One Hundred Years of Vietnam - Vatican Relations: Three Issues Challenging the Diplomatic Process

The Holy See has been proactive in pushing for stronger ties, in contrast to Vietnam's hesitancy.

One Hundred Years of Vietnam - Vatican Relations: Three Issues Challenging the Diplomatic Process

On Dec. 23, 2023, the Vatican appointed Archbishop Marek Zalewski, a 60-year-old native of Poland who also serves as the nuncio to Singapore, as the resident papal representative in Vietnam.

This significant development follows an agreement reached in July during the visit of Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong to the Vatican. The appointment marks a milestone in the century-long evolution of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the Holy See, and the development of these relations picked up momentum more than a decade ago.

On April 18, 2011, Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli arrived at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi. Wearing a suit, a clerical collar, and a crucifix, he was warmly welcomed by a crowd of bishops, priests, and the faithful.

The atmosphere became lively as Girelli greeted the Catholic followers at the security gate. His arrival marked the first time since 1975 that the Vietnamese Catholic Church welcomed a non-resident representative of the Holy See into the country.

On Sept. 13, 2017, Girelli completed his tenure as the Vatican’s official representative in Vietnam. This position remained vacant until May 21, 2018, when Pope Francis appointed Polish Archbishop Marek Zalewski as his replacement, a position Zalewski holds until December 2023.

On July 25, 2023, President Vo Van Thuong took an official trip to Italy and the Holy See. In a short meeting with Pope Francis, the two sides agreed to pass the Agreement on Regulations on Operation of the Resident Papal Representative and the Office of the Resident Representative of the Holy See in Vietnam.

This event marked a pivotal shift in Vietnam-Vatican relations and was one of the few positive interactions between the two sides since the end of the Vietnam War.

It has been a long journey, with agreements spanning more than 10 rounds of negotiations over the course of 13 years between the Viet Nam – Holy See Joint Working Group. Three key issues marked the diplomatic process between Vietnam and the Vatican throughout this period.

1.The Absence of a Formally Established Relationship

Throughout French colonial rule, the era of the Republic of Vietnam, and the current socialist regime, the most significant interaction between the Vatican and Vietnam has been the presence of an Apostolic Delegate – a representative of the Holy See – in the country. Despite being ranked fifth in terms of its Catholic population in Asia, Vietnam never established diplomatic ties with the Vatican. [1] 

In 1922, King Khai Dinh and Prince Vinh Thuy traveled to France on the Porthos, Messageries Maritimes, marking the first foreign diplomatic mission of a Nguyen dynasty king. They were accompanied by Minister of the Personnel Nguyen Huu Bai, a Confucian scholar and a devout Catholic. [2]

While King Khai Dinh was still in France, Nguyen Huu Bai went to Rome to meet Pope Pius XI. He requested the Holy See appoint an Apostolic Delegate to Vietnam and consecrate native priests as bishops. This event marked the first step in the diplomatic process between the two countries. [3]
Minister of the Personnel Nguyen Huu Bai stands second from the left.

A year later, Pope Pius XI appointed Bishop Henry Lécroat (Luu Khanh Minh) of the Society of Jesus to inspect the dioceses in Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina. During his time in Vietnam, he met with officials of the Hue court and reached agreements on the duties of the Apostolic Delegate.

On May 20, 1925, Pope Pius XI appointed Archbishop Constantin Ayuti as the first Apostolic Delegate to Vietnam and established the Apostolic Delegation of Indochina in Hue. [4]

In 1945, when King Bao Dai abdicated, Hue was no longer the capital of Vietnam. Following the proposal of Apostolic Delegate John Dooley at the time, the Holy See moved the Apostolic Delegation from Hue to Hanoi in 1950.

After signing the Geneva Accords, Vietnam was divided into two states. Many Catholics left their homeland in the north to live in South Vietnam, contributing to the rapid development of dioceses such as Xuan Loc and Ba Ria.

Despite witnessing the departure of many believers and clergy, John Dooley decided to remain at the Apostolic Delegation in Hanoi.

In 1959, the Communist government in the north enacted strict measures against Catholicism and ordered foreign priests to leave the country. [5]

That same year, despite being seriously ill, John Dooley was moved to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, by the Hanoi government. In his absence, a Catholic priest named Terence O'Driscoll temporarily assumed the position of acting Apostolic Delegate while awaiting orders from the Holy See. [6]

However, on Aug. 17, 1959, the Communist government expelled him and seized the Apostolic Delegation. [7] From this point, the Communist government in the north officially severed all diplomatic relations with the Vatican.
The Hanoi Apostolic Delegation is known today as the Hang Trong Flower Garden. Photo: Hoanghatruonggiang/Wikipedia.

In the south, on Feb. 15, 1956, the Holy See appointed Bishop Giuseppe Caprio as an Apostolic Visitor to the Republic of Vietnam. Within a year, the Vatican promoted him to the rank of Apostolic Regent in Saigon.

After North Vietnam expelled Terence O'Driscoll, the Holy See raised the Apostolic Regent to the rank of Apostolic Delegate in Saigon. The Vatican also changed the position of the Apostolic Delegate in Indochina to the Apostolic Delegate in Vietnam on June 17, 1964.

This continued until Aug. 1975, when the new government requested the Apostolic Delegate leave Saigon, ending the presence of Papal Representatives in the country. [8] However, the diplomatic relations between the Republic of Vietnam and the Vatican stagnated at the Apostolic Delegation level.  

2.Vietnam’s Hesitance in Advancing Diplomatic Ties 

From 1989 to 2011, the Holy See sent 17 delegations to Vietnam to discuss cooperation, aiming to move towards establishing bilateral diplomatic relations. [9]

One of these visits in 2004 marked the initial development of relations between the two countries when the Vatican's Undersecretary of State for Relations with States, Monsignor Pietro Parolin, led a delegation representing the Holy See on an official trip to Vietnam. [10]

A year later, a high-level delegation from Vietnam, led by Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan, held talks with Vatican officials in Rome. The focus of the meeting was the relationship between Vietnam and the Holy See. This resulted in the Vatican's desire to normalize its diplomatic ties with Vietnam. [11]

On January 25, 2007, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited the Vatican and met with Pope Benedict XVI. This event was the first time the head of the Vietnamese government visited the Holy See. [12]

Less than four years later, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli as the first non-resident papal representative of the Holy See in Vietnam. Since then, the relationship between the two countries began to thrive.

Furthermore, this business trip by Prime Minister Dung initiated a series of visits by other high-ranking officials such as President Nguyen Minh Triet (December 2009), General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (January 2013), Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung (his second visit in October 2014), State President Tran Dai Quang (November 2016), National Assembly Chairman Nguyen Sinh Hung (March 2014), Permanent Deputy Prime Minister Truong Hoa Binh (October 2018), and most recently State President Vo Van Thuong (July 2023).
Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Pope Benedict XVI in 2007. Photo: BBC.

Before these state trips by high-ranking Vietnamese officials, the late Pope Benedict XVI expressed his desire to normalize relations with Vietnam. [13]

In Vietnam, Cardinal Pham Minh Man, while serving as the Archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City, also affirmed that the Holy See is always ready to establish diplomatic relations with Vietnam. However, he also stated that critical issues lie on the side of the Vietnamese government. [14]

On April 22, 2022, in a meeting with Permanent Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh, Monsignor Miroslaw Wachowski - the Vatican's Undersecretary of State for Relations with States - affirmed that Pope Francis always desires improvement in the relationship between Vietnam and the Holy See. [15]

This indicates the Vatican has always sought ways to normalize diplomatic relations with Vietnam. However, the Vietnamese government has remained hesitant to pursue further improvements and developments with the Holy See. 

On July 27, 2023, President Vo Van Thuong was welcomed by cardinals, bishops, Holy See staff, and Swiss Guards during his trip to the Vatican.

This event marked his first meeting with Pope Francis and the Vatican's secretary of state - Cardinal Pietro Parolin - in his capacity as the head of state. During their meeting, both parties approved the Agreement on Regulations on Operation of the Resident Papal Representative and the Office of the Resident Representative of the Holy See in Vietnam.

After 10 rounds of negotiations initiated by the Viet Nam – Holy See Joint Working Group since 2009, this agreement includes establishing Vietnam's representative office and a permanent papal representative from the Vatican, signifying the first time such arrangements have been made since 1975.

3.Vietnam’s Interference in the Appointment of Ecclesiastical Personnel

After the government of the Republic of Vietnam fell on April 30, 1975, ringing church bells were gradually drowned out by loudspeakers proclaiming, “Eternal glory to the Communist Party of Vietnam…” The Communist victory led to the desertion of churches and temples, devoid of their once vibrant congregations and religious activities.

On Nov. 11, 1977, the Council of Government issued Resolution No. 297/CP, nearly three pages filled with prohibitions and limitations on religious activities. [16] This document indirectly led to the separation and isolation of Catholics from the national community.
Resolution No. 297/CP was issued on November 11, 1977.

In particular, priests were prohibited from preaching outside church grounds. Likewise, the government had to approve new priests and assistants to the clergy.

Large religious gatherings also required government approval; even the annual meetings of Catholic clergy were not exempt.

Moreover, Resolution No. 297/CP gave the government the power and authority to seize land, cultural institutions, healthcare facilities, religious educational institutions, and even churches without resident priests (point b, clause 2).

It also explicitly states that the ordination of seminarians and the consecration of bishops must be approved by the government beforehand (point b, clause 3).

On March 21, 1991, the Council of Ministers issued Decree No. 59-HĐBT, regulating religious activities. The decree further outlined the appointment of personnel for religions. Specifically, for Catholicism, when the Vatican appoints cardinals, bishops, and apostolic administrators, the approval of the Council of Ministers is required. [17]

A report on religious freedom in Vietnam, posted on the website of the Vietnamese Embassy in the United States in 2017, stated: “The Vietnamese government and the Vatican have a 3-point concordat: no insulting or speaking ill of each other; not supporting any third party to oppose the other; when the Vatican wants to appoint positions of bishop, administrator bishop, or higher, it must consult the Vietnamese government, and only when agreed upon will the Vatican make a decision.” [18]

Most recently, on Nov. 18, 2016, the Vietnamese government enacted the Law on Belief and Religion - Law No. 02/2016/QH14 - and continued to adhere to the principle of “The Vatican appoints, the government approves” (Clause 3, Article 51); in other words, the Vatican has the right to choose personnel, but the Vietnamese government has the authority to grant final approval.

A notable case where the Vietnamese government obstructed the Vatican's selection was that of Bishop Huynh Van Nghi and Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan.

On Jan. 14, 1992, Monsignor Claudio Celli led a delegation from the Vatican to Hanoi to work with the Vietnamese government. During the meeting, the Holy See proposed the appointment of Huynh Van Nghi as coadjutor bishop, with the right of succession, in the Archdiocese of Ho Chi Minh City. However, the government denied this proposal. [19]

The following year, Nguyen Van Binh, then archbishop of the Ho Chi Minh City Archdiocese, suddenly fell ill, preventing him from fulfilling his duties. Shortly after, the Vatican unilaterally appointed Huynh Van Nghi as the Apostolic Administrator of the Ho Chi Minh City Archdiocese without notifying the Vietnamese government.

In response to this incident, on Sept. 15, 1993, the government issued a full-text objection broadcast on Ho Chi Minh City Television [20].

The following day, on Sept. 16, 1993, the announcement was published in the Sài Gòn Giải Phóng Newspaper, issue 5814, along with an editorial under the title “Tự do tín ngưỡng không thể trái pháp luật” (Religious freedom cannot violate the law). [21]

By Sept. 22, 1993, Truong Tan Sang, then chairman of the People's Committee of Ho Chi Minh City, sent a letter to Nguyen Van Binh, who was hospitalized at the time, opposing Huynh Van Nghi’s appointment. [22]

Despite the government's objection, Huynh Van Nghi continued to carry out the duties of the Apostolic Administrator with limitations.

Only in a dialogue in early 1998 did the government agree with the Vatican's decision, formally appointing Pham Minh Man, who then served as the coadjutor bishop in My Tho and as the archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City. This began a new phase in the relationship between the Vatican and the Vietnamese government, ending a crisis that lasted more than 20 years. [23]

In addition, it is impossible not to mention the painful case of Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, the only bishop in Vietnam, to be extrajudicially imprisoned without a trial for 13 years, with 9 years in solitary confinement.

Six days before the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, then the bishop of Nha Trang Diocese, was appointed as the coadjutor bishop of the Archdiocese of Saigon by Pope Paul VI, with the right of succession to Archbishop Nguyen Van Binh. [24]
Then Bishop Nguyen Van Thuan while in prison. Photo: BBC.

However, due to the fall of Saigon, it was not until May 7, 1975, that he took office. [25]

Upon arriving in Saigon, the new government alleged that Bishop Thuan’s appointment was a conspiracy between the Vatican and imperialist forces; he rejected these accusations. [26]

On Aug. 15, 1975, Bishop Thuan received a summons to appear at Independence Palace, not expecting that these were his last moments of freedom in his homeland.

Upon entering a room in the building, he was immediately pushed into a military vehicle and taken to Cay Vong Village, less than 10 kilometers from the Nha Trang Diocese. When the government detained Bishop Thuan, he only wore a religious cassock and carried a rosary. [27]

After 13 years of imprisonment in various prisons in the south and remote northern mountainous areas, the government finally released him on Nov. 21, 1988.

By 1991, the government allowed him to go to Rome for medical treatment but did not allow him to return.

The following year, in a meeting with the Vietnamese government, the Vatican delegation led by Monsignor Claudio Celli proposed the appointment of Nguyen Van Thuan as the coadjutor bishop of the Archdiocese of Hanoi, but the government immediately rejected the proposal. The government only accepted the assignment of Bishop Pham Dinh Tung, who was then serving as the apostolic administrator, to become the archbishop of Hanoi. [28] Many Vietnamese people believe that Vietnam opposed Cardinal Thuan because he was the nephew of President Ngo Dinh Diem.

Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan stayed in Rome and was appointed by Pope John Paul II as deputy chairman and then chairman of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace until he passed away in 2002.


After more than 100 years since Minister of the Personnel Nguyen Huu Bai visited the Vatican, diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the Vatican have only reached the level of the Apostolic Delegation.

The historical milestone of 1975 completely severed diplomatic relations between the two sides. It took nearly 50 years for them to sign an agreement on the resident representative of the Holy See in Vietnam.

This achievement sets the stage for the improvement of Vietnam-Vatican relations. Many Catholics in Vietnam believe that these relations will continue to normalize and improve. They envision a future where the apostolic nuncio, a permanent diplomatic representative of the Holy See, will be assigned to the country, indicating a stronger bond between the Vatican and their homeland.

Thien Truong wrote this article in Vietnamese, which was published in Luat Khoa Magazine on August 10, 2023. Lee Nguyen translated the article into English.


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4. Tài liệu cơ bản quan hệ Việt Nam – Vatican. (2016, May 6). Vụ Thông Tin Báo Chí - Bộ Ngoại Giao.

5. See [3]

6. See [3]

7. Tăng áp lực trong vụ Tòa Khâm sứ. (2008, January 6). BBC.

8. Tài liệu cơ bản quan hệ Việt Nam – Vatican. (2016, May 6). Vụ Thông Tin Báo Chí - Bộ Ngoại Giao.

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10. Thủ tướng Việt Nam thăm Vatican. (2007, January 11). BBC.

11. See [10]

12. Thủ tướng Nguyễn Tấn Dũng hội kiến với Giáo hoàng Benedict XVI. (2007, January 25). Báo Thanh niên.

13. See [10].

14. Quan hệ Việt Nam - Vatican đi về đâu?. (2014, October 18). BBC.

15. Thúc đẩy quan hệ giữa Việt Nam và Tòa Thánh Vatican. (2022, April 22). Báo điện tử Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam.

16. Nghị quyết về một chính sách tôn giáo. (1977, November 11). Hội đồng Chính phủ.

17. Quy định về các hoạt động tôn giáo. (1991, March 21). Hội đồng Bộ trưởng.

18. Tự do tôn giáo ở Việt Nam. (2002, October 29). Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in the United States of America.

19. Trương Bá Cần. (1996). Công giáo Việt Nam sau quá trình 50 năm (1945 - 1995). Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh: Công giáo và dân tộc. Tr 131.

20. See [19]. Tr 134.

21. Chân Tín. (2011, September 21). Ủy ban Đoàn kết Công giáo: Tập đoàn của âm mưu và tội ác – Phần 3.

22. Nguyễn Văn Lục. (2022, February 6). TGM Nguyễn Văn Thuận, nguyên nhân 13 năm lưu đầy khổ nhục (II). Truyền thông giáo huấn xã hội Công giáo.

23. Kết quả chuyến viếng thăm Việt Nam của Phái Ðoàn Tòa Thánh cuối tháng 2/1998. (1998). Truyền giáo Việt Nam tại Á Châu.

24. Giáo hội Công giáo VN sau biến cố 30/4. (2015, April 19). BBC.

25. Cuộc đời và sự nghiệp vị Tôi Tớ Chúa ĐHY Phanxicô Xaviê Nguyễn Văn Thuận (1928-2002). (2012, January 14). Tổng Giáo phận Huế.

26. ĐHY Phanxicô Xaviê Nguyễn Văn Thuận. (2009, September 20). Liên đoàn Công giáo Việt Nam tại Hoa Kỳ.

27. Luisa Melo và Waldery Hilgeman. (2016). Đức Hồng y Phanxico Xavie Nguyễn Văn Thuận – Con người của hy vọng yêu thương và niềm vui. Hội đồng Giáo hoàng về Công lý và Hoà bình. Tr 18.

28. See [19]

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