Cardinal Văn Thuận: Vietnam’s Witness to Hope

Overshadowed by the news of the upcoming canonization of two popular popes was the advancement of the cause of a heroic Vietnamese bishop.

Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận.
Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận. (photo:

VATICAN CITY — Last week’s major news stories announcing the canonizations of Blessed Pope John Paul II and Blessed Pope John XXIII, and the release of Pope Francis’ first encyclical, eclipsed another important news item that day: the completion of the diocesan phase of the beatification cause of Vietnamese Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận.

Although not beatified, the heroic life story of the cardinal, who died in 2002 at the age of 76, merits wide attention.

On April 24, 1975, six days before the city fell to the North Vietnamese army, Father Van Thuận was appointed coadjutor archbishop of Saigon. It led to his subsequent arrest by the new communist regime, which sent him to a “re-education camp” for 13 years, nine of which were in solitary confinement.

During those years in jail, he found himself in a situation of seemingly utter hopelessness.

But instead of wallowing in his misfortune, he saw it as an opportunity to come into closer communion with Christ, increasing his hope, which he was then able to pass on to others.

After his release in 1988, he was exiled in 1991, but welcomed home by Pope John Paul II, who made him an official in the Roman Curia. The Holy Father later appointed him president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, a post he held from 1998 to 2002. He was elevated to the College of Cardinals in 2001.

Meeting with those who helped complete the diocesan phase of Cardinal Thuận’s beatification last week, Pope Francis recalled his “witness to hope,” saying his memory is still alive and that he had a “spiritual presence that continues to bring his blessing.”

Many people were edified by their encounter with Cardinal Van Thuận, the Pope added, and many recall “his gentle smile and the greatness of his soul.”

“Many came to know him through his writings, simple and profound, which reveal his priestly spirit, closely united to the One who had called him to be a minister of his mercy and his love,” Pope Francis told the Vietnamese delegation. “So many people have written to tell of graces [received] and signs attributed to the intercession of the Servant of God Cardinal Văn Thuận. We thank the Lord for this venerable brother, son of the East, who ended his earthly journey in the service of the Successor of St. Peter.”


‘Simple and Humble’

Kishore Jayabalan, who worked with Cardinal Văn Thuận as an official at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said he was “extremely simple and humble” and recalled his unassuming nature when they first met.

“He came in to see me unannounced and without any fanfare; I didn’t even recognize him and thought it was some old priest who happens to work there coming to say hello,” Jayabalan recalled to the Register. “It was only when I saw his pectoral cross that I realized who he was.”

In another anecdote, Jayabalan recalled the moment when two newly ordained priests came to visit the pontifical council and asked for his blessing. “I didn’t see him in his office, but we later found him in the mailroom, sorting through the mail,” he said. “When asked for his blessing, he knelt down right there, in the cramped mailroom, and pulled the hands of the priests towards him and made them give him a blessing first.”

Those closest to him remember the Vietnamese cardinal for his inner joy. “He was almost always smiling or laughing, but never in a superficial or happy-go-lucky way,” said Jayabalan. “You could tell his joy came through his suffering and identification with Christ.”

He was also known for his knack for impersonations, which he learned watching his prison guards, and is said to have done “especially good ones” of John Paul II and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, then the Vatican’s secretary of state.

Jayabalan, who is now Rome director of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, said he would be “especially impressed” if Pope Francis — who has often warned against worldly ambition among priests and officials — held up Cardinal Văn Thuận as a model Curial official. “He was never a careerist and put the spiritual life above everything else,” he said. “Personal sanctity is possible in every place and time, even in the Curia.”

He added, “It may seem strange that someone like Cardinal Văn Thuận would be the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace; he wasn’t, after all, a political or economic thinker or reformer.” But Jayabalan said he believed Pope John Paul II wanted to show that, as important as political and economic structures are, “identifying oneself with Christ is the real way to achieve justice and peace.”


Cardinal Rules

Much of Archbishop Văn Thuận’s holiness can be traced to that harrowing experience in a Vietnamese jail in the 1970s and 1980s.

He once said of his confinement that he was happy there, as it was God’s turn to speak and for him to listen.

He also devised the following “10 Rules of Life”:

“I will live the present moment to the fullest.”

“I will discern between God and God’s works.”

“I will hold firmly to one secret: prayer.”

“I will see in the holy Eucharist my only power.”

“I will have only one wisdom: the science of the cross.”

“I will remain faithful to my mission in the Church and for the Church as a witness of Jesus Christ.”

“I will seek the peace the world cannot give.”

“I will carry out a revolution by renewal in the Holy Spirit.”

“I will speak one language and wear one uniform: charity.”

“I will have one very special love: the Blessed Virgin Mary.”

The cause for the beatification of Cardinal Văn Thuận opened in 2007. Benedict XVI expressed his “profound joy” at the announcement, as did Catholics in Vietnam, who consider him “an example of holiness for the Catholics of Vietnam and the entire world.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.