By Rev. Hao Dinh
Vicar for Vietnamese Ministry
Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, recognized in May 2017 by the Vatican as venerable with heroic virtues, would be a martyr if he died in prison in Vietnam. His earlier relatives were among the martyrs since 1698. Instead, he died in 2002 in Rome while being president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. However, the way he endured his trials made him a witness no less authentic than that of a martyr, which means a witness. The Church gives the title “Confessor of the Faith” to those who suffer persecution for the faith but not to the point of death.
Shortly after the fall of South Vietnam to communist forces of the North on April 30, 1975, Thuan, then the newly named coadjutor archbishop of Saigon, was detained by the regime. Thirteen years in a “re-education camp,” including nine years in solitary confinement, could neither terminate him nor his faith. These trying times even strengthened him and made him a powerful witness of faith and hope to his fellow inmates, prison guards, and the suffering faithful in Vietnam. His exile since 1991 allowed him to work for justice and peace in different continents and preach to various audiences in many countries.
His 1,001 brief messages, scribbled on scraps of paper in prison and smuggled out, gave hope to many of the faithful. They were eventually published as “The Road of Hope” and were translated into more than 15 languages. He gave to Pope John Paul II and the Roman Curia a series of reflections on their Lenten retreat in 2000, and they were later published as “The Testimony of Hope.”
In his visit to San Jose in 2000, the Vietnamese faithful flocked to Saint Patrick Proto-Cathedral to celebrate the Eucharist with him and listen to his talk afterwards. Earlier in the parish hall, the archbishop had a chance to meet with Bishop McGrath. While pointing to the Vietnamese who were present, he said to the Bishop of San Jose, “Your people are my people.” Then after a pause, he made our bishop and other people smile, saying, “and your God is my God.” He was using the words that Ruth said to her mother-in-law Naomi (Ruth 1:16).
The archbishop told the audience touching stories of his self-abandonment and trust in God, kindness to prison guards, and profound joy and peace despite everything. He had a positive impact even on prison guards, who were amazed by his joy. The prison director first changed the guards every other week because he was afraid they would be “corrupted” by this “dangerous” inmate. Eventually he stopped the rotation because his entire force would be “corrupted” by the archbishop.
The communist regime did not want him to die in prison as a martyr. Yet they could not imagine that, as a former prisoner, he had a greater influence both in Vietnam and in the world, including his works for justice in his role as vice-president then president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
He died in 2002, a year after being made a cardinal, but his life has continued to bear fruit. The Mater Unitatis Community was founded in Mexico in 2002 by a group of priests, nuns and lay people seeking to live the Gospel, inspired by the testimony of Cardinal Thuan. They strive to pursue holiness of daily life, progress of peoples, evangelization, and service. His life also inspired a network of research institutions dedicated to the social doctrine of the Church