Cardinal van Thuan — Heroic ‘Witness to Hope’ Who Spent 13 Years in a Communist Prison
The Vietnamese archbishop spent nine years in solitary confinement, but said, “Thanks to God’s help, I have never regretted my destiny.”
Soon after Saigon — that once loveliest of cities, formerly known as the Paris of the Orient — fell to the advancing forces of the North Vietnamese Army in April 1975, thus signaling the end of an independent South Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians were routinely rounded up and placed in so called re-education camps, where many of them languished for years.
One of these was Saigon’s recently-appointed coadjutor archbishop, Francis Xavier Nguyen van Thuan, who, besides being targeted as a man of profound and resolute faith, was the nephew of the nation’s first president, Ngo Dinh Diem, and thus a presumptive enemy of the state. The Communists were determined to bully into silence all opposition, especially where its source was something they could not control. God, for example, and all those whom he inspired. To that end, the archbishop would spend 13 years in prison, nine of them in solitary confinement.
What must it have been like to be shut away in circumstances in which, not only are you not allowed to leave, but you are forced to remain entirely alone? For nine uninterrupted years, no less? Some of us (myself included) would doubtless find nine minutes very nearly unendurable.
But for Archbishop van Thuan, whose life had so recently been most wonderfully productive, the pain of seeing it all suddenly stripped away by a cruel and unjust system must have been unspeakable.
“Alone in my prison cell,” he recalls, “I continued to be tormented by the fact that I was 48 years old, in the prime of my life, that I had worked for eight years as a bishop and gained so much pastoral experience, and there I was isolated, inactive and far from my people.”
It was the lowest moment of his life. And knowing, of course, that there was nothing he could possibly do about it — no court of law was going to step in and vindicate his cause, restore the honor of his name, or provide proof of countless good works performed — left him with the acutest sense of abandonment.
“The hardest thing above all,” he later on admitted, “was that I began to feel helpless. My plans, my activities, my efforts, were all for nothing. This practical helplessness described my condition for 13 years. I wanted to do so many things to serve my people, but I could not.”
It was then that he began to think in a new and deeper way about the Cross, of the sheer helplessness of the God-Man who hung in mortal agony upon it. That here was a kindred soul, indeed, Someone who had plunged even deeper into the slough of despond than he had.
“He (too) was immobilized. He could neither preach, nor administer any sacrament. He too was helpless.” And yet, notwithstanding the profound impotence and pain Christ Himself bore, “it was from there that he performed his greatest deed: He redeemed us sinners. Thanks to his help I have never regretted my destiny.”
Indeed, it all crystallized for him one night when, deep within his own heart, he sensed a voice, clear and unmistakable, directly asking him — “Why torment yourself?
You must discern between God and the works of God. Everything you have done and desire to continue to do, pastoral visits, training seminarians, sisters and members of religious orders, building schools, evangelizing non-Christians. All of that is excellent work, the work of God, but it is not God! If God wants you to give it all up and put the work into his hands, do it and trust him. God will do the work infinitely better than you; he will entrust the work to others who are more able than you. You have only to choose God and not the works of God!
What a stunning discovery that was! That in the midst of all his travail, God should so move him to see the difference, no more sundering than which can be imagined by either faith or theology, between what God does, from the abundance of which we have all received, and the God who is doing them. That we are first saved by who God is, long before we may be saved by what God does.
“This light,” he tells us, whose source could only have been God Himself, “totally changed my way of thinking. When the Communists put me in the hold of the boat, along with 1,500 other prisoners, and moved us to the north, I said to myself, “Here is my cathedral, here are the people God has given me to care for, here is my mission — to ensure the presence of God among these, my despairing, miserable brothers. It is God’s will that I am here. I accept his will.”
It became, he says, the moment of his liberation. “And from that moment onwards, a new peace filled my heart and stayed with me for 13 years.” Every moment thereafter, for all that outward circumstance conspired to thwart and even to kill his spirit, he would anneal his will, now fortified more than ever the grace of God, “to live the present moment, filling it to the brim with love.”
Francis Xavier Nguyen van Thuan was finally released from prison in 1988, and would spend the remaining 14 years of his life (he died in 2002), “becoming,” as Pope Benedict would remind us in his encyclical Spe Salvi, “for people all over the world, a witness to hope — to that great hope which does not waver even in the nights of solitude.”
In 2001 he was created cardinal by Pope John Paul II, and in 2017 he was declared Venerable by Pope Francis.