At a special ceremony on Saturday, Pope Francis briefly met with clergy and officials who, over the past two years, have been involved in the diocesan phase of the beatification process of Vietnamese Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan.
Cardinal Van Thuan spent 13 years in prison, nine of them in solitary confinement in Hanoi, following his appointment as coadjutor archbishop of Saigon just seven days before South Vietnam fell to the Communist North in 1975.
He was released in 1988 and Pope John Paul II called him to Rome, where he eventually became president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace until his death in 2002.
During the ceremony on Saturday, Pope Francis shared his “joy” over the progress of Van Thuan's rise to the altars – his case will now be taken up by the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints – and said his “reputation for sainthood” had spread thanks to the witness of the many people who had known him personally.
Many priests and lay Catholics who emigrated from Vietnam to Europe, the Americas and Australia, were among the 500 people who attended the ceremony in Rome, the culmination of a three-day long series of Van Thuan-themed events hosted by the Vatican.
But in a brief speech, as reported by the Vatican press office, the Argentine pontiff didn't mention the word “Vietnam” once.
Francis only praised Van Thuan as a “son of the East.”
This signaled that Van Thuan's beatification process is now entering its most delicate phase, where the fragile diplomatic equilibrium between the Holy See and Vietnam will matter as much as his “heroic virtues” as a Christian and his alleged miracles.
Vietnam and the Vatican have been engaged for years in a cautious rapprochement, which led to a breakthrough with the establishing of diplomatic relations through the Vatican's representative in Singapore, Monsignor Leopoldo Girelli.
But in their most recent bilateral meeting, the Vatican turned up the pressure to take relations to the next stage, by explicitly asking for the establishment “as soon as possible” of a more formal and permanent Vatican diplomatic presence in the country.
This comes as reports of religious freedom violations and harassment of priests and Catholic communities in Vietnam multiply.
Ho Chi Minh City's cardinal warned in a recent interview with ucanews.com not to fully trust the government's words, as its policies on religion “make people feel threatened, doubtful and dissatisfied.”
Thrown into this mix, raising the profile of Cardinal Van Thuan – a political prisoner as well as nephew of South Vietnam's first president, Ngo Dinh Diem – could prove explosive.
While he is well known to older Vietnamese, younger generations know very little about him, thanks to his long imprisonment and exile.
Van Thuan's message of non-violence and reconciliation, as well as his unapologetic defense of his faith, could now prove embarrassing for the government.
Around 65 percent of the 90 million people in Vietnam are under 35, while there are an estimated 7 million Catholics in the country.
But this could change as the beatification process proceeds, according to Father Joachim Hien, an American-Vietnamese priest who works as a liaison between Vietnam's Catholics and the United States’ bishops' conference.
Van Thuan's story, he told ucanews.com, “will be very interesting, especially for young people in Vietnam who are looking for some hope in the future.”
“As a young bishop who brought a message of hope to Vietnam during a time of war, many young people today who start to learn about him can find some hope for their own future, no matter who they are and what religion they belong to."
As more and more young Vietnamese travel and study abroad, they will have better access to information about the late cardinal and “will bring that message home,” he believes.
How Vietnam’s government will react to this is all but certain.
“Still today, unfortunately, [Van Thuan's] writings do not circulate freely,” Father Paul Phan Van Hien, a Vietnamese priest, told the Vatican news agency Fides.
“The government still holds a certain mistrust of this hero of faith. But even non-Catholics ask for his works, which are spread by word of mouth or in person. The government probably fears being 'overshadowed' by the light that emanates from the cardinal.”
According to Joachim Hien, the American-Vietnamese priest, Vietnam's Communist government shouldn't be afraid of Van Thuan.
“I hope they will know him as a man of faith and a man of deep love for Vietnam. He had a strong faith in God and strong faith in the future of Vietnam as a nation,” he said.
In fact, he suggests, the party’s leaders should follow Van Thuan's example “for their own personal growth, and that of their people.”
This is part of the positive engagement the Church is seeking with Vietnam's government.
Vietnam is currently engaged in the revision of its constitution and the Catholic Church has submitted its own proposals. Among them, it has challenged the assumption that the Communist Party is the “guiding force of the state and of society,” and that Marxism-Leninism is its ideological foundation.
“The Church wants to make [the constitution] better. It is challenging the government to take a courageous step, for all the Vietnamese people. The leadership of Vietnam should not be afraid of progress,” Joachim Hien said.