(Left) People hold candles while attending a Mass as part of the holy year celebrations outside La Vang Basilica in Vietnam's central Quang Tri province Jan. 5, 2011. (CNS photo/Kham, Reuters) (Right) Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan
On July 5,
2013, jubilant Vietnamese Catholics celebrated the closing of the diocesan
phase of Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan’s beatification process.
Although he is not yet canonized, the Vietnamese faithful already consider him
a saint and view him as an icon of the Vietnamese Church. As a
second-generation Vietnamese American Catholic, I did not realize the beauty of
my heritage until I became acquainted with Cardinal Thuan while I was a
postulant in my religious community. Cardinal Thuan, being a man of faith,
hope, and charity, epitomizes the virtues of past and present Vietnamese
Catholics and is a model for Christians around the world.
Nguyen Van Thuan was born on April 17, 1928, and from a young age, his
character was shaped by the ideals of his heritage. He knew that he was called
to communicate the best of Vietnamese culture. In 1941, he joined the Catholic
seminary and was ordained a priest in 1953. Shortly after he was made coadjutor
archbishop of Saigon in 1975, he was arrested and imprisoned by the Communists
because of his Catholic faith. After 13 years of imprisonment, nine of which
were spent in solitary confinement, then-Archbishop Thuan was released on the
Feast of the Presentation of Our Lady. While in prison, he manifested the
virtues cherished by Vietnamese Catholics. These virtues, however, do not only
resonate in his life but also resound in the past and present Vietnamese
One of the
prized virtues of the Vietnamese martyrs is fidelity to Christ, even in the
midst of profound hardship. Because rulers feared that Christianity would
threaten the established order, Vietnamese kings and emperors persecuted
Catholics intermittently from 1644 to 1888. Two hundred and forty-four years of
interspersed persecutions bore fruit in the martyrdom of 150,000 (see Miracle of Hope by Andre Van Chau Nguyen,
the Communist government began harassing Catholics less than 100 years later,
Catholics continued to witness to Christ crucified. Vietnamese Catholics were
not only steadfast but often innovative and proactive in their faith.
In his book All Honor to You: The Journey of Faith Toward
Life and Love, Father Peter Quang recounts his own heroic story, telling
how he escaped from Vietnam on a boat in hopes of studying for the priesthood.
Pirate raids, unskilled navigators, and cramped conditions were the norm for
the Vietnamese boat people. Father Peter had almost no chance of making it to
the United States safely, but a very real chance of being plundered by
Communists or pirates; yet, he was willing to leave his beloved homeland and
risk torture and death in order to answer the call to the priesthood. Following
in the footsteps of the martyrs before him, Father Peter risked everything to
serve the Lordhis faith was not reactive but proactive.
fidelity found in the martyrs and in those who, like Father Peter, fled Vietnam
to pursue their vocation, permeated Archbishop Thuan’s actions during his
imprisonment. He used his limited resources creatively in order to fulfill his
duties as shepherd to the faithful when he was in prison. When he could not
physically be present to his people, he solicited the help of a young boy to bring
him old calendars. He wrote simple, sincere messages of hope on the calendars
and had the young boy copy and distribute them among the faithful. His profound
letters to the Catholic community strengthened them in their faith and helped
them to persevere. The words, which resonated in the people’s hearts, reminded
them that their beloved archbishop, though not physically present, was present
with them through prayer.
Thuan, manifesting innovative fidelity, also used his scanty means to celebrate
Mass in prison. He knew that celebrating Mass was his most important duty, but
he had no church, no altar, and no tabernacle. How, then, could he fulfill his
duty as bishop? He turned the concentration camp into a cathedral and the palm
of his hand into an altar. He turned his shirt pocket into a tabernacle and
turned the darkness of the sleeping quarters into a dwelling place for Light
Himself. Because of his ingenuity, many prisoners regained the fervor of their
faith. The prisoners were reminded to embrace suffering and to use their
current circumstances to grow in faith. His example not only embodies the
proactive faith of past and present Vietnamese Catholics but also teaches all
Christians that faith entails an active surrender to the Lord. It means seeking
the best way to proclaim Christ’s love in every moment, every circumstance, and
Catholics are a people of hope. They endure profound suffering and poverty
because their hope is in heaven. In 1860, Emperor Tu Duc attempted to demolish
Catholicism by splitting up Catholic families (Miracle of Hope, 10). This failed because Christians persevered
during that period with courage and resilience. Though it seemed that they lost
everything, Catholics recognized they had nothing to lose because their hope
was in the risen Christ. About 150 years later, Vietnamese Catholics are still
perpetuating the enduring hope that characterizes their past. After entering
the convent, I met two sisters from Vietnam. There, they are kept under tight
surveillance by the government and cannot openly teach the faith. From an
earthly standpoint, it may seem that their mission is futile and useless. They,
however, view all things from the supernatural perspective. These sisters,
continuing the heritage of hope, recognize that if they place their hope in the
Lord, nothing is lost and everything is gained.
Thuan is a model of Christian hope. Isolation, darkness, and brutality
saturated his prison life. In one afternoon, he went from being an archbishop
to a mere prisoner. Instead of viewing his life as useless, he chose to see his
imprisonment as Christ’s gift to him. He
wrote the following during his imprisonment:
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. (Five
Loaves and Two Fish, 48)
Thuan, while in prison, literally had nothing to give to his faithful. He could
not give his time, energy, or advice. He became like the widow from the gospels
who only gave two copper coins (Luke 21:1-4). However, like the widow, he also
gave all he had; he offered his emptiness and suffering as a prayer to God the
Father. During his imprisonment, Archbishop Thuan learned to no longer place
his hope in his works but to place his hope in accepting God’s plan for him.
charity is the driving force behind Vietnamese Catholics’ actions. In Vietnam,
the focus is not on the individual but on placing the well-being of one’s
neighbor above one’s own. This is especially seen in Cardinal Thuan’s ancestors,
who were also persecuted for the faith. His great-great-grandfather Danh was
separated from the family and ordered to work as an unpaid laborer. Sick and
emaciated, Danh’s chances of dying of starvation were high. His son Vong, after
hearing about his father’s sufferings, asked his landlord’s permission to bring
food for his father even though his own rations were meager. Every morning,
Vong cooked his portion of rice, delivered half of it to his father, and ran
six miles back to the rice field in order to begin work at sunrise (Miracle of Hope, 11). It was because of
Vong that Danh survived. Vong’s charity prolonged Danh’s life and renewed his
hope. It is this same attentiveness that characterizes current Vietnamese Church
ladies. They sacrifice their time, money, and sleep in order to spread the Gospel
to hungry souls. Their limitless charity leads them to anticipating others’
needs and using any meager resources they have to help.
the Vietnamese tendency to be attentive to others, otherwise known as
“charitable nosiness,” Archbishop Thuan was conscientious of his prison guards’
needs. Formed in all the goodness of Vietnam’s communal culture, he could not
help but intrude on the prison guards’ lives. He saw them as part of the
village in which he livedhe saw them as family. Eventually, Archbishop’s Thuan
kind demeanor and genuine interest pierced through their anxiety and
resentment. He taught them English, French, Latin, and other foreign languages.
Starving for a sense of meaning in their lives, the prison guards would ask him
numerous questions about the Church. The archbishop catechized his eager
students, explaining Catholic doctrine with kindness and patience.
prison guards asked if he felt resentment towards them for his imprisonment, he
only assured them of his concern and love for them (Five Loaves and Two Fish, 56).
His love was both bewildering and contagious. Government officials soon
discovered prison guards questioning Communist ideals and singing the Veni
Sancte Spiritus while working. As a result, government officials were
constantly changing Archbishop Thuan’s prison guards because Christian ideals
were infecting die-hard Communists, but by the time the guards were moved away,
the saintly prisoner had already imprinted his ideals in their hearts. Like the
persecuted Catholics that preceded him, Cardinal Thuan’s charity shows that
only Christian love can bring about positive change. It is when one loves
without boundaries that one brings forth new life.
Nguyen Van Thuan carried the Vietnamese Catholic ideals
with him wherever he went. The best of the Vietnamese Catholicism is marked by
the people’s innovative faith, enduring hope, and boundless charity. Cardinal
Thuan is not only a paradigm of the Vietnamese Church, but his witness teaches
and reminds all Christians to proclaim Christ’s love vibrantly in all
circumstances. He shows us what it means to surrender everything in order to
find the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45-46).
Andre Van Chau. The Miracle of Hope. Boston:
Pauline Books & Media, 2003.
Cardinal Van Thuan. Five Loaves and Two
Fish. Vancouver: Lavamis Publishings, 2000.
Father Peter Quang. All Honor to You: The
Journey of Faith toward Life and Love.
Ink & Scribe, 2002.