Home Prayer and witness
O mighty and eternal God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit
I offer thanks for giving to the Church
the heroic testimony
of Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyên Van Thuân.
The suffering he experienced in prison,
which he united with the crucified Christ
and commended to the maternal protection of Mary,
is for the Church and the world
a shining witness of unity and forgiveness,
and of justice and peace.
His loving person and his Episcopal ministry
radiate the light of faith,
the enthusiasm of hope and the warmth of love.
Now, my Lord,
through his intercession
and according to your will,
grant me the grace I am imploring
in the hope that he will soon be elevated
to the honour of sainthood.
Roma – 16 september 2007
WitnessVia e-mail a firstname.lastname@example.org
This area is dedicated to personal testimonials on the part of those who met Cardinal Van Thuân, those who knew him, those who received a spiritual gift from him and wish to speak about him to and with others.
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By Stefano Fontana
24 February 2015 – published in Il Timone
His name was François-Xavier Nguyên Van Thuân, but at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, where John Paul II had wanted him to first be vice president and then president as of 1998, here is what he used to say: “My name is François-Xavier Nguyên Van Thuân, but in Tanzania or in Nigeria they call me Uncle Francis; so it is easier to call me Uncle Francis, or, even better, just Francis”.
That is the way he was, Cardinal Van Thuân, a Christian with outstanding qualities of simplicity, meekness and kindness, as well as great visions abounding with hope that he was able to project: the diffusion of the Social Doctrine of the Church to the poor of the world, the evangelization of Asia, the activities of charity and assistance he promoted and supported all around the world.
Immediately after his release from Communist Vietnamese prison camps in 1988 he crossed the threshold of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace as the spiritual father ‘ad honorem’ of the Christian witnesses who suffer the martyrdom of the faith. Upon his release after 13 years of imprisonment without ever standing trial, a journalist had asked him:
“Are you happy now?”. He replied: “I was also happy before!”. This was why the pope wanted him at the Holy See without further ado.
He was an incarnated icon of the evangelical objectives of the Social Doctrine of the Church. He bore witness to justice and peace, showing how they are never human works alone, nor the outcome of social and political systems, but are to be a vocation for man, who has been called to them by Jesus Christ, who is Justice and Peace. The cardinal drew the force to be a witness of justice and peace from intimate togetherness with Christ in the Church.
Cardinal Van Thuân projected the unity of the three theological virtues in the life of a Christian, and as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace he wanted the activity of that dicastery to be oriented in such a way as to spread the Social Doctrine of the Church in its true nature as an instrument of evangelization, arousing witnesses not of theories alone, but also and above all of deeds and Christian life within social structures.
In 1967, at the age of 39, Msgr. Francois-Xavier Van Thuân was appointed bishop of Nha Trang and received his episcopal consecration on 24 June of that same year. Eight years later, in April 1975 while southern Viet Nam was in the process of being invaded and occupied by Communist troops, Paul VI appointed him to the office of Coadjutor Archbishop of Saigon. A few weeks later – on 15 August 1975, the Solemnity of the Assumption to be exact – he was arrested and charged with complotting with the Vatican and imperialist forces. All he was wearing was his cassock and in his pocket had nothing but rosary beads.
He was first locked up in the prison of Nha Trang, his previous diocese. During that initial period of imprisonment he wrote the texts later published in “The Road of Hope”. He had written those texts on the reverse side of the pages of a calendar secretly given to him by a seven year old child. He was kept in Nha Trang for seven months and then transferred to the prison camp of Phu Khanh, where he spent nine months in a tiny and windowless cell in complete isolation. In the cell there was a light bulb hanging from the ceiling. He slept on a straw covered plank. The guards would often turn the light off unexpectedly and leave him in darkness for days. He was given food through a crack under the door to the cell. The cell itself was fiery-hot and dank, with the ever nauseating stench of an open latrine. The inmate made an effort to walk back and forth in order to avoid losing muscle tone and would bend down to the crack under the door to breathe. He was no longer hungry or thirsty, couldn’t even remember prayers, vomited and suffered dizzy spells.
In November 1976 he was taken to another camp and loaded onto a ship with 1,500 other prisoners being transferred to the prison camp of Vinh Quang in north Viet Nam. Conditions there were less trying, but two months later he was transferred to another prison camp outside Hanoi where he was forced to share a cell with a Vietcong soldier, who was won over by his goodness and became his friend.
After spending time under house arrest in the local rectory of Giang XA near Hanoi, the authorities decided to put him back in a cell, but this time on a military base where he stayed for six years, often forced to sleep in different cells or rooms on the base.
Since his goodness turned his guards into friends, he was once again transferred to a maximum security prison and segregated in a cell. After 13 years of imprisonment, nine of which spent in total isolation, he was released on 21 November 1988.
In the various Vietnamese prisons where he was incarcerated, the young bishop suffered considerably in both body and spirit. At the outset this was mostly due to separation from his people. Nonetheless, his faith kept him ever united to the Church and to the Holy Father. As he narrated in his books and in some videos still available, for a total of two years he held on to two pages of the ‘Osservatore Romano’ which he had received by sheer chance from a woman who had used those pages to wrap up a fish for him to cook. He read and reread these pages countless times as an instrument of communion and in prayer with the Holy Father.
During the long years of isolation he was often on the verge of collapse of both mind and heart. But this collapse never occurred. He had taught one of his jailers the Veni Creator. That Communist guard loved the melody of that hymn even if he had no idea what it meant. Nonetheless, as the cardinal related, he would sing it. He also sang it when he, the future cardinal, was going through moments when he was in the grips of a down cast mood, but, upon hearing that hymn, hope sprang forth anew in his heart. In this way a Communist guard became an instrument of Christian hope.
When he was in isolation in the prison of Hanoi in 1987, the then bishop Van Thuân was able to get sheets of paper from his jailers and he secretly composed prayers of hope on them. Initially suspicious and far less than kind towards him, his jailers were won over by the love he projected. They were the ones who advised him to write the prayers in a foreign language – he chose Italian – and keep them together between the pages of a newspaper under the heading ‘foreign language studies’. In this way the material would not be censured. Using this stratagem he was able to get those prayers out of prison and we can now read them. Those who are instruments of evil can become instruments of good. Nothing is what it appears to be. Everything can be transformed.
He also managed to get a small bottle of wine that made it through the rigid controls with the label “Stomach illness medicine”. He celebrated Mass in secret, placing two drops of wine, one drop of water and some bread crumbs in the palm of his hand. He kept the Eucharist in packs of cigarettes. He always celebrated Mass at 15:00, the hour when Our Lord died. Then, ever secretly, he gave the Sacred Species to some of his fellow inmates who wanted to receive Communion and spend the nighttime hours in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament hidden in those packs of cigarettes. He also succeeded in shaping a cross out of a piece of wire and always wore it, also when a cardinal, because it reminded him of what he had been through and the help he had received from God.
Cardinal Van Thuân was born on 17 April 1928 in Huê, the capital of imperial Viet Nam.
His family was of lofty lineage, had suffered many forms of persecution due to its faith, and continued to suffer them after the Communists took over.
The Christian upbringing he received from his mother was fundamental and it soon led him to choose other masters: St. Teresa of Lisieux, St. Giovanni Maria Vianney and St. Francis Saverio, whose name was given to him. He learned humility, trust in prayer and fortitude in the face of difficulties from them.
During his presidency of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace – let me say in passing that even today the staff members of this dicastery well recall his affable imitations as a mimic – worked so very hard for the diffusion of the Social Doctrine of the Church among young people and in the various parts of the world. He was thrilled about the plan for the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, and this to the point of announcing its publication a few years ahead of time. On the basis of the testimony of Archbishop Crepaldi, who was his coworker and friend for many years insofar as secretary of the Pontifical Council, we know that when Cardinal Van Thuân was diagnosed with stomach cancer – news he received around the same time he received his cardinal’s hat on 21 February 2001 – he dedicated his own sufferings to the Compendium and the message of hope it contained.
During the Holy Year of 2000 Pope John Paul II asked him to preach the Lenten Retreat for the Holy Father and the Roman Curia. Cardinal Ratzinger visited him every day during his illness and speaks about him twice in the Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi dedicated to hope. Cardinal Van Thuân was the herald of Christian hope. Witness to this continues to be borne by the many, many persons who are devotees of his memory and both the thoughts and prayers contained in his books.
Let us pray for the cardinal, whose Cause of Beatification is under way.
DIOCESAN TRIBUNAL OF THE VICARIATE OF ROME
23 October 2010 – Opening session of the Process of Beatification and Canonization of the Servant of God Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyên Van Thuân.
Cardinal Agostino Vallini
1. In the Gospel according to John we read: “Unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest” (Jn 12:24). Jesus is speaking about Himself, about the mystery of suffering, solitude, abandonment and His fast approaching death. He knows that by surrendering Himself crushed and humiliated into the hands of the Father, death becomes a wellspring of life, just like the grain or seed that breaks up into little pieces in the soil so the plant may see the light of day.
Speaking about the grain of wheat, however, Jesus also wanted to remind the disciples about what He had often said to them: that is to say, following the Master calls upon them to deny themselves, take up their own cross day after day, and follow Him. This is the way to save one’s life (cf. Mk 8: 35-36) in the evangelical perspective of the new commandment: “A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13).
This evangelical reference strikes me as the password for interpreting the life of the Servant of God Cardinal Nguyên Van Thuân, whose Cause of Beatification and Canonization begins today with this public session.
2. François-Xavier Nguyên Van Thuân was born on 17 April 1928 in Huê, the capital of imperial Viet Nam. He was the descendent of a family of martyrs. His forefathers were victims of numerous waves of persecution between 1644 and 1888. His paternal great-grandfather had told him that at the age of 15 he had walked thirty kilometers every day to bring a bit of rice and salt to his father, who was in jail because he was a Christian. His grandmother, who didn’t know how to read or write, prayed the rosary every evening for priests with the rest of the family. He received a Christian upbringing from his mother, Elisabeth, who taught him Bible stories and narrated memories of the family martyrs, while at the same time imbuing him with a love for his homeland. François-Xavier never forgot how much his family had suffered for the faith, and this precious legacy fortified him, preparing him to face his future “calvary” as a special heritage. Formed to a robust spiritual life, be began to see the hand of Providence of God in all things, and entrust his life to the working of the Holy Spirit with all docility. The Servant of God soon felt the calling to the priesthood thanks to his upbringing at home and the encouragement of his priest-uncle, Ngo Dinh Thuc, who later became one of the first bishops of Viet Nam.
In August 1941 he entered the minor seminary in An Ninh, where he lived the first steps in his formation to the priesthood with joy and resolve. He had pious and good educators, who bolstered his decision. Standing out among them were the rector, Fr. Jean-Baptiste Urrutia of the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris and future Apostolic Vicar of Hue, with whom young Thuân always had a special bond, and Fr. Jean-Marie Cressonier, who strengthened him in his devotion to Our Lady through the spirituality of the Irish Benedictine Columba Marmion, and showed him the beauty of the poor life, thereby preparing him for his future privations in prison.
At that same time he chose three saints as life models: St. Theresa of Lisieux with whom he had become familiar as a small boy thanks to his mother, and from whom le learned both “the little way of spiritual childhood” and to place his trust in prayer; St. John Mary Vianney, who taught him the virtues of humility and patience, and the value of resolute effort; St. Francis Xavier, the great apostle of Asia, from whom le learned how to remain aloof in the face of either success or failure.
The years he spent in the minor seminary (1941-1947) were the years of World War II, the upsurge of Communism in Viet Nam, the flight of his family from Huê, and the killing by the Communists of his uncle Khoi and his cousin Huan, who had been condemned to death as traitors. Young Thuân suffered very much indeed and was beset by anger over the injustice inflicted upon his family which had always served the homeland most faithfully. He understood, however, that he could not follow Christ if he was unable to forgive his enemies. He was assisted in this interior struggle by the courageous witness of a Mexican Jesuit priest, Fr. Miguel Augustine Pro (1891 – 1927), whose biography he had read. When arrested by the Mexican secret police he had said “he feared nothing, because he had placed his life in the hands of God once for all”. Thuân realized he would have to do the same thing, and hence gradually came to terms with the tragedy and revived his courage, striving to alleviate the atrocious grief.
From 1947 to 1953 he was a student at the major seminary in Phu Xuan. During those years he also considered the idea of embracing the religious life: he thought about becoming a Jesuit, fascinated as he was by the figure of St. Francis Xavier, his patron saint; he also pondered the possibility of becoming a Benedictine, attracted as he was by the contemplative life; in the end, however, he opted for the diocesan priesthood, for which he prepared himself with utmost commitment and seriousness.
3. He was ordained to the priesthood on 11 June 1953 by Bishop Urrutia, his former rector. So great was his joy when celebrating Mass that we was not able to hold back his tears. His first pastoral destination was the parish of Quang Binh, approximately 160 kilometers from Huê, but he was only able to stay there for a few weeks due to the onset of a grave form of tuberculosis. He had to go through a period of trial and tribulation, passing from one hospital to another while waiting for surgery on his right lung. When the last X-ray was taken just before the operation, however, traces of what had been an evident illness no longer appeared and his lungs were clear. The physician at the Grall military hospital said to him: “It’s unbelievable; we cannot find traces of tuberculosis in either lung. You are now in good health, and I can’t explain why”. Rev. Thuân thanked God and Our Lady for what had happened in his body and made a promise to himself that he would always do God’s will.
After a period of convalescence and a short time engaged in minor ministerial duties, Bishop Urrutia sent him to Rome to pursue his studies. He was a graduate student at the Pontifical Urbaniana University and in 1959 received his PhD in Canon Law with a dissertation on military chaplaincies in the world. Regarding that time spent in Rome, he always recalled his love for Christian Rome and its marvelous works of art, as well as the pilgrimages to the Marian sanctuaries of Fatima and Lourdes where he was able to interiorize the message of the Blessed Virgin’s apparitions. The words of Our Lady to Bernadette during the first apparition in Lourdes on 11 February 1858, “I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the other one”, echoed in his soul and the young priest cherished them in his heart, preparing himself to accept the tribulations and sufferings the Lord would have sent him. Upon his return to Viet Nam he exercised the ministry of teaching in the minor seminary of Huê and then became its rector at a rather difficult social and political time for his country and his family. In fact, the Servant of God belonged to a family of no little political importance for Viet Nam. His uncle Ngo Dimh Diem had been president of the nation until the military coup on 1 November 1963, and was killed in the wake thereof. Thuân experienced unspeakable grief and lived this new trial in his life comforted by the faith and above all by the words of his mother: “Your uncle dedicated his entire life to his country and it’s not extraordinary that he died for it. As a monk (he was a Benedictine oblate and had made his profession in 1954 at the monastery of Sant’Andrea of Bruges in Belgium) he dedicated his life to God and it’s not extraordinary that he died when God called him”.
In the meantime the archdiocese of Huê was without a pastor, and the diocesan council of priests called Rev. François-Xavier to assume the office of capitular vicar.
4. Four years later at the age of 39, Msgr. François-Xavier was appointed bishop of Nha Trang on 13 April 1967. When she learned about his appointment his mother said to him: “A priest is a priest. The Church has honored you by giving you a more important mission, but as a person you haven’t changed. You are still a priest and that is the most important thing to remember”. He was consecrated a bishop on the 24th of the following month of June. Intense indeed was the pastoral work he did in Nha Trang, with special emphasis on the vocation promotion apostolate and the formation of future priests. He also dedicated considerable time and energy to the formation of the laity.
Less than a year after he became a bishop the Communists launched an offensive to take over some cities in South Viet Nam, including Nha Trang. Nonetheless, the young bishop’s apostolate continued with nary a limitation, and he actually expanded his generous endeavors to embrace both regional and universal concerns. He was a member of the commission set up to create the Federation of the Episcopal Conferences of Asia, and in 1971 was appointed a Consultor of the Holy See Dicastery that later became the Pontifical Council of the Laity. In Viet Nam itself he was the president of COREV, the organism for the reconstruction of Viet Nam that was an emanation of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum to assist more than four million persons internally displaced due to the war.
5. Eight years later in April 1975, while South Viet Nam was being invaded and occupied by Communist troops, Pope Paul VI appointed him Coadjutor Archbishop of Saigon (Thành-Phô Chi Minh, Hôchiminh Ville) with the right of succession to Archbishop Nguyen Van Binh. This appointment was to have tremendous consequences.
Only a few weeks had passed after beginning his pastoral service in Saigon when he was arrested under false accusations of being an accomplice in a ‘conspiracy’ being perpetrated by the Vatican and imperialist forces. It was the early afternoon of 15 August 1975, the Solemnity of the Assumption. All the archbishop had on was his cassock, with nothing more than his rosary beads in his pocket. He interpreted this terrible ordeal in the light of faith, seeking to fill life as an inmate with love.
He was first held prisoner under house arrest in the parish of Cay Vong which was in his previous diocese, Nha Trang. While being in familiar surroundings did boost his morale, it also summoned him to embark upon a spiritual journey of interior purification and complete divestment of self that was to last for thirteen years, nine of which in isolation.
Under these new conditions he did not cease being active. Beginning in the following month of October he began writing a series of messages to the Christian community. A seven year old boy by the name of Quang snuck small pieces of paper taken from old calendars into the house, and then took them home so his brothers and sisters could copy and circulate those messages. The book entitled The Road to Hope is the collection of these messages.
6. Confinement in Nha Trang lasted for seven months. He was then moved to the prison camp of Phu Khanh and locked up in a narrow and windowless cell. He stayed there for nine month under the ever watchful eyes of pitiless guards who mistreated him for any plausible reason whatsoever. They harbored no respect for him and seemed to enjoy humiliating him. But that was not enough, because he soon experienced strict regime imprisonment, complete isolation with no contacts at all, not even with prison guards.
His biographer writes:
“All he saw day and night were the four dirty walls of the dank cell. Hanging from the ceiling at the end of a threadbare electric wire was a light bulb that gave a dim and yellowish tint to the archbishop’s squalid surroundings. Thuân slept on a rigid surface covered by a straw mat, but because of the extreme humidity in the cell, the mat was more mildew than anything else. Isolation gradually began to produce the effect sought by his jailers. Thuân began to be terrified by the emptiness and silence that reigned around him for days on end. Deprived of any sign of nearby human presence, he yearned to hear sounds. His guards also used darkness to torment him. Without any warning or reason the dim light of the bulb in the cell was turned off, at times for days., and Thuân didn’t know when it was day or night. . .it seemed to him that he was no longer in the world of the living. The guard who brought him food said not a word to him. . .all he saw was a hand under the door removing the empty tray and replacing it with a full one.” (A. Nunguyen Van Chau, Il miracolo della speranza, ed. S, Paolo, 2004, pgs. 226-227).
Under such conditions it is also possible to imagine the grave physical sufferings linked to the consequences of natural needs. The cell, continues this biographer, ““was as fiery-hot as a furnace and, due to the nearby latrine, reeked with a nauseating stench during the heat of the summer. Suffocating because of the humidity and lack of air, Thuân would lie down on the filthy floor and put his face as close as he could to the empty space under the door in an effort to breathe a bit of air. . .It was practically impossible to move around in that tiny cell, but Thuân realized that if he didn’t make the effort to take a few steps he wouldn’t have survived. He therefore began to take a few steps back and forth until the suffocating summer heat made him sweat so much that his clothing literally stuck to his skin. After only a few short minutes of this he was forced to lie down on the floor and shove his face up against the opening under the door in an effort to breathe. (pg. 228).
His strong memory also began to falter, and thus he could not even remember prayers. He was on the verge of madness. “He was neither hungry nor sleepy. He often vomited and constantly suffered dizzy spells and pain everywhere in his body. . . .his mind became empty for ever longer periods of time” (p. 228).
Communist officials visited him on a regular basis to interrogate him and coerce him to sign a statement admitting he had plotted with the Vatican and the imperialist forces against the Communist devolution. In the face of his constant refusal to do so, they belittled him in an obsessive manner. Under these terrible conditions the Servant of God realized that he could offer all the pain and sufferings to God as demonstrations of his love. Thus the cell gradually became a livable place, pain gave way to joy, and suffering became the font of hope.
On 29 November 1976, the Monday following the first Sunday of Advent, he was picked up with fellow prisoners, put in chains and taken to another camp 15 kilometers outside Saigon. Two days later he was put on a ship with 1,500 other inmates for whom he immediately became a good Samaritan, comforting them in their despair. After ten days of navigation they reached the prison camp of Vinh Quang located among the hills of Vinh Dao in North Viet Nam. He was assigned to working in the fields and on rainy days worked as an apprentice carpenter. The atmosphere and conditions in this prison camp were less oppressive than in the previous one and he managed to have someone send him wine in a small bottle labeled “stomach illness medicine”. This enabled him to begin celebrating Mass. The Eucharist became the core moment of his days, the moment from which he drew strength in order to fortify his faith and continue being full of joy. He celebrated Mass in the palm of his hand with three drops of wine and a drop of water. Taking advantage of the tolerance of the guards, this was also the time when he ventured to craft for himself a small cross that he always conserved with loving care.
Two months later he was transferred to another prison camp outside Hanoi where he had to share a cell with a colonel of the Liberation Front of South Viet Nam. The latter was a spy who was supposed to report everything Thuân did and said. Gradually, however, his cell mate became his friend and warned him to be very careful. The prison guards as well were well-disposed towards him and one of them, upon the request of the Servant of God and having overcome fears that he wanted to commit suicide, got him some wire and a small pair of pliers so he could fashion a chain for his pectoral cross.
After fifteen months spent in this prison camp, and thanks to considerable international advocacy efforts on his behalf, on 13 May 1978 he was taken to Giang Xa, a village 20 kilometers from Hanoi, and placed under house arrest in the parish rectory. He was under guarded surveillance day and night, but did have permission to move around and take walks as long as he did not communicate with the local people, who had been instructed to keep their distance from him. Msgr. Thuân gradually became more audacious and began to engage in some pastoral activities. The guard, who was on his side permitted the faithful to visit him, at times even in small groups. All this aroused suspicions in the minds of the authorities, who decided to segregate him in a cell yet again. Therefore, early in the morning on 5 November 1982 he was loaded into a government vehicle and taken to a military base and put in an apartment where he was to live with a police officer and under the surveillance of two guards. For six years he remained isolated in a room, which often changed from one facility to another. But Msgr. Thuân no longer feared isolation because he had abandoned himself entirely to God. He celebrated Mass each day at 15:00, and this was followed by an hour of prayer spent meditating on the agony and death of Jesus on the cross. His goodness won over the various guards assigned to watch over him and this really irritated the higher authorities. He was therefore transferred once again to a maximum security prison and locked away in a cell. The dawn of his liberation broke on 21 November 1988, the feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Thirteen years had passed.
7. Once release from confinement, the most significant developments in the life of Msgr. Thuân can be summarized as follows. In 1992 he was appointed a member of the International Catholic Commission for Migration in Geneva, and in 1994 was called to the office of vice president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and became its president four years later on 24 June 1998.
As we know, during Lent of the Holy Year 2000 he preached the Retreat to His Holiness John Paul II and the Roman Curia. At the end of the Retreat the Holy Father said:
“I thank dear Msgr. François-Xavier Nguyên Van Thuân, who with simplicity and spiritual inspiration has guided us in the deepening of our vocation as witnesses of evangelical hope at the beginning of the III millennium. He himself a witness of the cross during long years of imprisonment in Viet Nam, he frequently shared facts and episodes of his suffered incarceration, thereby strengthening in us the consoling certainty that when everything collapses all around us, and perhaps within us as well, Christ remains our unfailing support”.
He died in peace on 16 September 2002, one year after becoming a Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church.
8. Even an albeit brief recollection of the life of this great witness of the faith elicits remarkable admiration. I asked myself the following questions: what secret enabled Cardinal Nguyên Van Thuân to brave and deal with such arduous trials? Where did he draw the interior force to overcome privations and humiliations? What are the salient features of his physiognomy as a pastor?
Reading his biography convinced me that an important part of his spiritual journey is to be attributed to the upbringing and witness he received at home, especially from his mother. During the dark moments of imprisonment the Servant of God never failed to evoke the lessons learned and the example of his loved ones, who never cowered in the face of threats and sufferings faced with Christian fortitude.
I then believe I could say that he succeeded in overcoming the despondency and anguish that on more than one occasion were about to make him plummet into the abyss of despair because his ever present and solid anchors were the Word of God and the Eucharist, at whose school he aligned his life day after day.
He had not been able to bring the Bible to prison with him. He therefore did his best to use every small piece of paper he could find to put together a tiny notebook in which he wrote down more than 300 excerpts from the Gospel. This unique spiritual text proved to be the vademecum from which he drew both light and strength. Regarding the Eucharist, we know he even used paper from packs of cigarettes to conserve the Blessed Sacrament.
Equally a source of great support for him were his attachment to the See of Peter and the episcopal communion which remained an ever present bond in his life. During the time of severe imprisonment regime in Hanoi, a policewoman brought him a small fish to cook. It was wrapped up in two pages of the “Osservatore Romano”. Msgr. Van Thuân received them as if they were a relic. Out of sight of everyone he washed those pages, put them in the sunlight to dry, and never let them out of his sight. In the terrible isolation of prison life those two pages of the newspaper of the Holy See were a tangible sign he used to express the bond of unwavering fidelity to the Holy Father.
When receiving him in audience on 15 December 1999, John Paul II said to him: “In the first year of the III millennium a Vietnamese will preach the retreat for the Roman Curia”. Looking at him very intensely, the Holy Father asked him: “Do you have a subject in mind?”. “Holy Father”, the Servant of God replied, “this comes out of the blue. I’m surprised. Perhaps I could talk about hope”. And the pope said: “Bring your witness”. The Retreat began on 12 March in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel in Vatican City and ended on the 18th of that same month.
9. The Servant of God was endowed with uncommon intelligence, and was equally at ease with the spoken and the written word. Nonetheless, he was neither an intellectual nor a writer in the strict sense of those terms. His vocation was to be a pastor of souls. Forced inactivity – as I recalled above – led him to write in order to be able to continue feeding his flock. Even though he was prevented from exercising the ministry, his apostolic ardor made him try to do everything he could to proclaim the Gospel. In prison, for example, he managed to create small Christian communities that met together to pray and above all to celebrate the Eucharist, while at nighttime he organized shifts of adoration in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. His intense pastoral activities after his liberation were always compatible with his work at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and led him to continue writing and publishing his mainly spiritual works.
10. There is also another most evident aspect of Cardinal Van Thuân profile that I have to recall: the love that swelled forth for persons from his pastor’s heart.
All those who came into contact with him were struck by his goodness, beginning with his jailers, and this to the degree that a police officer once asked him to teach the languages he spoke to the guards. His jailers became his students.
This style of amiable friendliness was a characteristic of his entire life. His biographer writes:““Meek and smiling, Cardinal François Xavier Nguyên Van Thuân always received visitors by going towards them with outstretched arms in a sign of welcome. . .his demeanor was always cordial and reassuring. People felt relaxed and at ease in his presence. . .He spoke slowly and was very accurate in his choice of words. His voice was gentle and his way of speaking was eloquent in its simplicity. It was obvious that his simple ideas came from great interior depths, and for those who listened to him, his words became an invitation to reflect with an examination of conscience. To apparently trite and normal facts, as well as to things taken for granted he was able to give a new meaning which aroused people’s imagination and stimulated contemplation”(André Nguyen Van Chau, Il miracolo della speranza, ed. San Paolo, 2004, pg. 7).
11. Cardinal Van Thuân, however, was first and foremost a witness of hope. He believed also when there was no reason for hope precisely because of the trials and hardships the Lord let happen to him. Speaking about Abraham, he himself wrote in the book Pilgrims on the Road of Hope: “Abraham’s entire life was a succession of difficulties. He blindly obeyed the commandments, sustained by his hope in God and prepared to follow His voice at any time and everywhere. “He hoped even where there was no reason for hoping” (Rm 4:18) as “the father of all those who believe in God” (Rm 4:11). It would therefore not be exaggerated to say that our Cardinal was a worthy disciple of Abraham, not only by imitating his resistant hope, but also transmitting and bolstering this virtue in so many persons by way of his example, his preaching and his writings. His was a practice of the virtue of hope deeply rooted in grace, not in fleeting earthly hopes; a practice of hope which looked beyond time without letting itself be overpowered by this life’s apparent defeats, ever intent on making the realities of this world all the better.
12. Last but not least, also to be recalled in the mission of the Servant of God to spread hope was his dedication and commitment for the diffusion of the Social Doctrine of the Church and his work at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
He was convinced that one of the most urgent and necessary tasks in today’s society is to sow seeds of trust in it in order to evaluate social phenomena, negative ones as well, as trials with a view to human growth and from a spiritual viewpoint. In this perspective,he cardinal, during his term of office as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, became the driving force in 1999 behind the preparation of an authoritative synthesis of the Church’s teaching in the social sphere, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, in order to highlight the link between social doctrine and the new evangelization so earnestly augured by His Holiness John Paul II.
As he wrote: “The true revolution, the one that will be able to transform everything from the unfathomable heart of man to political, economic and social structures will not take place without man and without God. It will come about ‘for man, in Christ and with Him’” (The Road of Hope, n. 623).
13. I am personally convinced that Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyên Van Thuân was an extraordinary person in whom the transforming power of grace found a particularly gifted human nature ever docile to being shaped and transformed by the action of the Holy Spirit.
I believe that anyone who experienced the joy of knowing and spending time with him may agree that the Servant of God was a true disciple of Jesus, a man who made the following of Christ the one and only reason of life and traced everything back to God, knowing how to see the providential hand of God in each and every experience. During the terrible isolation of the years locked away in prison he had opened himself to the regenerating and light breeze of the Spirit. God revealed Himself to him as the All, and this sufficed for him to put the weight and the suffering of the privation of both liberty and his own personal dignity back into the proper perspective. This extraordinary spiritual experience remains a precious legacy for us. Reduced to pulp in the soil, the grain of wheat bore fruit.
14. To the Judicial Vicar of the Diocesan Tribunal, Msgr. Gianfranco Bella, and to the other Officers thereof I entrust the onerous task of examining the life and the Christian virtues of this eminent Pastor with the wish that his life may help bishops, priests and the lay faithful of our time “to walk unhesitatingly […] in the path of living faith, which arouses hope and works through charity” (Lumen gentium, 41).
Agostino Cardinal Vallini
Vicar General of His Holiness for the Diocese of Rome