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Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan (1928-2002): How faith survived in a Communist prison
The following are extracts from the late Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan's address - "Experiencing God's liberating power" - given at a religious education conference in Los Angeles prior to his death in 2002.
On 15 August 1975, on the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, I was invited to the Palace of Independence, the President's Palace in Saigon, only to be arrested. The motive was that Pope Paul VI had transferred me from my diocese in Nha Trang where I had been bishop for eight years, between 1967 and 1975, to Saigon, to become Archbishop Coadjutor.
For the Communist Government this transfer, made one week before their arrival in Saigon, on 30 April 1975, was proof of a conspiracy between the Vatican and the "Imperialists".
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.
No, I will not spend time waiting. I will live the present moment and fill it with love.
A straight line consists of millions of little points. Likewise, a lifetime consists of millions of seconds and minutes joined together. If every single point along the line is rightly set, the line will be straight. If every minute of a life is good, that life will be holy.
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!"
This light totally changed my way of thinking. When the Communists put me in the hold of the boat, the Hai-Phong, along with 1500 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.
"Were you able to say Mass in prison?" is a question I have been asked many, many times. And when I say "Yes", I can foretell the next question, "How did you get the bread and wine?"
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.
The police asked me: "Do you have pains in your stomach?" "Yes." "Here is some medicine for you!"
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. The strength of the love of Jesus is irresistible. The darkness of the prison turned into light, the seed germinated silently in the storm.
One day I told a Communist cadre who was criticising the Church: "We have two different meanings for the same words. If you sincerely wish to understand the Church, to dialogue with Catholics, I propose to write an index of religious vocabulary in Latin, French, English, Italian, Spanish and Chinese with Vietnamese definitions. If you accept my offer, please give me some paper and a pen. He agreed and I began.
When the cadre returned, I explained a few words of the index to him, the meanings, the history and development of the Church, for instance, what is an abbot or what does monastical life involve, e.g., silence, poverty, obedience, chastity, fasting, manual work, pastoral and intellectual work, etc. His curiosity was aroused. Very slowly, I continued to explain the index, a kind of intensive catechism for Communist cadres! It was a way to dialogue in truth and love instead of debate and criticism.
I did the same with my guards who asked me to teach them foreign languages. They brought me French books. While teaching them French history, civilisation, literature and culture, I was able to explain the impact of the gospel on France and on European history and its culture.
When I began to discern between God and God's works, when I chose God and His will and left everything else in His hands, and when I learned to love others, especially my enemies as Jesus loved me, I felt great peace in my heart. Deprived of freedom, of absolutely everything and living in extreme poverty in my dark cell, I was at peace because I could say, "My God and my all". The peace that the world cannot give brought me great joy.
Prisoners held captive for very long periods, without trial and in oppressive conditions, retain bitter memories and sentiments of hate and vengeance. That's a normal reaction. I was in prison for 13 years, nine of which were in solitary confinement. Two guards watched me but never spoke to me; just yes and no. But I knew that after all, they were my brothers and I had to be kind to them. I had no gift to offer as a prisoner I had nothing at all, nothing to please them. What to do?
One night, a thought came. "You are still very rich. You have the love of Christ in your heart. Love them as Jesus loves you". The next day I set to work, first, by showing gladness and by smiling. I began to tell stories about my journeys in countries where people live in freedom and enjoy their culture and great technical progress. That stimulated their curiosity and they asked many, many questions. Slowly, very slowly, we became friends.
They wanted to learn foreign languages. My guards became my disciples! The atmosphere of the prison changed considerably.
At that time, in another part of the area, a group of twenty people were learning Latin to be able to read Church documents. Their teacher was a former catechist. 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 ", I replied, "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.
While at prison in Vinh-Quang in the mountains of North Vietnam, I was sawing wood one afternoon. I asked my ever-present guard, who had become my friend, if I could ask him for a favour. "What is it? I'll help you."
"I want to saw off a small piece of wood in the form of a cross." "Don't you know that's strictly forbidden to have any sign of religion whatsoever?" "I promise to keep it hidden." "But it would be extremely dangerous for the both of us." "Close your eyes, I'll do it right now and I'll be very careful."
He turned his back and left me alone. I sawed a small cross which I later hid in a piece of melted down soap. I have kept it always and had it mounted in a piece of metal and it has become my pectoral cross.
In another prison in Hanoi, I became friends with my guard and was able to request a piece of metal wire. He was terrified. "I studied in the University of Police that when someone wants electric wire he want is to kill himself!," he cried.
I explained that Christians, and most of all priests, do not commit suicide.
"And so what are you going to do with electric wire?", he asked.
"I need a chain to wear my cross." "But how can you make a chain from wire?" "If you bring me two little pincers, I'll show you." "Much too dangerous!" "But we're friends!"
He hesitated and finally said, "It's too hard to refuse. Tonight at 7pm we'll do it. But we have to finish before 11. I'll have my companion take the evening off. If he knew, he'd denounce the both of us". That evening, with the tools he brought, we cut and shaped and worked together to make my chain and we finished it before 11pm!
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."
There is not enough time to tell you all the other moving stories which are proof of the liberating power of the love of Jesus.
The harsh years in prison pass very slowly. While suffering humiliation and abandonment, my only support and hope was the love of Mary, Our Blessed Mother. The wonderful servants of Mary - St Louis de Montfort, Don Bosco, Maximilian Kolbe - were my companions on the road of hope. They inspired me and gave me unwavering trust in the love of Mary, the Queen of the Apostles and Martyrs.
I said this prayer to Mary: "Mary, my Mother, if you know that I cannot be of any more use to the Church, grant me the grace to die here in prison and consummate my sacrifice. If you know that I can still be of use to the Church, grant me the grace of freedom on one of your feast days".
In fact, on 21 November 1988, I was cooking my meal when I heard my guard being called to the phone. I had an idea it might be because of me. A few minutes after, the guard called to me. "Mr Thuan, have you finished eating?" "No, not yet." "Right after your meal, go and see the chief - and good luck!" I was taken to meet the Minister of Police and after a brief conversation, he asked, "Do you wish to express any request?" "Yes, Mr Minister, I wish to be let free!" "When?" "Today!"
The Minister feigned surprise, but I knew the day had come. It was the Feast of the Presentation of Mary in the Temple and she was answering my prayer.
To counter the Minister's surprise I replied, "You see, Mr Minister, I have been in prison for three pontificates: Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II. I have been here during the offices of four Secretary Generals of the Communist Party, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko and Gorbachev."
His eyes opened wide. "Yes", that's right. All right. Your request is granted. You are free."
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 16 No 4 (May 2003), p. 10
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