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Vatican Secretary of State Explains What a Papal Representative Is and What It Will Mean for the Pope to Have Such a Figure in Vietnam

The Holy See and Vietnam do not have diplomatic relations. It’s one of the few exceptions in the world of global diplomacy. However, after an Agreement between the two States, the Holy Father will soon have a permanent “Papal Representative” in Vietnam. The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, talked about this topic in particular and about relations with Vietnam in general, in an interview with the Vatican media on July 28.

The presence of a Papal Representative in Vietnam was announced in the context of a visit of the President of that country to the Pontiff on July 27. However, the Holy See’s new official Representative, in one of the few countries with which the Vatican doesn’t have diplomatic relations, opens a path. “I believe that the essential elements of that path can be translated in two expressions: one used by Pope John XXIII: ‘to know one another to be able to esteem [one another], and another that Pope Francis offers us: ‘to initiate processes and not occupy places.’ The opening of relations with the Vietnamese Authorities goes back to 1989, when Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, then President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, was able to undertake an official visit to Vietnam. In fact, John Paul II’s thought was to open ways of dialogue through the topics of justice and peace, characteristics of the teaching and daily witness of the Church,” revealed Cardinal Parolin. And, regarding these ways, he continued saying: “Thus the practice began of an annual visit of a Delegation of the Hoy See, dedicated in part to contacts with the Government and in part to meetings with the diocesan communities. Conversations began in 1996 to define the modus operandi in regard to the appointment of Bishops. I keep a magnificent memory of those visits, when I undertook them as Under-Secretary for Relations with States. The Vietnamese President, Nguyēn Minh Triēt came to the Vatican in December of 2009, to meet with Pope Benedict XVI. A Joint Vietnam-Holy See Working Group was established, which opened the way to the appointment of a no-resident Papal Representative based in Singapore, in the person of H.E. Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, on January 13, 2011.”

Regarding the constants that have guided the process of the writing of the Agreement between Vietnam and the Holy See, as well as the Joint Working Group, Cardinal Parolin said: “I believe it’s essential to point out that at the base of these study and work meetings there has always been mutual respect and the will to move forward, without concealing our own positions, but facing one another with sincerity about them and about its motivations. It must be pointed out that the Episcopal Conference was always involved in that process and offered its own reflections and assessments. Then we proceeded gradually, without looking immediately for the final result, but fostering a gradual harmonization of the principle of religious freedom with the local laws and customs, which over time, gave place to greater mutual understanding and convergence in the choices on the text, made from time to time, and geared to ensuring to the Resident Papal Representative the conditions to exercise his ministry of legation to the local Church and the Vietnamese Authorities, as well as maintaining relations with the Diplomatic Representations present in Vietnam.” The Vatican Secretary of State also said that “it was never forgotten to stress the importance of living the Gospel to be good citizens and good Catholics: it is a principle that has guided the Social Doctrine of the Church, even before its formulation in the 19th century, and that already indicated in the 2nd century A.D. how Christians manifest, in their way of living, that they are at the same time good citizens of Heaven and of earth. Finally, always present in the dialogue has been the life of the local Church and respect for freedom of belief and religion, so that an effort has been made to foster a profitable environment for the activities and the development of the Catholic Community. This attitude, on the Vietnamese side, was noted in the process of the appointment of Bishops, for which, over these years, no particular difficulties have arisen.”

Cardinal Parolin’s interview paused on the particular figure of the Resident Papal Representative, in regard to its meaning. In this connection, the Vatican Secretary of State said that “the time dedicated to the study and the debate has enabled us to find a consensual solution, which we could call a “res nova in iure.” In fact, the Permanent Papal Representative is called to foster communion between the Holy See and the local Church and to assist and support the latter in all its components, taking part in its celebrations and initiatives.” And highlighting the “political” aspects of the Representatives, the Cardinal answered: “In regard to the aspects that we could call civil, the Resident Papal Representative, as happens with Nuncios, has the task to strengthen friendly relations between the Holy See and the Government of Vietnam, and will be able to take part in the ordinary meetings of the Diplomatic Corps and in receptions, as well as holding personal meetings with Diplomats, always respecting the law of the country and in a spirit of mutual trust and of the good bilateral relations that have existed up to today. All this, as affirmed in the joint press release, with the objective that the Resident Papal Representative is able to be a ‘bridge’ to ultimately improve relations between Vietnam and the Holy See.”

Finally, in regard to the future of relations between Vietnam and the Holy See, Cardinal Parolin said: “There is an aspect of the Vietnamese people that has always caught my attention positively, perhaps because it’s something that I breathed as a child in my native land: humble industriousness. In my contacts, I’ve experienced a profound aptitude for work, not only manual, but understood as commitment to all that one does. Such a characteristic could generate presumption; the Vietnamese, on the contrary, always have a humble and respectful attitude, although proud, they are capable of adapting to any situation, as the bamboo plant does, which bends but doesn’t break. What’s the reason for this introduction? Because I believe that the future calls us to a path that we must continue following together, without the pretension or hurry to reach another goal, but with the willingness of one who wants to challenge himself to find the best. The Agreement does not only represent a goal, but a new  beginning, in the sign of mutual respect and mutual trust.”

It’s known that this figure of the Papal Representative is also the one the Church is betting on in its relations with another country, with which it does not have diplomatic relations either: China.