Cardinal François Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan
During the Mass celebrated at the conclusion of the conference on “Ecclesial Movements and the New Evangelization” Cardinal François Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, Prefect of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, addressed the following words to the assembled priests.
As you know, just when I was nominated Archbishop of Saigon, the Communists had seized power, and I ended up in prison even before I could be installed as bishop in the diocese. In all sincerity, I have to say that knowing Chiara Lubich and her charism of unity, saved me during those long years. You already know of the book where I tell many things about my own prison experience. Here I would like to speak to you about some aspects of those experiences that seem particularly relevant with regard to the theme of this conference on evangelization.
One of the most difficult moments that I ever lived in my life was when they chained me in order to transport me by ship, along with 1,500 other prisoners, towards North Vietnam. You can just imagine what the psychological atmosphere was like among those people! Every one of them was deeply traumatized and depressed. One night, in the dark, we went down into the hull of the ship. In that moment, I also felt confused.
I asked myself: “Why does the Lord leave me here? I am a young bishop. I’ve had eight years pastoral experience as bishop. Now the Lord, through Paul VI, nominates me Archbishop. And here I am in prison! Why does the Lord permit this disaster?” I could not understand.
The next day the other prisoners saw me. The non-Catholics did not recognize me, but the Catholics did and they immediately said to the others: “Bishop Van Thuan is among us!” Then all the non-Catholics – the Buddhists, the Kadists, followers of Hoa Hao, Muslims, and evangelical Christians of various dominations – came to me. They were as if in mourning. All thought that we were on our way to die in North Vietnam. There it would be so much colder and, at a distance of almost 1700 km, we were so far from home. Who could visit us there? They thought that death was inevitable. So they all stayed close by me.
In that moment the Lord gave me the grace I needed. He revolutionized my priestly life. It was as if he said to me: “I call you to a new ministry of evangelization. Up to now you have been a pastor in your diocese. You celebrated great ceremonies, you had structures, organized pastoral activity. But it’s here you are a missionary, and evangelizer… Here, these prisoners are the people entrusted to you. Don’t think any longer about your cathedral. This ship, this prison, is your most beautiful cathedral.”
So I had a whole change of heart. I understood that this was the new pastoral ministry asked of me. Every day I felt united to these people also in suffering and hunger, searching for the presence of Jesus in our midst that was born from reciprocal love. I had to serve those who needed God.
It’s in this way that we started. During the night fifty people slept on a common bed. We lay head to head and feet facing outward. I asked six Catholics to stay near me and when it was dark I celebrated mass. I celebrated it with three drops of wine and a drop of water in the palm of my hand. They were the most beautiful masses of my life. After I passed the communion under the mosquito nets for the others, I reserved the Blessed Sacrament. The following day we collected some cardboard cigarette boxes from the other prisoners in order to make pouches and reserve the Eucharist in them.
Every Friday the whole prison was gathered together for a “re-education” process in which the Communist perspective was communicated. When there was a break, the Catholics with me used the time to bring these pouches and distribute communion to the Catholics who were in each group of prisoners.
Helped by the Eucharistic presence they prayed during the night. This happened during work too, because each of them in the camps took it in turns to carry the Eucharist under their clothing, and this presence of Jesus gave them strength and encouragement. This transformed their life.
Slowly many non-Catholics came and asked to become Christian. And so these prisoners became catechists for the others. In a hidden way, they baptized them and became their sponsors. The prison soon become for them and me the most beautiful catechetical school.
During that time I understood why Saint Paul had gone to die, like Jesus, outside the walls. Outside the walls of Jerusalem. Outside the walls of Rome. Because we have to go ‘out’ towards the non-Catholics, the abandoned Christians, those who don’t know God or even those who consider themselves enemies of God. All are entrusted to us; no one is estranged from our concern, our service, and our practical love. From that moment this became a true reality in my life.
John Paul II has encouraged us to engage in a “new evangelization”, new in content, methods and ardour. We lived “ardour” during that terrible period. One point struck me strongly. All the correspondence I could receive was just two letters a year from my mother. But one day a letter arrived for me from Chiara Lubich. I don’t know how, but it arrived, the police passed it on to me. It was a great source of joy and sustenance for me, because I felt in communion with you all, notwithstanding the isolation and distance.
Catholics gave a great witness in prison. At a certain point, the number of priests in prisons throughout Vietnam numbered 300. The most amazing and incomprehensible feature for the prison guards and Communist police was the love they found in these people.
My own prison warders, after they became my friends, told me how their superiors had said to them when they were sent to guard us: “This bishop Van Thuan is very dangerous. We will send you to guard him, but only for two weeks at a time. We will change guard every fortnight with another group of five policemen. Otherwise, if you stay longer with him, he will contaminate you. The superiors soon noticed that more and more of the guards became my friends. The prison warders were summoned and were told:: “We will not change you anymore, because if we change you every two weeks he will infect the whole police force!”
How could I “contaminate” them? I did not posses any means; I was in a limited and humiliating situation. Humanly speaking I had nothing in my favour. But there was always the heart! For this reason, I always asked myself what I could do for them, for the two warders who were constantly with me. For the first nine years, in fact, during which I was in solitary confinement, there were only the two guards with me and nobody else.
I tried to speak with them, but they avoided responding to me. Little by little, I told them interesting stories of my journeys in Europe, Asia, and in Australia. They were excited and curious and started asking me questions. They also became my “alumni,” as they wanted me to teach them French and English. This helped build between us a relationship of friendship.
One day I had to chop a considerable amount of wood. So I asked one of the guards:
Would you allow me to cut up a piece of wood into the form of a cross?
I simply said:
As a keepsake.
It is forbidden! – was the stark reply.
Yes, I know. But you are my friend.
But if I’m discovered, I will be punished.
It’s true I can’t do it before your very eyes, but if you close your eyes, you won’t see me.
So he went away, and I was able to cut the piece of wood into the form of a cross that I hid in a bar of soap all during my captivity. When I regained my freedom, I had it covered in some metal and it became my Episcopal cross. Later on, in another prison near Hanoi, I asked another prison guard:
Can you help me?
To do what?
I want to cut off a piece of electric wire.
Rather concerned, he asked:
Do you want to commit suicide?
No. I have to live in order to bring ahead Christian values.
But what do you want to do?
I want to make a chain to hold my cross.
But how can you make a chain out of an electric cable?
I can do it. Lend me two small pliers and I will show you.
He went away without saying anything to me. A few days later he returned:
I cannot refuse what you have asked, because you are too good of a friend. Tomorrow is my turn on duty from seven until eleven. I’ll bring you the electric cable. However, we have only these four hours. If someone comes afterwards and sees it, they could denounce me, so we must finish it in time.
We completed it in the four hours and it is the chain that holds my pectoral cross. But we are not just speaking just of a keepsake. Both then and now this cross and chain make the call of Jesus real for me, the call we have just heard in the gospel that has been proclaimed to us: “Love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends.” It is a sign of the greater love.
Many times my captors asked me:
But you love us?
Yes, I love you.
But how can you love your enemies? We have kept you in prison for more then ten years, and you love us?
Yes, I continue to love you. And even if it entered your minds to kill me, I would continue to love you.
And one of them said:
When you leave prison, will you not send your followers to set fire to my house, and massacre my family and me?
Because Jesus has taught us to love in this way. If I don’t live this out, I’m not worthy of the name Christian. And you know that it is possible, because I have been so long with you, and we have lived always as true friends.
This is very beautiful, but incomprehensible. We have learned to hate enemies and to seek revenge when we suffer an injustice. It’s hard for me to understand how you can live as you Christians do. At the same time it’s very beautiful…
Dearest friends: I cannot speak for much longer. But I celebrate today’s Mass for all of you, with you and for you, with the Lord present amongst us.
Through the intercession of our mother Mary, may the Lord shower you with every blessing since we are priests of his heart and want to bring the love of Jesus. Saint Irenaeus, whose feastday we celebrate today, wanted unity and harmony, as the opening prayer of the Mass states,. Only in this way are we true sons of the Church, faithful servants of humanity, and heralds to all of his love. As Chiara said this morning, “Love conquers all.” I have experienced this and so too have you. Amen.