The Eucharistic Shape of Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan’s Holy and Heroic Life

COMMENTARY: The Vietnamese cardinal, who died 20 years ago Sept. 16, is one of the greatest Eucharistic witnesses of modern times.

Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Ghana celebrates the thanksgiving Mass at the Vatican for the promulgation of the decree of venerability for Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan on Sept. 15, 2017. INSET: Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan is pictured between 2001-2002.
Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Ghana celebrates the thanksgiving Mass at the Vatican for the promulgation of the decree of venerability for Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan on Sept. 15, 2017. INSET: Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan is pictured between 2001-2002. (photo: CNA / Wikimedia)

One of the greatest privileges of my life was to get to know, during my seminary years in Rome, the Venerable Cardinal Francis-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, the heroic former archbishop of Saigon who was imprisoned by the communist forces in Vietnam for 13 years, including nine in solitary confinement.

After his release, he was expelled from his country and St. John Paul II made him the vice president, then the president, of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (now part of the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development). John Paul II would ask him to preach the retreat for the Roman Curia during the Great Jubilee of 2000 and would name him a cardinal the following year.

It was during his time as president of the Pontifical Council when a mutual friend asked if I could help with a project for the council’s library. That led to a several dinners at Cardinal Van Thuan’s favorite fish place in Trastevere and other visits to his apartment to speak about the project but even more about Christ, the needs of the Church, Christian faith and life, the Vietnamese diaspora and his years in prison. He was also good to welcome and speak to some pilgrim groups I was guiding, and those conversations would invariably get to the gripping stories of his years in prison, which I could never hear him repeat enough.

In the last few months, as we have been approaching the 20th anniversary of his death on Sept. 16, I’ve been thinking about Cardinal Van Thuan a lot. I’ve been praying through his intercession for various of the intentions entrusted to me, especially for those suffering from cancer, which claimed his life at the age of 74.

Pope Francis declared Van Thuan venerable in 2017 and now the only thing needed for his beatification is a medically-inexplicable miracle — and so I’ve been matchmaking those who need a miracle with his cause’s similar need.

What has gotten me to think about him the most, however, has been the U.S. Church’s National Eucharistic Revival, because I think he is one of the greatest Eucharistic witnesses of modern times.

His priestly vocation was discovered as a young boy participating in the various activities of the Eucharistic Crusade movement in his hometown of Hue, Vietnam. Later, as a seminarian, priest, seminary professor, rector and bishop, his Eucharistic faith and piety grew. But it was during his years of imprisonment that he gave an extraordinary testimony to the power of the Mass, the reality of the Lord’s presence, and the gift of Eucharistic adoration.

When he was arrested in 1975, one of his greatest concerns was, “Will I be able to celebrate the Eucharist?” The day after his arrest, his captors permitted him to write his family for necessities. He asked for the obvious, like clothes and toiletries, but then added, “Please send me a little wine as medicine for my stomachache,” confident that they would understand the code: the raw materials for the celebration of Mass, which he needed to fill his greatest hunger. When they sent the materials, they put wine in a medicine bottle marked “Medicine for Stomachaches.” They also sent hosts hidden in a flashlight.

Each day during his years of isolation, around 3pm, the time at which Jesus died on the cross, he would celebrate Mass from memory, putting three drops of wine and a drop of water on the palm of his hand together with some crumbs of the hosts. His hand became an altar. His cell became a cathedral. “These were the most beautiful Masses of my life!” he said to me with great devotion each time he would recount the story.

It was during those Masses that he joined his sufferings to Christ’s on Calvary. He would extend his hands in the form of the cross so as better to become one with the Crucified Jesus. As he lapped up the precious blood consecrated in his hand, he would ask for the grace with Jesus to drink the bitter chalice and to unite himself to Christ’s shedding of blood.

When he was moved to a re-education camp, he was in a crowded room with 50 other prisoners. He would wait until lights were extinguished at 9:30pm and then would bow over his bed to celebrate Mass. Then he would distribute tiny pieces of the hosts to Catholics present under a mosquito net. He would also wrap some tiny consecrated particles in aluminum from cigarette packs to preserve the Blessed Sacrament, so that he and the other prisoners could have the Lord with them always and adore him. One tiny cigarette-paper tabernacle he would keep in his shirt pocket. Others he would pass to faithful Catholic prisoners, who, during indoctrination sessions, would surreptitiously distribute them to Catholics in other groups. At night, in each of the locations, prisoners would take turns for adoration.

Hearing these incredible stories as a seminarian preparing for priestly ordination was life-changing. I’ve been blessed with a good memory, but I resolved to memorize the Mass, to be prepared just in case I was ever in a similar situation. I never looked at even the tiniest particles of the Host the same way and grew in appreciation for the gift and priority of Eucharistic adoration. Praying about his celebrating Mass on the altar of his hand in the total darkness of his isolation hut or among the crowded prisoners taught me indelibly invaluable lessons about how to celebrate Mass well.

While Cardinal Van Thuan was imprisoned, feeling useless, fearing he was losing his mind and wondering how he would care for his people, the Lord helped him to see how each day he could offer “five loaves and two fish” of his prayer for the good of his people. He started to write each day one or a few short aphorisms on scrap paper from old calendars and to give them to a bold Catholic boy who would pass by, whose parents would copy them into a notebook. Eventually the 1,001 thoughts were published in a book, called The Road to Hope: A Gospel From Prison, that bolstered the faith of the Vietnamese during the worst of the communist repression.

It’s unsurprising that many of these spiritual maxims were about the Eucharistic Jesus, nourished by his experience in prison.

“If you appreciate the value of the Eucharistic celebration, you will participate in it no matter how far away or difficult it is. The greater the sacrifice involved, the more evident is your love for God.” His love for God and appreciation of the Mass drove him to do all he did in prison.

“The whole of the Lord’s life was directed toward Calvary. The whole of our life should be oriented toward the Eucharistic celebration.” His clearly was.

“If you are all alone in some remote place or in the darkness of a prison, turn your mind toward the altars of the world where Our Lord Jesus Christ is offering his sacrifice. Unite yourself to the Eucharistic sacrifice. Then your heart will be filled to overflowing with consolation and courage.” That was the autobiographical underpinning of his heroism.

“If you have lost everything but still have the Blessed Sacrament, you actually still have everything, because you have the Lord of heaven present here on earth.” That’s what enabled him to live his 13 years of imprisonment with evangelical joy.

“The Eucharist shapes Christians.” It obviously former his whole life and apostolate.

“As the drop of water put into the chalice mingles with the wine, so your life should become one with Christ’s.” His life, like the water and wine on his palm, was commingled with Christ’s as he sought to give himself to others together with the Eucharistic High Priest.

Finally: “Holy people are those who continue to live the Eucharistic celebration throughout the day.” The root of Cardinal Van Thuan’s palpable sanctity was that he made his whole life a Mass.

The 20th anniversary of his death gives us all an opportunity to ponder the Eucharistic message of his life and to learn from him how to find in the Holy Eucharist the Road to Hope no matter how forlorn one’s earthly circumstances.

I urge you to pray through his intercession for miracles as well as for the grace to imitate the Eucharistic shape of his life.