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Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, Apostle of Hope

He learned hope in a dark prison cell.

By: Bob French

Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, Apostle of Hope: He learned hope in a dark prison cell. by Bob French

The Communist interrogator couldn’t stand it any longer. “Admit it!” he shouted to the priest, “You’re part of a Vatican plot! You’re nothing more than an Imperialist lackey!” But the newly appointed archbishop of Saigon, Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, answered quietly and directly, “No. I will not admit anything of the kind.”

Thuan was placed under immediate arrest. The date was August 15, 1975, the Feast of the Assumption. For the next thirteen years, he would be imprisoned and would undergo terrible suffering in body, mind, and spirit. But God would use that ordeal to transform Thuan into an apostle of hope, a man whose life proclaimed the triumph of the gospel of Christ over the despair and confusion of atheism and materialism.

Preparing for Suffering. Clearly, God had been preparing Thuan for this calling. Growing up in the Vietnamese city of Hue in the 1930s, he learned the value of sacrifice from his family. All were devout Catholics who had persevered in their faith despite intense persecution. They also believed that serving their country was a duty. Many of the men were prominent leaders who would play an important role in the future of Vietnam—including his mentor, Uncle Diem, who became the country’s first prime minister.

For his part, Thuan decided to serve others by becoming a priest. He entered the seminary when he was only thirteen and was deeply inspired by the holiness of the priests who taught him there. Reading the lives of saints like Thérèse of Lisieux, John Vianney, and Francis Xavier also fueled his growing desire to become like Christ.

During these formative years, Thuan grappled with the reality of suffering and death on more than one occasion. In 1945, while he was still in the seminary, the Communists executed his uncle Khoi and Khoi’s son. Soon after his ordination in 1953, Thuan himself came close to death when he contracted tuberculosis; his parents prayed for him constantly, and he was miraculously cured. Then in 1963, after the Communists had taken Vietnam from the French, Thuan was struck a much harder blow when his maternal uncles Diem and Can were both assassinated by the Viet Cong.

It was a great struggle for Thuan to forgive his uncles’ killers. What helped him, he later said, was the example of his mother, whose courageous faith gave her the strength to accept these tragedies. Before Diem’s assassination, she told Thuan, “It is in God’s hands. We should pray for his safety, but we must also be ready to accept God’s will.” Her tranquility was a tremendous witness.

Thuan was also deeply devoted to another mother—the Virgin Mary. While studying in Rome in 1957, he took a trip to Lourdes, France. There he reflected on Mary’s words to St. Bernadette: “I do not promise you joys and consolations on this earth, but rather trials and sufferings.” Thuan sensed that these words were meant for him. He replied with a prayer: “For your son’s name and yours, Mary, I accept trials and sufferings.”

And so, when he was arrested on the Feast of the Assumption, 1975, Thuan knew that he was in God’s hands.

Decision to Love. Nevertheless, Thuan was very distressed. “My heart is torn to pieces for having been taken away from my people,” he wrote the next day. He had served them for more than two decades. For the last eight years, as bishop of Nha Trang province, he had labored to strengthen parishes and ministries, build new seminaries, and ordain new priests. He had headed a huge relief effort for four million refugees displaced by over a quarter century of war. Now it seemed that his pastoral work had come to an end.

Soon after being taken into custody, however, Thuan was determined to persevere. He vowed to himself: “I am not going to wait. I will live each present moment, filling it to the brim with love.” He realized that he could continue to shepherd his people by adopting St. Paul’s strategy of writing pastoral letters from prison. He wrote a series of inspirational messages on the backs of calendar pages that were smuggled out and eventually published as a book, The Road of Hope.

When his captors got wise to this, they put Thuan in solitary confinement in a narrow, poorly lit, and windowless cell. It was so hard to breathe in there that he sometimes had to put his nose near the bottom of the cell door in order to get any air. After a few months, Thuan felt completely useless and even thought he was losing his mind. At times, he could not remember so much as a Hail Mary.

A New Way of Thinking. One day, however, Thuan had a life-changing insight. He understood that Jesus, too, had appeared “useless” as he hung on the cross. But it was when he appeared the most powerless that he achieved his most “useful” accomplishment: He saved the whole human race. Thuan heard the Lord say to him: “It is me you are supposed to be following, not my work! If I will it, you will finish the work entrusted to you.” This realization “brought me a new strength that completely changed my way of thinking,” Thuan later explained.

Transformed by this experience, Thuan found the grace to bring hope into hopeless situations. When he was put on a ship to North Vietnam with other prisoners, he saw it as a chance for ministry and was able to stop a man from committing suicide. In his next home, Vinh Quang prison camp in the North Vietnamese mountains, Thuan said Mass with wine he got for a “stomach ailment” and bread smuggled in a flashlight. He distributed Communion to fellow Catholics under their mosquito netting.

huan’s infectious joy and increasing popularity among the prisoners did not sit well with his captors. They moved him to a different prison and ordered his cellmate to spy on him. Though the man obeyed, he also became Thuan’s friend and told Thuan he would pray for him, an unusual promise coming from a Communist!

The same thing happened when Thuan was moved to the village of Giang Xa. The villagers soon became his allies, and his guard was won over by his kindness. The Communists’ network of village spies was ruined, all because of Thuan’s witness of Christian charity. Near the end of his stay there, he was celebrating Mass for hundreds of villagers, and two of the most die-hard informers ended up asking him for confession.

What could the authorities do in the face of such committed faith? They tried putting Thuan in solitary again and rotated his guards so they would not catch his “infection.” The guards wouldn’t even talk to him, yet he was determined to love them. He would simply smile at them and tell them about his life. Soon they were asking him to teach them foreign languages, and even some spiritual songs. One guard learned the hymn to the Holy Spirit—the Veni Creator—and began singing it on his way to exercises every morning!

“What Do You Want?” Thuan had no idea whether he would ever be a free man again. His chances did not look good. In 1985, after his cardinal petitioned the Vatican to beatify 117 Vietnamese martyrs, Thuan was told he could never be released. The Vatican’s action had created too much tension for the Communist government. Thuan didn’t care. He was overjoyed when Pope John Paul II performed the beatification ceremony in June 1988.

With the same resignation, Thuan awoke a few months later to hear a telephone ringing over and over again. He had a feeling the call was about him and prayed to Our Lady: “Mother, if I am of use to the Church in this prison, give me the grace and honor to die here. But if you think I can still serve the Church in some other way, grant me the grace to be freed.”

Thuan’s prayer was answered in a remarkable way. That morning, he was taken to the minister of police, who told him that the Communists were no longer hostile to his family. The official asked him if he had any special wish.

“I would like to be freed,” Thuan replied.

A little startled, the official asked, “When do you want to be freed?”

“Today.”

And so it was. Thuan was released that very day. It was November 21, 1988—the feast of the Presentation of Mary, and also his parents’ sixty-third wedding anniversary.

Ambassador of Peace. In The Road of Hope, Thuan wrote, “God uses trials and sufferings to teach us to better understand and be more patient with the sufferings of others.” He could hardly have foreseen how many opportunities he would have to live this truth: He would spend the rest of his life blessing others with what he learned through his ordeal.

After the Communists forced him to leave Vietnam, Thuan moved to the Vatican. One of his first official activities was to visit Vietnamese communities around the world, speaking to them about his life and encouraging them with his lively faith. He became a very popular speaker and wrote several more books that have become religious bestsellers.

Pope John Paul II valued Thuan’s faith and experience and appointed him to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. He eventually became its president, working on behalf of oppressed and marginalized people everywhere. In 1999, the pope asked Thuan to preach at the annual Lenten retreat for Vatican cardinals. Thuan spoke on the theme of hope, reminding his listeners that part of the Church’s hope is in the communion of believers: “Here is the novelty: the other person is not an obstacle to holiness but is the way to holiness.”

By the time Thuan was named a cardinal in 2001, he had already been diagnosed with cancer. After almost two years of illness, he died peacefully on September 16, 2002.

Through the witness of his life and his writings, Thuan continues his ministry as an apostle of hope. The triumphant prayer he composed years ago in the gloom of a prison cell marks out a path that each one of us can follow as we put our faith in Christ:

I sing of your mercy in the darkness, in my weakness, in my annihilation. I accept my cross, and I plant it, with my own two hands, in my heart. If you were to permit me to choose, I would change nothing, because you are with me! I am no longer afraid, I have understood. I am following you in your passion and in your resurrection.

On September 16, 2007, the fifth anniversary of Cardinal Van Thuan’s death, the Roman Catholic Church officially opened the beatification process for him.

Bob French gathered material for this article from the following works by Cardinal Thuan: The Road of Hope, Five Loaves and Two Fish, Testimony of Hope, and also from his biography, The Miracle of Hope, by André Nguyen Van Chau.

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