‘My name is Francis-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, and I am Vietnamese, but in Tanzania and Nigeria, the youth call me Uncle Francis, which is a bit simpler, or, even better, just plain Francis.
Until 23 April 1975 I was, for eight years, bishop of Nha Trang in central Vietnam... On 23 April 1975, however, Pope Paul VI named me coadjutor archbishop of Saigon. When the Communists arrived in Saigon, they told me this nomination was the result of a conspiracy between the Vatican and the imperialists to organize resistance to the Communist regime. Three months later... I was placed under arrest. It was the day of the Blessed Virgin's Assumption, 15 August 1975.’
19 years of imprisonment, 9 of them in solitary confinement, followed the arrest of the future Cardinal Van Thuan. Facing suffering and perhaps torture and death, at the time of his arrest, his thoughts were, nevertheless, not for himself but for his flock. Years later, he described his agony: 'My people, whom I love so dearly: a flock without a shepherd! How can I reach my people in the very moment when they most need their pastor? The Catholic libraries have been confiscated, the schools closed, the Sisters and Religious who were teachers have been sent to work in the rice fields. The separation was a shock that destroyed my heart.'
Still under house arrest, his prayers received an answer. “One night a light came. “Francis, it is very simple. Do what St Paul did when he was in prison: write letters to the different communities.” Very early next morning, he summoned a 7 year-old boy, telling him to ask his mother to buy some old pads of paper and then, every night for the next two months, Van Thuan wrote his messages to his people. Each morning the same child would collect his work and, with his brothers and sisters, would copy and distribute the prisoner’s words. Scared of being transported elsewhere before he had finished, during those few weeks, Van Thuan wrote 1,001 pages to comfort and support those he would leave behind.
Eventually Van Thuan’s house arrest ended and the anticipated moment of transfer to prison arrived. Yet again, his thoughts were for others: “When the Communists put me in the hold of the boat, the Hai-Phong, along with 1,500 other prisoners and moved us to the North, I said to myself, ‘Here is my cathedral. Here are the people God has given me to care for. Here is my mission: to ensure the presence of God among these, my despairing, miserable brothers. It is God's will that I am here. I accept his will’. And from that minute onwards, a new peace filled my heart and stayed with me for thirteen years.”
At first, Van Thuan was with other prisoners. “I was taken to prison empty-handed. Later on, I was allowed to request the strict necessities… 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. The police asked me: ‘Do you have pains in your stomach?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Here is some medicine for you!’” Then, with three drops of wine and a drop of water in the palm of his hand, he celebrated Mass. “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. At night, the prisoners took turns and spent time in adoration.”
Gradually Van Thuan started teaching, not only prisoners, but also his guards. Even lessons on the French and Latin languages and history were opportunities for catechesis. A combined group of prisoners and guards began studying Latin. “One of my guards was in the Latin class and one day he asked me if I could teach him songs in Latin. ‘There are so many and they are all so beautiful’. ‘You sing and I'll choose,’ he retorted. 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.”
Van Thuan was freed on 21 November 1988 and forced into exile, carrying with him to Rome the tiny wooden cross which he had made in his cell and had hidden inside a block of soap. Mounted in silver, this became his pectoral cross, which he wore until his death from cancer on 20 September 2002.
Finally, in July this year, Vatican Radio announced the closure of the diocesan phase of the beatification process for the Cardinal whom they described as a ‘gentle hero’. Two miracles are required for a candidate for beatification: at present three possible miracles are under consideration.
The first possible miracle is that of Sister Marie Thi Lan, of the Congregation of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate, whose eyes were healed in 2009 without the surgical intervention which was considered essential if her sight were to be saved.
The second also occurred in Cardinal Van Thuan’s home diocese of Hue, where Mrs Mary Le Thi Than, aged 70, was bed-ridden for over 40 years because of a severe form of neuralgia. She prayed to the Cardinal and has recently resumed a normal life.
The third involves a seminarian from Denver, Colorado, Joseph Nguyen, who went into a 32-day coma during a ‘flu-like illness’ which was actually H1N1 ‘Swine Flu’, and severe pneumonia. Placed on life support, his death certificate had already been written when Nguyen suddenly and unexpectedly emerged from his unconsciousness. “During my coma, there are only two things I remember,” he said. “The only two things I remember are two visions of Cardinal Van Thuan … He appeared to me twice.” Within a few days, Nguyen had recovered full health.
Cardinal Francis-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan never once said that his imprisonment, with its hardships and humiliations, was easy. Perhaps, somewhere in Heaven, he might compare notes with the late Bishop Hong of North Korea, also imprisoned by a brutal Communist regime, and the late Cardinal Adam Koslowiecki SJ of Zambia, who survived 5 years in Dachau and Auschwitz. Cardinal Koslowiecki often declared that his incarceration was the most fruitful learning experience of his life. One thing is certain: both Cardinals Hong and Koslowiecki would identify with Van Thuan’s prayer:
"I am happy here, in this cell, where white mushrooms are growing on my sleeping mat, because you are here with me, because you want me to live here with you. I have spoken much in my lifetime: now I speak no more. It's your turn to speak to me, Jesus; I am listening to you."