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French Missionaries ‘Sow Good Seeds’ in Vietnam

Father Jean Baptiste Etcharren (in yellow) and Father Gilles Reithinger (in red) with Archbishop Joseph Nguyen Chi Linh and Emeritus Archbishop Francis Xavier Le Van Hong at the meeting in Hue on April 18. (Photo by Peter Nguyen)

Church leaders in Vietnam paid tribute to a French religious society for helping hundreds of local clergy over the past 25 years.

Archbishop Joseph Nguyen Chi Linh of Hue, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Vietnam, said the Missions Etrangeres de Paris (MEP) (Society of Foreign Missions of Paris) had sponsored 169 Vietnamese priests and 14 nuns to study theology, philosophy, canon law and social sciences at the Institut Catholique de Paris (Catholic University of Paris) since 1993 after the communist government relaxed its grip on religion.

Archbishop Linh, who gained a PhD in philosophy at the university in 2003, said 16 graduates had become bishops and archbishops while others taught at seminaries and leading congregations and had taken important positions in the local church.

“The local church has these amazing achievements thanks to the MEP’s efforts to sow good seeds on the evangelization fields in Vietnam,” said Archbishop Linh, adding that the society meets the urgent needs to produce well-educated clergy to develop the local church.

The 68-year-old prelate, who became an honorary member of the MEP on Feb. 28, spoke at a meeting at the Pastoral Center in Hue city on April 18-19.

MEP Superior General Father Gilles Reithinger, his predecessor Father Jean Baptiste Etcharren and other MEP members were among 140 bishops, priests and other clergy at the meeting.

Archbishop Linh said the event was an opportunity for the local church to show deep gratitude to the MEP and for scholarship receivers to strengthen relationships.

Bishop Joseph Vu Van Thien of Hai Phong, who finished theological studies at the Paris university in 2000, said all students were grateful for their opportunities to study and mature into faith to serve the local church.

“It is important that all students have learned lessons on commitment to service, the spirit of evangelization and reaching out to people from MEP missionaries and professors from the university,” he said.

Bishop Thien, head of the Episcopal Commission for Youth, praised MEP missionaries, especially Father Etcharren, for spending their lives serving the church in Vietnam and treating Vietnamese like their relatives in difficult times.

Father Etcharren said 82 MEP missionaries including him were forced to leave southern Vietnam shortly after communist forces reunited the country in April 1975. He had worked with Catholics and people of other faiths in central provinces from 1959 to 1975 when fierce fighting took place between U.S.-backed southern Vietnamese troops and communist forces in these areas.

The French priest, who speaks good Vietnamese with a Hue accent, said: “I love and see Vietnam as my fatherland.” The 86-year-old missionary managed to visit Hue Archdiocese in 1994 and has lived there since 2010.

During the meeting, participants celebrated a special Mass to mark the 60th anniversary of Father Etcharren’s ordination at Phu Cam Cathedral. About 500 people attended the ceremony.

Participants also visited Buddhist and Catholic sites including the tomb of French priest Leopold Cadiere, an MEP missionary who was an expert on Vietnamese culture and folklore. They also watched a cultural performance by Lovers of the Holy Cross nuns.
The MEP was formed in 1658 to bring Catholicism to Asia. Its founders were Fathers Francois Pallu and Lambert de la Motte, whom Pope Alexander VII appointed apostolic vicars for Vietnam’s first two vicariates, Dang Ngoai (Tonkin) and Dang Trong (Cochin China), in 1659.

Thousands of its members were assigned to form local clergy, provide pastoral care for Catholics and bring Catholicism to other people.

Many members suffered severe religious persecution by Vietnamese authorities during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Two bishops and eight priests from the MEP were among 117 Vietnamese martyrs canonized by Saint Pope John Paul II on June 19, 1988.