Cardinal François Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan
Van Thuan was born on April 17, 1928 at Hue, Viet Nam. Van Thuan came from a family of martyrs. From 1885 to 1888, tens of thousands of Catholics were killed by the van than militia, and among them were Van Thuan’s relatives from the village of Phu Cam. Warned of an imminent attatck, the Catholics of the village fled to their church to pray. Van than surrounded the church and set it ablaze and almost the entire community of Catholics died that night, including the family of Thuan's grandfather. Among the survivors were Thuan's great-grandmother, grandfather, who were not in Phu Cam that night, and one great aunt who escaped the inferno.
Cardinal Van Thuan’s mother, who is still alive, played an important role in his formation. He says of her, "She taught me stories from the Bible every night, she told me the stories of our martyrs, especially of our ancestors; she taught me love for my country. She was the strong woman who buried her brothers massacred by traitors, whom she sincerely pardoned."
In 1941, Thuan joined An Ninh Minor Seminary and was ordained on June 11, 1953. After six years of further studies in Rome, he was successively faculty member and rector of the Seminary of Nha Trang between the years 1959-1967.
He was appointed deputy archbishop of Saigon April 24, 1975. Within days of his appointment, Saigon fell to the communist Viet Cong and a few months later, the new bishop of Saigon was targeted for his faith as well as his family connection to Ngo Dinh Diem, the assassinated South Vietnamese president. He was jailed by the Communist government and spent 13 years in a communist ''re-education'' camp, nine of them in solitary confinement. He was never tried or sentenced. Speaking again of his mother, Van Thuan said, When I was in prison, she was my great comfort. She said to all, ‘Pray that my son will be faithful to the Church and remain where God wants him.’"
During that time in prison, the bishop sought to console his people by smuggling out messages to his people on scraps of paper. These brief reflections, copied by hand and circulated within the Vietnamese community, have been printed in the book The Road of Hope. Another book, Prayers of Hope, contains his prayers written in prison. The bishop fashioned a tiny Bible out of scraps of paper. Sympathetic guards smuggled in a piece of wood and some wire from which he crafted a small crucifix.
How he survived the horror of that time is described in a little book Five Loaves and Two Fish, made up of talks he gave to young people. He not only survived, but emerged as a man of transparent integrity, calm serenity and joyful hope. In his book The Way of Hope, Thoughts of Light from a Prison Cell, Thuan wrote: ''In our country there is a saying: ‘A day in prison is worth a thousand autumns of freedom.' I myself experienced this. While in prison, everyone waits for freedom, every day, every minute. We must live each day, each minute of our life as though it is the last.''
Van Thuan was freed on November 21, 1988 and forced into exile. He was received by John Paul II into the Vatican, and ran the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, handling issues such as Third World debt.
During the Jubilee Year 2000, the John Paul II invited him to preach the annual retreat for the Pope and the members of the Roman Curia between March 12 and 18, 2000.
He asked Archbishop van Thuan to speak of his experience as one who could well be called a living martyr, a witness to the Faith. The retreat talks were part of the daily e-mail dispatches of Zenit, an international news agency. Through this retreat, the world began to know Van Thuan and to hunger for his message of hope.
His talks were later published under the title of Testimony of Hope. The title is appropriate, for his talks all speak of joy and hope, even in suffering and beyond the fear of death.
Van Thuan was created a cardinal deacon on February 21, 2001 and received the red biretta and deaconry of S. Maria della Scala. Within a week, Viêt Nam's Foreign Ministry eased restrictions and the Cardinal could enter his native country with only routine immigration procedures and was afforded all the privileges normally given to overseas citizens.
Nguyen Van Thuan died of cancer on September 16, 2002 in a clinic in Rome. He was 74.
Although he was made a cardinal only last year, Thuan had already appeared on lists of possible successors to Pope John Paul II, particularly by those believing the next pontiff could come from a poor, non-European country. Vietnam has the largest Roman Catholic community in Asia after the Philippines.
The funeral took place on September 20, 2002, at 5:30 p.m., in the altar of the Confession of the Vatican basilica. Pope John Paul II presided and preached the homily, the Ultima Commendatio and the Valedictio. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, secretary of State, concelebrated the mass together with other cardinals.
The Miracle of Hope:
Life of Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan
Political Prisoner, Prophet of Peace
By Andre Nguyen Van Chau
Written by a personal friend of Cardianl Thuan, this moving biography chronicles the life of the man Pope John Paul II says was, “….marked by a heroic configuration with Christ on the cross.” From a communist jail cell, to Rome as the leader of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan remained a man of unshakable faith and undying hope.
My captors, my friends: Cardinal Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan
Cardinal van Thuan, who spent nine years in solitary confinement, visiting at his sister Anne’s home in Sydney last week Photo: Dan McAloon
If I was serious about Christianity, I knew I had to love my captors, said Vietnam’s Cardinal Van Thuan, who was in Sydney visiting family last week. Report by Johanna Bennett and Marita Franklin.
They changed his Polish guards every two weeks but eventually gave up as he steadily converted all those sent to guard him and his captors came to fear if he carried on he would convert them all.
One of the 44 new cardinals appointed by Pope John Paul II in February, Cardinal Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan was in Sydney last week on a private visit to see his family. His mother, aged 98, and his two sisters live here. One of them, Anne, who came to Australia in 1961, spent many years campaigning for the release of her brother after he was jailed by the Communist Government in 1975. He was to spend the next 13 years in prison – nine of them in solitary confinement.
Speaking in Sydney last week, Cardinal Van Thuan said he had recognised the possibility of going mad and told how his faith saved him, strengthened him and led to conversion of many of those who guarded him.
Now 73, and still the Archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), the new cardinal told how he kept himself sane by exercising every day and by befriending his guards, telling himself that if he was serious about Christianity he had to love these people. The friendships that grew between himself and his guards eventually grew so strong that they began smuggling pieces of paper into him so he could write. On these he wrote his book, The Road to Hope, his little book of reflections on hope that kept his mind active and helped preserve his sanity.
He also asked his guards if they would bring him a small piece of timber so he might make himself a cross. Religious artifacts were not allowed so when he finished his cross he had to hide it in a piece of soap. When he was eventually released from jail he had his prison cross covered in metal with decorative holes cut in the metal so the original wood of the cross would show through.
His guards also helped him fashion a chain from electric wire they brought him. Initially reluctant to give him the wire, because they thought he intended to commit suicide, they eventually bought him a length of wire and some pincers. The prisoner and one of the guards then made a chain in four hours – the length of private time they had available. They did this by cutting the wire into 44 pieces and twisting them into links. The chain now bears his pectoral cross, the insignia of his new office.
A Thanksgiving Mass was held at St Mary’s Cathedral last Wednesday at which Cardinal Clancy welcomed Cardinal Van Thuan to Australia. He has “suffered grievously for his faith”, said the cardinal. “Visiting Australia, now as a cardinal, he will surely be a source of inspiration and hope for us all.”
Cardinal Van Thuan gave the homily at the Mass – first in English then in Vietnamese. He also speaks Italian, French, Spanish, Latin and even some Russian. Prison, he said, gives you time for such intellectual pursuits.
In his homily he told how “Australia is my second homeland” as his parents are here. His mother lives here and his father is buried here. They came to Australia in 1975, sponsored by the cardinal’s sister, Anne, arriving just five days before Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, was taken by the Communist forces.
In Vietnamese culture, said Cardinal Van Thuan, we believe that where your parents are that is your homeland.
The cardinal also thanked Australia for its “struggle for my freedom”. His sister Anne lobbied intensely for her brother’s release. She and their parents were greatly aided by the Australian bishops, as well as Amnesty International and the International Society for Human Rights, who also helped campaign for Cardinal Van Thuan’s release.
Cardinal Van Thuan also told how he first visited Australia in 1963 and met many of the clergy, including Cardinal Gilroy and Cardinal Freeman and Dr Mannix. Since he had gone to Rome, he said, he had made friends with many Australian priests who had proved “faithful friends in good and bad times”.
Appointed Bishop of Nha Trang in 1967, Cardinal Van Thuan was appointed Bishop of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) seven years later, but was imprisoned after a crackdown on the Catholic Church for both his faith and his family connections. He was the nephew of President Diem who was assassinated in 1963.
He was released from prison in 1988 and exiled from Vietnam in 1991 and has never been back. He says he has not been asked and needs to pick the time and circumstances for a visit, although he said recently that since being made a cardinal there had been “good signs of openness” towards the Catholic Church in his homeland.
There are seven million Catholics in Vietnam – eight per cent of the population. The cardinal said that nowadays they are allowed to practise their religion but there are no Catholic schools or hospitals. But other recent reports say that leaders and members of all religious groups in Vietnam are still strictly controlled by the state, and people continue to be harassed for their religious beliefs.
The cardinal remains the Archbishop of Saigon.
“After I was released I was allowed to go to Rome to meet the Pope,” he said. “The Pope said I had suffered enough and the Church would not punish me anymore.” He was to be allowed to return to Vietnam. But the Vietnamese Government would not allow this so, instead, he was named vice-president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, of which he became president in 1998.
Since then he has spent his time travelling the world promoting justice and peace, of which he himself is a living example. A man of such peace and goodwill, he forgave even his captors and made such good friendships with them that he converted them by the example of his own most Christian conduct.
But even these days he doesn’t feel totally blessed.
Asked if he could be the first Asian Pope, he says “God only knows”. But he does feel that, like the much-loved but rather ugly Pope John XXIII, if this were to come about he should have blessed with a more photogenic face.