Cardinal F.X Nguyen Van Thuan: The Lord's true witness

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One of our world’s great witnesses to Jesus Christ died on 16 September 2002 at the age of 74. Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyên Vãn Thuân, President of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, succumbed to cancer.

His story is astonishing.

The future prelate was born in Huê, Vietnam on 17 April 1928. A pious lad from a devout family that counted among its relatives some of the early Vietnamese martyrs, François-Xavier was ordained to the Sacred Priesthood on 11 June 1953. Six years later, he obtained the Doctorate in Canon Law from the Pontifical Urban University, Rome.

Father Vãn Thuân’s prayerfulness and brilliance were quickly recognized. He was appointed as seminary professor and later as the seminary rector and Vicar General of the Diocese. Pope Paul VI nominated him as the Bishop of Nha Trang on 13 April 1967.

The same Sovereign Pontiff, in 1975, named Bishop Vãn Thuân as Coadjutor Archbishop of Saigon (now known as Hô Chí Minh City). His Excellency took as his episcopal motto the title of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes” (“The Joy and Hope”).

The triumph of South Vietnam by the Communists was completed that year; the entire country had gone red. The new Coadjutor Archbishop was arrested on the Solemnity of the Assumption, 15 August 1975, and incarcerated for thirteen years, nine of which were endured in solitary confinement in Vinh Phu prison in Hanoi.

The Archbishop was conscious of his bond to an esteemed group of persecuted Vietnamese Catholics who meekly but resolutely carried the Cross of Christ. Within 300 years, 130,000 Vietnamese Catholics died for the Faith, of whom 118 have been beatified. The number of Catholics in Vietnam since 1975 who similarly have died is unknown.

Archbishop Vãn Thuân was released from prison in 1988 to house arrest; he was denied permission to perform his pastoral duties. He was allowed to leave Vietnam in March 1989 to visit his elderly parents in Sydney, Australia and he also traveled to Rome where he met with Pope John Paul II.

In 1991, the Archbishop was expelled from his beloved Vietnam.

The Holy Father named Archbishop Vãn Thuân the Vice President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in November 1994 and promoted him to the Presidency on 24 June 1998—thirty-one years to the day he was ordained to the Episcopate. In March during the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 he preached the annual Lenten Retreat to the Pontiff and the members of the Roman Curia.

The Holy Father created Archbishop Vãn Thuân a cardinal in the Consistory of 21 February 2001.

In 2002, a few months before his death which, in the words of the Holy Father, had been preceded by “a long and painful illness,” Cardinal Vãn Thuân acknowledged that soon the Church will publish a compendium of her doctrine regarding important social issues—like wealth, unemployment, resources and debt.

Upon the Cardinal’s death, Pope John Paul sent a telegram of condolence to his one hundred year-old Mother who lived in a nursing home in Rome.

On 20 September 2002, the Holy Father presided and preached at the Mass of Christian Burial celebrated by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican Secretary of State. During his homily, Pope John Paul disclosed the “pearl” that enriched Cardinal Vãn Thuân’s life: “His secret was indomitable trust in God, nourished by prayer and suffering, accepted with love.”

Now we know a little about this Vietnamese hero. But does he teach us something?

Yes! Here are a few gems that we glean from Cardinal Vãn Thuân’s words and actions.

The Risen Lord Jesus Christ is our only hope. Isolated in prison for over a decade, the Coadjutor Archbishop of Saigon could have despaired. Instead, he remained steeped in prayer and penance, constantly keeping his eyes fixed on the Master. The humble inmate knew that the beneficent Savior would not abandon him. And his loyalty to and trust in Jesus provided a stellar example for his jailers and fellow prisoners.

The Most Holy Eucharist is our most magnificent treasure. How easy it is for those who routinely have access to Mass to treat the Bread of Life and Chalice of Salvation with an over-familiarity—and worse, carelessness. Not the imprisoned Archbishop! He gladly offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass behind bars. If he had been discovered, he would have been punished severely. The Cardinal described his clandestine Masses: “Every day, with three drops of wine and a drop of water in the palm of my hand, I would celebrate Mass. This was my Altar, and this was my Cathedral! ( . . . ) Each day in reciting the words of Consecration, I confirmed with all my heart and soul a new pact, an eternal pact between Jesus and me through His Blood mixed with mine. Those were the most beautiful Masses of my life!”

Love and forgiveness of enemies is obligatory, not optional. Bitterness was not in the Archbishop’s vocabulary. He freely and willingly loved and pardoned his captors. When a prison guard expressed his disbelief that the prelate could love him and the others who jailed him without a proper trial and sentence, Archbishop Vãn Thuân replied: “. . . Jesus has taught me to love everyone. If I don’t, I am no longer worthy to be called a Christian.” The Madonna: our tender and available Mother. In prison the Archbishop pleaded: “Mother, if you see that I can no longer be useful to your Church, grant me the grace to consume my life in prison. Otherwise, allow me to leave prison on one of your Feasts.” On 21 November 1988, the Memorial of the Presentation of Mary, Archbishop Vãn Thuân was summoned to see the Minister of the Interior and granted his unexpected release from jail. He never forgot, whether in or out of custody, the Virgin of Tenderness who delights in assisting her children, regardless of the seemingly impossible circumstance.

To assert that Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyên Vãn Thuân was a spiritual giant of the twentieth century is no overstatement. And perhaps some of us may even live to see him elevated to the glories of the Altar. Whatever happens, one thing is certain: the unpretentious Cardinal Vãn Thuân, who lived under the gentle mantle of the Immaculata, displayed the abundant charity and unparalleled mercy of Christ both inside and outside of detention. For that, the Church in the Third Christian Millennium is much richer.

The Holy Father’s Lenten Retreat given by Cardinal Vãn Thuân has been published as “Testimony of Hope” (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2000).

Monsignor Charles M. Mangan

Catholic Online 2004