“From the very first moment of my arrest, the words of Bishop John Walsh, who had been imprisoned for 12 years in Communist China, came to my mind. On the day of his liberation Bishop Walsh said, "I have spent half my life waiting."
It is true. All prisoners, myself included, constantly wait to be let go. I decided then and there that my captivity would not be merely a time of resignation but a turning point in my life. I decided I would not wait. I would live the present moment and fill it with love. For if I wait, the things I wait for will never happen. The only thing that I can be sure of is that I am going to die... Alone in my prison cell, I continued to be tormented by the fact that I was forty-eight 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.
One night, from the depths of my heart I could hear a voice advising me: "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, evangelising 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!"
Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan died on 16 September 2002. Just over one year later, a press conference at Vatican Radio launched his biography, written in Italian and with a couple of cardinals leading the gathering in the Sala Marconi, the large room in which such events are held. To be quite honest, I had no idea why I attended. I had never heard of Cardinal Van Thuan and with my abysmal Italian, I could be guaranteed to miss much of what was said. Unexpectedly, the press conference was an unforgettable experience. It seemed as though half of Vietnam had come along for the book launch. Every seat was filled. No standing room remained. Eventually someone fixed open the room’s two sets of double doors so that late arrivals could still (with some difficulty) hear what was happening.
I sat amongst an audience in which every single person was convinced that the late cardinal was a saint – and that included his brother cardinals. It was an amazing experience. One person after another seemed to be saying, “I knew this man personally and I believe he is a saint”. The only question seemed to be when Cardinal Van Thuan’s canonisation would take place since, at that particular moment, his official cause had not been opened.
Cardinal Van Thuan was appointed Coadjutor Archbishop of Saigon six days before the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. He was immediately arrested by the Communist Government and then detained in a ‘re-education camp’ for 13 years, nine of them in solitary confinement. He was eventually released on 21 November 1988.
Fortunately, some of Van Thuan’s experiences in prison are known to us in his own words:
“I was taken to prison empty-handed. Later on, I was allowed to request the strict necessities like clothing, toothpaste, etc. I wrote home saying "Send me some wine as medication for stomach pains". On the outside, the faithful understood what I meant. They sent me a little bottle of Mass wine, with a label reading "medication for stomach pains", as well as some hosts broken into small pieces...
I will never be able to express the joy that was mine: each day, with three drops of wine, a drop of water in the palm of my hand, I celebrated my Mass.
The six Catholics in my group of 50 prisoners tried to stay together. We lined up the boards we were given as beds; they were about 20 inches wide. We slept close together in order to be able to pray during the night.
At 9.30 every evening when lights out rang everyone had to be lying down. I bent over my wooden board and celebrated Mass, by heart of course, and distributed Communion to my neighbours under their mosquito nets. We made tiny bags from cigarette paper to protect the Blessed Sacrament. At night, the prisoners took turns and spent time in adoration. The Blessed Sacrament helped tremendously. Even Buddhists and other non-Christians were converted.”
Working slowly and gently, Cardinal Van Thuan also made friends with the prison guards, teaching them to read and write, carefully explaining books in terms of Christianity, although they did not realise what was happening. One guard even asked if he might learn songs in Latin! Van Thuan reflected, many years later, on the effects of offering to teach the man whichever song he chose: “And so I sang Salve Regina, Salve Mater, Lauda Sion, Veni Creator, Ave Maris Stella. You'll never guess the song he chose. The Veni Creator! I can't begin to tell you how moving it is to be in a Communist prison and hear your guard, coming down the stairs at seven every morning on his way to the gymnastics yard for physical exercises, singing the Veni Creator.”
After his release from prison and until his death, Van Thuan wore, as his pectoral cross, a tiny wooden cross which he had shaved from a piece of wood in his prison and had kept hidden inside a bar of soap. In another prison, a guard secretly helped him to make a chain for his cross, using a piece of wire.
“This cross and chain are not only my souvenir of captivity, as precious as that may seem. They are a constant reminder that only Christian charity can bring about a change of heart. Not arms, not threats, not the media.
It was very hard for my guards to understand when I spoke about loving our enemies, reconciliation and forgiveness."Do you really love us?" "Yes, I really love you." "Even when we cause you pain? When you suffer because you're in prison without trial?" "Look at all the years we've spent together. Of course, I love you!" "And when you get out, will you tell your people to find us and beat us and hurt our families?" "I'll continue to love you even if you wish to kill me." "But why?" "Because Jesus taught us to love always; if we don't, we are no longer worthy to be called Christians."
On 1 January 2012, Cardinal Jean Baptiste Pham Minh Man of Ho Chi Minh City announced that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints has approved closer examination of Cardinal Van Thuan’s life with a view to possible future beatification or canonisation. Many already believe that he was a very holy, very brave man whose life was eminently ‘worthy of imitation’. Perhaps we really did have a living saint in our midst.