Thousands lined Hanoi’s streets today as the Roman Catholic Church ordained 57 new priests in Vietnam – the largest number of priests ever added to the communist country at one time.
Vatican envoy Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe presided over the three-hour ordination ceremony at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi, urging the new priests to spread their faith.
“Like Jesus Christ, you should preach among all people and wash their sins,” Sepe told a cheering crowd.
“Loving Jesus Christ must be known through priests’ teachings. Among 80 million Vietnamese, there are only 6 million Catholics.”
The cardinal is the first senior Vatican official allowed to ordain priests in Vietnam – a significant step that reflects thawing relations as the Vatican and Hanoi move toward establishing diplomatic ties.
“This is a very special event,” said Hanoi Dioceses spokesman Dang Duc Ngan. “Surely this is very strong step forward in relations between the Vatican and the government of Vietnam, who have seen their dialogue flourishing.”
Vietnam has south-east Asia’s second-largest number of Catholics, after the Philippines. Relations between Communist leaders and the Vatican have long been strained over Hanoi’s insistence on having the final say in most church appointments.
However, ties have steadily improved in recent years with high-level Vatican visits and the appointments of Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man in Ho Chi Minh City in 2003, and Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet as archbishop of Hanoi in March.
Pope Benedict XVI has made clear his intent to formalise Vatican ties with Asian countries that don’t have them, particularly China and Vietnam.
Catholics are a minority in the region, but the church sees growth opportunities.
“We would like you to extend to him our love, respect and obedience” to the pope, said Kiet, who joined Sepe on a huge stage in front of the church. “We wish to receive him in our homeland of Vietnam in the not-too-distant future.”
It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for Vietnam’s Catholics to see an appointed representative of the pope in their country.
Police cordoned off roads leading to the cathedral as crowds began packing the streets dawn. Some sat on the ground, while others clambered onto roofs and balconies.
Barefoot farmers stood shoulder-to-shoulder with velvet-clad women, peering to catch a glimpse of the ceremony.
“I’m so happy I couldn’t sleep last night, “ said Lai Thi Tu, 52, who left her home about 20 miles south of Hanoi at 4am to get a good view.
“All the people have wanted this. We want more ceremonies so we can have more priests to preach to us,” she said. “Right now, one priest is in charge of six parishes.”
The pageantry-filled ceremony began with a slow procession of white-robed deacons. The 57 priests later prostrated themselves facing Sepe, then knelt before the cardinal in a row as he walked along, placing both hands on their heads.
A roar went through the crowd at the end of the service, as they rose in unison, putting on their new robes and sashes.