Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Sep 21, 2016 / 03:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- After 40 years, the first Catholic Church-operated university opened in Vietnam since the advent of communism in the country. "The institute aims to enhance theological knowledge and competence among all priests, religious and laypeople," Bishop Joseph Dinh Duc Dao, rector of the institute, said at the opening ceremony according to UCA News. There have not been Church-run schools in the country since 1975, when communist rule took over the country.

In 1954-1955, Vietnam was split between the North, which was ruled by communists, and the South, which had a Catholic president. For a 300-day period during that time, called Operation Passage to Freedom by the United States Navy, free movement was allowed between the (then) two countries.

During that period, hundreds of thousands of people fled North Vietnam to South Vietnam, including many Catholics who feared persecution under the communist rule of the north, and felt safe under the Catholic president in the south. However, after the fall of Saigon in the South at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the country was reunited under communist rule, and Catholics lost many of the freedoms they had sought, including control of or involvement in education.

In the 1990s, the government began to relax some of the restrictions. Some orders of nuns started running kindergartens and some wealthy individuals set up private, Catholic schools, but there were no upper level schools being run by the Church. The bishops of Vietnam have officially been pushing for a church-operated university since 2011, when they wrote a letter to government officials asking them to allow for Catholic schools.

"It is recommended that the government opens the door to the religious people of good will who aspire to be involved in school education, which is considered the key to open the path for a bright future in the country," the bishops said in their letter.

Then, in December 2015, Archbishop Paul Bui Van Doc of Ho Chi Minh City announced that he had received permission from the government to open the first Catholic University by the fall of 2016. "The relationship between the Vatican and the Vietnam government is becoming better and better, so we asked and they accepted," the archbishop said at the time.

While the first class size is fairly small - 23 students, mostly priests, all studying theology - the school is hoping to grow and diversify in the near future. "After that, in the future, maybe a lot," Archbishop Doc said. "It's possible a thousand or more than a thousand" students will eventually join the university.  

There are currently over 5 million Catholics in Vietnam, which makes up between 6-7 percent of the population. Vatican Insider reported that the school will offer bachelor's degrees, licenses and doctorates and will eventually offer courses in psychology, sciences, canon law, among others, and that the university's structure and statutes had also received approval from both the government and Vatican.

Bishop Dao told Vatican Insider in December that he considered it a work of mercy that the school would open during the Jubilee year. “It is a work of God, with our strengths we helped make it happen,” he said. “It is a work of mercy that we will carry out in the Holy Year with renewed gratitude towards God and with compassion: the service of education implies a deep attention to others.”