will start offering courses in April on theology, liturgy, scriptural studies, philosophy and canon law, among others, with degrees ranging from a baccalaureate to a doctorate in theology. About 100 students are expected to enroll in the first year.