The Catholic Church’s activities remain tightly restricted by communist authorities in Vietnam. Prominent priests are imprisoned, police surveillance of Church leaders is still commonplace and government claims to Church property are sometimes still the root of brutal conflicts.
Just last week an American diplomat was beaten by Vietnamese authorities for speaking with a priest restricted to house arrest for pro-democracy activism.
But the Pope and Vatican officials are accenting the positive.
Last week’s final celebrations to close a special jubilee year in the country drew an estimated 400,000 people.
The crowd, large by any standards, was a sign of the vitality of the faith in this officially atheist country, where Christians make up just 6 percent of the population.
The Vatican sent a delegation headed by Cardinal Ivan Dias, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, to the festivities held at the La Vang National Marian Shrine in central Vietnam.
The call from the papal envoy at the celebration of Vietnam's Jubilee Year for Catholics to be courageous in their evangelization is an invitation to keep the spirit of the year alive, said a Vietnamese priest who was at his side as part of the Vatican delegation.
The celebration began on Jan. 4. Vatican officials arrived at the shrine on the afternoon of the following day for an evening celebration marked by an offering of flowers to the Virgin Mary, speeches, singing and Eucharistic adoration.
The festivities reached their culmination in Mass at the shrine on Jan. 6, the solemnity of the Epiphany.
Hundreds of thousands of people who had been trickling in for days gathered to observe the close of the special year called to mark 350 years since the first establishment of Catholicism in Vietnam. In addition, the jubilee marked the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Catholic bishops' conference in the country.
Msgr. Barnaba Nguyen Van Phuong, head of affairs for the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, traveled back to his homeland as a part of the Vatican delegation.
For Vietnamese Catholics, Cardinal Dias' presence at the celebration in the Pope's name made them "extremely happy," especially because it was seen as a "paternal gesture" by Benedict XVI, Msgr. Nguyen told EWTN News, Jan. 10.
The Vietnamese bishops confirmed to him that 250,000 people received Communion at the Mass celebrated by the cardinal.
And, although Cardinal Dias was sent to "close" the celebrations, Msgr. Nguyen said the celebration was actually "one of opening."
At the Epiphany Mass, the cardinal called Vietnamese Catholics to be courageous in living their faith publicly, to bear witness to the many in their nation who do not know Christ.
He "projected the jubilee into the future also for evangelization," Msgr. Nguyen explained. "Cardinal Dias spoke about the missionary duty of every Christian, every Vietnamese faithful to evangelize in his nation to his fellow man."
Although they are a tiny minority in Vietnam, the papal envoy urged Catholics to take their faith into every sector of public life.
Msgr. Nguyen called it "a 'light' invitation for a strong commitment to evangelization in all senses, not just in number but also to transform society to improve the situation for the interest of the entire nation— for the prosperity and the happiness of all people."
The cardinal called them to live out their Christian faith "publicly and courageously in society in a normal way like every Christian ... as a means of evangelization," said Msgr. Nguyen.
"This sense of normality is a way to evangelize society," said the Msgr.
A "light" call to Vietnamese Catholics to live their faith normally in society takes on a special significance when one considers the difficult history of Christians in the nation. The Church estimates that well over 100,000 Christians have been martyred in Vietnam.
At Mass, Cardinal Dias also asked Vietnamese faithful not be afraid to live with the courage of the missionaries and martyrs who went before them.
Trials continue for the Church, but according to Msgr. Nguyen, Vietnamese Catholics do have the freedom to worship.
"Yes they can live, but certain activities they cannot do, for example the Church asks to collaborate further in education and social and charitable ventures, but," he said, "to live the Christian faith, to practice the faith, there is no difficulty, no problem."
Msgr. Nguyen expressed optimism that the celebrations may mark an opening in relations between Hanoi and Rome. Since 1990, he has participated in numerous Vatican delegations seeking to improve ties with the nation, which does not yet have full diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
Pope Benedict XVI also spoke recently about the possibilities for improved relations. In his annual address to diplomats Jan. 10, he stressed that true religious freedom means the freedom for the Church to govern its own affairs. “Religious freedom is not fully respected when only freedom of worship is guaranteed," he said.
However, the Pope also expressed “satisfaction” that Vietnamese authorities had agreed in June to accept a papal representative to what he called “the beloved Catholic community of that country.”