From Vietnam to the Vatican

The 72-year-old president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace preached the Pope's Lenten retreat, which ended March 18. Jailed for 13 years by the Communist authorities in Vietnam, his book The Road to Hope was written in prison and smuggled out by a small boy. He recently spoke to Register correspondent Paul Burnell.

Burnell: Despite your work for reconciliation, you were imprisoned. Why?

Archbishop Thuan: I was in prison from 1975 to 1988. It was 13 years, three months and six days. Why was I in prison? I was already bishop of Hue when the Communists invaded South Vietnam. Pope Paul Vl said I should be transferred from my diocese to become coadjutor archbishop of Saigon, one week before Saigon was taken by the Communists. The Communists told me they thought that this transfer one week before they took Saigon was a conspiracy between the Vatican and others. They said I had to go back to my former diocese. I did not accept this and went to prison.

What was the effect on you?

I suffered very much because my people had no one to lead them. There were no more Catholic hospitals, no more seminaries. I was thinking, now what can I do for them, I am in prison? So one night the Lord gave me an inspiration. “Francis, you are stupid. When you are in prison you can do like St. Paul. When he was in prison he wrote letters, so do the same.” My first resolution was to live my present moment and to fill it to the brim with love.

Next morning I told a 7-year-old boy who was going to Mass to tell his mother to buy an old calendar and to bring it to me.

Each day I would write on the back of it and each day I would give it to the boy. I wrote it in one and a half months and finished it when I got to 1,001 sections. They are like 1,001 nights.

This became my book The Road to Hope. And now it has been produced in 11 languages. There is another book, Five Loaves and Two Fishes, which has been produced in eight languages.

How did your state of mind change in prison?

I was tormented at this time. How can I get to these people? I was 47 years of age with eight years experience as a bishop.

There was so much work of God to do. I felt this revolt in my heart. Then, one night there was a voice, “Choose God and not the works of God.” The seminary is a work of God, but it is not God, working with the young people is a work of God, but it is not God. I had to give it back to him in the confidence that God can do it much better than me. I felt peace in my heart because I was able to tell the difference between God and the work of God.

I realized I must progress every day first on the road to hope. I must live and always make this choice every day of my life — not to choose false hope, but to choose the real hope.

How were you able to pray in prison?

There were three things that helped me to pray.

People say, “Why can't you pray, Father? You have plenty of time to pray in prison; there is plenty of time for God in prison.” It is not easy to pray in prison. You have plenty of time, but your nervous system is broken because you are starving, you are hungry. Always, you feel injustice. It is very hard if you cannot pray.

I was praying, but sometimes you can pray no more. Some people did help me to pray in prison.

A guard was one.

The guards were told I was dangerous. I tried to talk to them; they did not talk with me. I knew some of them were choosing to study Latin. Many of the Communists learned Latin; maybe they were better than our seminaries! They were proud of it — they could read the documents of the Holy See.

One day one of the guards came to ask me to teach some Latin songs. “There are so many and so beautiful,” I told him. He replied “You sing, I'll choose.” So I sang Salve Regina, Ave Maris Stella and Veni Creator.

He chose Veni Creator. I wrote for him Veni Creator.

I said to myself, “Maybe he will never learn it, being a Communist.”

But really he learned it. Then, every morning, he sang it as he was doing his exercises at 7 a.m. [demonstrates by singing and moving his arms]. It was amazing. As I listened, I thanked God that when I could pray no more, he sent a Communist policeman to sing Veni Creator.

Another prisoner was another?

I changed prisons, and every day I would meet another prisoner.

Then, one day, he told me, “I have not been telling the truth, I have been sent to spy on you. You are good. I cannot tell anything against you. My home is not far away from a shrine to the appearance of our Lady, and so, when I go back to my town, every Sunday I will go there to pray for you.”

I thought, How will this spy know how to pray? Will he pray for me?

When I was put in solitary confinement, this man wrote to me saying he went to this shrine and said, “I stand there saying, ‘Mother I promised my friend to come here and pray for him. I am a Communist. I don't know any prayers. Please give him all the things he needs.’”

I thanked God. It is a really sincere way of praying, and when I could not pray, God sent people to teach me how to pray. This is the hope. When you have so many difficulties, God helps you always, you are never alone.

You mentioned that something else helped you to pray.

When I can't feel the presence of God, how can I try to make a prayer? I try to think on the life of Jesus, the most important being the last moments in this covenant, when Jesus instituted the Eucharist.

I said, “I will remember the covenant of Jesus in this testament Jesus gave me.” ... So when I can pray no more I must think about the testament of Jesus. I must think of prayer, then I must live every day, every moment, according to this testament, and his testament is love — he gave a lot to me.

How were you ever able to celebrate the sacraments in such conditions?

I wrote to some people saying, “Please send me some medicine for my stomach disease.” The people outside had the gift of the Holy Spirit that I wanted wine.

The chief of the prison called me and said, “Mr. Thuan, do you have a stomach disease?” I said, “Yes.”

He allowed them to send me a little bottle of wine and some hosts concealed in a torch. And so, with three drops of wine and one drop of water, I offered up the sacrifice of the Mass.

In what way has the Blessed Mother been important to you?

The first time I went to Lourdes, I prayed at the grotto and I was reminded of the words of our Lady to St. Bernadette, “I do not give you in this world, joy and consolation, but I give you tribulations and trials.” And I thought, are these words for me? Then I said, “No, they are for St. Bernadette.” I had consolation and joy but not trials and tribulations. But each time I came back to Lourdes I would hear these words. When I was put in prison I said, “These are truly for me.”

Important events have always happened on our Lady's feast days. Our Lady always helped me. I was arrested on the feast of the Assumption and I received many graces from her.

When I was in prison, I would say her prayer in confidence to the Blessed Virgin Mary. I pray every day a hundred times, “Ave Maria.”

In prison I prayed, “Mother, if you know I am not any use for the Church outside please give me the grace to die in prison. If you know that I can still serve the Church, please give me the grace to get out.”

What other extraordinary thing happened to you on a Marian feast day?

One rainy day I heard the telephone ring and I thought, maybe this is for me — this is the 21st [of] November, the feast of our Lady's Presentation.

I was told, “dress beautifully,” how can I dress beautifully when I am wearing prison clothes?

A car came to take me to the minister of interior and he asked me, “Do you wish to express any desires?” I replied, “Yes, I want to be freed.” He replied, “When?” I said, “Today.” He was surprised and I said, “I have been here a long time. I have been here under three Popes: Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II; and four secretary-generals of the Soviet Communist Party: Brezhnev, Chernenko, Andropov and Gorbachev.”

He began to laugh and nod his head saying, “That is true.”

Turning to his secretary he said, “Do what is necessary to fulfill his desire.”

I thought, “Today is the feast of the Madonna, the Presentation. Mary is setting me free. Thank you, Mother.”

When I speak in front of people before I pray, I am trembling. I say a prayer to our Lady, always the Memorare, and after the prayer I feel courage. Before I gave this talk, I prayed the Memorare.