Imagine a county in which half its people lived through and enacted the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the other half never heard the council had been held. Imagine again two sets of bishops, one formed by colonial France and the other shaped under the auspices of an archbishop - his name was Nguyen Ban Binh – who passionately believed in the renewal spawned by Vatican II.
Of course, that country was Vietnam and Vietnam today still feels the effects of the split into north and south that was the political divide in the fifties, sixties and on until 1975 when the North conquered the South.
I spent more than five years living in Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s, first as a volunteer working with war refugees, and later and a correspondent for The New York Times, Time magazine and, most importantly, the National Catholic Reporter.
I am now back in Vietnam and for the next several days will be interviewing Catholics here.
On our first excursion my wife and I drifted up to the Notre Dame cathedral, which rests up a small incline near the center of the city, and draws worshippers and tourists throughout the day. Built in the late 19th century, its stones were imported from France. Vietnam at that time, of course, was part of the French colonial empire.
Today Vietnam and the Vatican have no official diplomatic relations, but both sides have been warming to each other slowly in recent years. Rome knows it cannot fully have its own way in communist-led Vietnam (For example, the Catholic church cannot run schools or hospitals and the government limits the number of priestly ordinations.) and the Hanoi government knows that Catholics are not going away any time soon.
In fact, a number of Catholics are involved in social work that government officials consider to be quite beneficial to the society.
But more on that later.