imagesNguyen Van Thuan was born into a prominent Vietnamese family with a long Catholic tradition.  His relatives were among the Vietnamese martyrs since l698, including the assassinated Vietnam leader, President Diem.  Father Van Thuan had premonition that he would suffer martyrdom just like his relatives, therefore his arrest and imprisonment by the communist regime did not come as a surprise.    However, while Thuan was in prison, his jailers asked him why he was usually so happy and he replied, ”Because I have faith in my God.”[1] Father Van Thuan was appointed the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and was subsequently elevated to Cardinal in 2001 by Pope John Paul II.

Father Thuan’s exemplary leadership led to his appointment as coadjutor of Saigon in 1975, but his period in office was short-lived as he was arrested and detained by the communist regime. The communist regime did not approve the appointment of Father Van Thuan as the titular Archbishop of Vadesi and Archbishop Coadjutor with rights of succession to the Archbishop of Saigon[2]     During Thuan’s imprisonment for 13 years, he spent 9 years in solitary confinement at Vinh Quang prison.  According to him, “I have personally experienced the sorrow of a pastor forbidden to care for his people and forced to abandon his diocese. It caused me great torment to be in prison while the people were abandoned. But I discovered that it had all been God’s work” [3].

While Father Thuan was in prison, he did not despair. Instead of self-pity, Fr Thuan saw the time in prison as an opportunity to come into closer communion with Christ, increasing his hope, which he was then able to pass on to others. [4] He taught one of his jailers to sing the ancient hymn, and whenever he fell into depression, the Communist guard sang it for him, improving his spirits. [5]   Van Thuan also said that “Initially my guards were changed every fifteen days. Prison authorities believed the guards risked being contaminated if left with me for any length of time. Eventually they stopped changing them because apparently they were afraid I would contaminate the whole force, the love of Christ has great power to change people.” [6]

Narrating about his prison life, Van Thuan said that he spent several months in a narrow space without windows and he almost suffocated from heat and humidity.  The poor ventilation in the space made it difficult for him to breath.  He maintained that he was further tortured by leaving the lights on during day and night for ten days and then depriving him of light for longer periods.   Father Thuan said “One day in the darkness I noticed a tiny hole through which the light shone. From then on I used to put my nostrils there to breathe more easily.” [7]    He also recalled that “Whenever there were floods snakes used to invade my cell and sometimes climbed my legs to avoid the water. They used to stay with me until the floods passed. I had no toilet but since I received hardly any food I had little need of one.” [8]

However, in spite of this ill treatments from the jailers, Father Van Thuan maintained that he danced sang and prayed while in prison and that prayer saved his life.  He said “In moments of great suffering, sometimes when I wanted to pray I could not. I was desperately tired, sick and hungry often; I was tempted to despair and rebel. But the Lord always helped me.” [9]   Thuan learned to have faith in God right from his childhood, owing to his exemplary mother, Elizabeth.  “Every evening she told her son stories from the Bible and those of the martyrs of Vietnam, especially of his ancestors. She introduced him to St. Theresa of the Infant Jesus and taught him to love and forgive; she also taught him to cherish his homeland of Vietnam.” [10]

Thuan grew up knowing the importance of sticking to his faith in God, love for his neighbors and forgiving others that had done wrong to him.   After his appointment in 1967 as the first Vietnamese Bishop of Nha Trang to replace Bishop Raymond Paul Piquet, he made remarkable effort in the development of the diocese before the advent of the difficult times.  During his administration, he increased the number of seminaries from 42 to 147 and organized formation of training courses for grassroots, youths, and for the justice and peace movements. [11]  Before his death at the age of 74 in 2002, he was mentioned as possible replacement of the Pope. [12]   He was persecuted for his religious belief, but he never allowed his personal ordeal stand in the way of his love for God and people he served. He maintained preaching forgiveness and reconciliation till the very end.

[1] “Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, 74; Was Held Prisoner in Vietnam – New York Times,” accessed December 30, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/21/world/cardinal-nguyen-van-thuan-74-was-held-prisoner-in-vietnam.html.

[2] “Life – Cardinal Van Thuân International Observatory,” accessed December 30, 2013, http://www.vanthuanobservatory.org/cardinale-van-thuan/la-vita.php?lang=en.

[3] “Preaching Hope from Prison: Cardinal François Nguyen Van Thuan | Catholicireland.net,” accessed December 22, 2013, http://www.catholicireland.net/preaching-hope-from-prison-cardinal-francois-nguyen-van-thuan/.

[4] “Cardinal Văn Thuận: Vietnam’s Witness to Hope | Daily News | NCRegister.com,” accessed December 22, 2013, http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/cardinal-vn-thun-vietnams-witness-to-hope/.

[5] “Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, 74; Was Held Prisoner in Vietnam – New York Times,” accessed December 22, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/21/world/cardinal-nguyen-van-thuan-74-was-held-prisoner-in-vietnam.html.

[6] “Preaching Hope from Prison: Cardinal François Nguyen Van Thuan | Catholicireland.net.” http://www.catholicireland.net/preaching-hope-from-prison-cardinal-francois-nguyen-van-thuan/

[7] “PREACHING HOPE FROM PRISON | Misyon Online,” accessed December 30, 2013, http://www.misyononline.com/new/mar-apr2006/PREACHING-HOPE-FROM-PRISON.

[8] PREACHING HOPE FROM PRISON | Misyon Online,” accessed December 30, 2013, http://www.misyononline.com/new/mar-apr2006/PREACHING-HOPE-FROM-PRISON.bid.

[9]  “Preaching Hope from Prison: Cardinal François Nguyen Van Thuan | Catholicireland.net.” http://www.catholicireland.net/preaching-hope-from-prison-cardinal-francois-nguyen-van-thuan/

[10] “Biography of the Cardinal Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan – FIAT – Mater Unitatis,” accessed December 28, 2013, http://fiat.materunitatis.org/spes/biography-of-the-cardinal-francois-xavier-nguyen-van-thuan.

[11]  “Biography of the Cardinal Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan – FIAT – Mater Unitatis,” accessed December 28, 2013, http://fiat.materunitatis.org/spes/biography-of-the-cardinal-francois-xavier-nguyen-van-thuan.

[12] “Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, 74; Was Held Prisoner in Vietnam – New York Times,” accessed December 30, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/21/world/cardinal-nguyen-van-thuan-74-was-held-prisoner-in-vietnam.html.