By Father Hao Dinh
Church bells across the Archdiocese of Saigon began to toll on March 15, when the flight with the casket of the late Archbishop Paul Bùi Văn Đọc landed at the airport around 7:15 p.m. It was a long-awaited flight from Rome with a stop-over in Dubai. The Vietnamese prelate had passed away unexpectedly in Rome on March 6 at the age of 73.
It was a shock to his Archdiocese and also the faithful in Vietnam. It was even more shocking to his 32 brother bishops, who were together in an ad limina visitation. Just a few hours earlier they had joined him, the main celebrant, at a Mass in a church named after his patron, the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. It was likewise incredible to Pope Francis, who just met him and other bishops the previous day.
After days of anxious waiting and praying, long lines of mourners flocked to Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica to pay their respects with a deep bow and traditional incense ritual. Many wore a white headband, a sign of mourning usually reserved for the family and relatives of the deceased. Others, including some local French and Korean Catholics, wore a piece of white cloth on their shoulders.
Nearly 12,000 mourners gathered on March 17 at his funeral on the grounds of the Pastoral Center, adjacent to Saint Joseph’s Seminary. Archbishop Joseph Nguyễn Chí Linh of Huế, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Vietnam, was the presider. In his homily, Cardinal Pierre Nguyễn Văn Nhơn, Archbishop of Hà Nội, spoke of the late archbishop as a person who, influenced by Vatican II and Paul VI’s encyclical Ecclesiam suam, chose “conversation and salvation” as part of his mission and ministry.
As reported years ago by the Catholic News Agency, in a 2012 address to the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference (FABC), then-Bishop of Mỹ Tho, Paul Bùi Văn Đọc “proposed a fostering of dialogue between the Church and the atheistic doctrine espoused by Hanoi, emphasizing a distinction between the trend of secularization in the West with what happened in the East, so as to find a new way to evangelize.”
Later that same year, he “issued a series of guidelines for the Church’s pastoral program in Vietnam, stressing that the Church should be “of and for the poor” and “of and for everyone,” so as to fulfil the name ‘Catholic’ and to proclaim the Gospel and contribute to society.”
It resonated well with the FABC, which for decades, has embraced an Asian ecclesiology or “new way of doing church,” rooted in six predominant propositions, among them is a threefold dialogue with Asian cultures, religions and the poor.
Archbishop Bùi Văn Đọc was born on November 11, 1944 in Đà Lạt, a small city in the Central Highlands. He was ordained a priest for Đà Lạt in 1970, became Bishop of Mỹ Tho in 1999, then Archbishop of Saigon in 2014, a few months after being appointed coadjutor in this metropolis of nearly eight million people.
In an interview with Agenzia Fides, Bishop Joseph Đinh Đức Đạo of Xuân Lộc said of the late archbishop, “We were students together at the Urbano College (in Rome). He was a man, a priest whose heart was always filled with the joy of the Lord. His episcopal motto was “Ad Deum lætitiæ meæ” (To God my joy), the emphasis was put on the joy that every baptized person finds in Christ. His will and his mission was to bring everyone the joy of the Gospel and to lead the people of God entrusted to him to live the joy of the Lord.”