In his light-blue shirt, black slacks and gray leather sandals, Pham Minh Man looks like many other prosperous Vietnamese on a late Sunday afternoon, except for the clerical collar. In a surprise move last September, Pope John Paul II elevated Pham, archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City, to cardinal--the first cardinal from the country's south. Kicking off his sandals, Cardinal Pham sat back with NEWSWEEK's Kenneth L. Woodward to talk about the challenges of the church under one of the world's few remaining communist governments.
WOODWARD: I understand the central government in Hanoi was puzzled when the pope named you the new cardinal of Vietnam.
PHAM: My three predecessors were all from Hanoi, and at first the government thought the pope had given me new authority here. I told them only the color of my robes had changed, that I have no new responsibilities as archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City. I did not mention that as a cardinal, I have new responsibilities to Rome. They accepted my elevation as an honor for Vietnam.
What controls does the government exercise over the Roman Catholic Church?
Until this year, for example, I could not invite another bishop to stay with me at my house. Now I can, if I inform the government first. Students still cannot enter a seminary without government permission. For my own seminary we get about 25 applicants a year. And every year the government rejects about five just to demonstrate its control. Still, in this diocese now we have about 250 seminarians. And we can send priests to study in the United States, Europe and Asia. I tell them we want the intellectualism of Europe, the practicality of the United States--and the heart of Asia.
Are you permitted to operate Catholic schools?
No. Private corporations can set up schools and colleges, but religious organizations cannot. In 1975 the government took away our minor seminary for high-school-age students, but last year I asked that it be returned, and it was. I have told government officials that the church has responsibilities to society. For example, we should help care for the sick. The government cannot do it alone. We have almost 200 Catholic doctors and enough Catholic businessmen to build a private hospital in this city, and overseas Vietnamese also want to contribute. But we would need the law changed by the National Assembly, which means the Communist Party.
The Vietnamese appear to be very religious. They visit temples at all hours of the day.
There are 3,000 pagodas in this city, and we have only 250 churches. About 7 to 8 percent of the Vietnamese people are Catholic, the rest mostly Buddhist. Vietnamese are very traditional, but the basic tradition is the cult of ancestors. Even Communists have altars to ancestors in their homes.
Evangelical Christians tell me it is hard to give up the cult of ancestors. Is it hard for Vietnamese Catholics?
We encourage the cult. After Vatican Council II, the bishops of Vietnam issued a pastoral letter telling Catholics to continue the practice. After all, God is the highest ancestor.
Given this emphasis on family, is it difficult to recruit men to a celibate priesthood?
There are many Buddhists in this society, and their monks and nuns are celibate. This helps us keep our own celibate priesthood. Celibacy is not a problem when you have religious families. When you have many religious families you have a religious society.
What makes Asian Catholicism different from Western Catholicism?
Culture. Especially the idea of harmony between the heavens and the earth, and harmony among the people. Vietnam is an agricultural society, and we believe that there should be harmony with creation and between people.
Where does Christianity fit in?
Christ harmonizes heaven and earth and brings peace among people. Here we do not stress original sin but the Christ who came so we can have a more abundant life. That's the Good News. When people here become Catholic they tell me they have not converted, but completed what they believed before.
What is your biggest challenge?
To get to know the other cardinals, because one of them will be the next pope.
Do you think Pope John Paul II will ever visit Vietnam?
I spoke to him about this in 2002. He asked if the people of Vietnam would welcome him. I said yes. But he wondered if the Communist government would also welcome him. I said I thought so. But he said, "China first." So I don't think we will see him here.
Is there a chance that the next pope will come from Asia?
Maybe. What I think we need is a John Paul III.