Here's a story that began circulating yesterday:
In central Vietnam, there have been so many Catholic baptisms over the past two years - 50,000 - that communist authorities are reacting in strange ways. After Easter Mass, Bishop Duc Oanh was detained and interrogated for hours, charged with baptizing people. The Bishop protested that he had only been hearing confessions for which there was a long line.
It helps to have a bit of background. Rapid Christian growth is nothing new in Vietnam. For instance, there were about 233,000 new Vietnamese Christians in 2010 and roughly 40% of these new Christians were converts.
Christianity is nearly as old in Vietnam as it is in America. Catholicism began to take root 400 years ago in the early 17th century when Jesuit missionary Alexander Rhodes and company arrived. Rhodes wrote the first Vietnamese Catechism and he published the first Portuguese-Latin-Vietnamese dictionary. This dictionary was later used widely by many Vietnamese scholars to create the new Vietnamese writing system - largely using the Roman alphabet - still used today. By 1802 there were 320,000 Vietnamese Catholics and 176 priests in three dioceses.
Vietnamese Catholicism was already 300 years old when Protestantism reached Vietnam in 1911. Today about 9% of Vietnam’s people are Christian (54% are syncretistic Buddhists and there is a growing number who claim no faith at all) but three quarters of those Christians are Catholic.
While Catholics are the historic Christian majority, Protestantism is the fastest growing faith by far, increasing by 600% over the past decade. More than half of Vietnamese Protestants belong to house churches. In 2009, one evangelical group held a public Christmas gathering of 40,000 in Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon).
Over the centuries, the links of many Catholic bishops and priests to France and the west meant that they often become involved in local conflicts where Vietnamese leaders tried to ally themselves with western powers. Tolerance of Catholicism could be easily replaced by persecution if the wrong local prince lost.
The links of the educated Catholic minority with the French and then the Americans (including Cardinal Francis Spellman) led directly to US involvement in the Vietnam war. 60% of Vietnamese Catholics in North Vietnam moved south during the 50's as a result of a US supported rumor campaign begun to strengthen the political base of devout Catholic president Diem. Di?m used slogans such as "Christ has gone south" and "the Virgin Mary had departed from the North" to convince northern Catholics to immigrate to the south.
It is no surprise then, that the Vietnamese diaspora community in the US, which fled the communist take-over of the south in 1975, has a much higher percentage of Christians (23%) than the community in Vietnam.
Or that Vietnamese are being ordained as US priests in remarkable numbers. From the US Catholic Bishops website comes this note about the ordination class of 2010.
“Notable is that while Asian/Pacific islanders constitute four percent of U.S. Catholics, they make up ten percent of ordinands who responded to the survey. Joseph Minh Nguyen of the Divine Word Missionaries in Chicago, escaped from Vietnam by boat and spent four years in a refugee camp in Indonesia, before becoming a Divine Word Missionary. Anthony Bui of the Diocese of San Bernardino, California, also escaped from Vietnam by boat to a refugee camp in Indonesia. Dominic Phan, a member of the Dominican order, was one of the boat people who left Vietnam in 1989 for a refugee camp in Malaysia.”