By Rev. Hao Dinh
Saint Martin Parish, Sunnyvale
His chance encounter with a Vietnamese prelate two decades ago led to a friendship that Cardinal Luis Tagle of Manila still cherishes these days. His friend is long gone, but the Cardinal could never forget that first meeting. This year he had an opportunity to visit Nha Trang, Vietnam, where his friend, Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận, became a bishop 50 years ago. Tagle, the newly named president of the Catholic Biblical Federation, attended a South-East Asian biblical conference in that coastal city from July 17-23.
At Nha Trang’s Cathedral of Christ the King, he gave a homily that touched on the power of hospitality in evangelization. He illustrated his point with a touching story about his encounter with then-Archbishop Thuận, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Soon after becoming co-adjutor Archbishop of Saigon in 1975, Cardinal Thuận was detained without trial by the communist government for 13 years, including nine in solitary confinement.
“I met him in 1995 at the World Youth Day in Manila and also at the meeting of the Asian bishops,” Tagle said. “I was not a bishop at the time. I was a simple priest. I was asked to give a presentation to the bishops. I was so nervous that I do not remember even now what I talked about! So I did my conference and immediately after, I ran out of the auditorium. I did not want to see the bishops. I did not want the bishops to see me again. I said, ‘This will be the last time I give a talk to the bishops!’
“I went to the coffee corner and started drinking coffee. Then a bishop whom I did not know followed me. And he said, ‘Don’t worry! You did well! You looked nervous. Don’t worry. It’s OK.’ Then he said, ‘Do not be afraid of bishops! We are normal, ordinary people. Please join me for coffee.’ Then he introduced himself (as) Francis Xavier. It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon. He told his stories. We ended at 10 in the evening!
“I was just amazed at the generosity of this person who had every right to be angry, bitter, but how hospitable he was, how wonderful he was. He made me feel at peace, at home. And at the end of the long conversation – I don’t know how many cups of coffee we drank. I am sure it’s six hours – he ended by saying, ‘Every time you come to Rome, please call me. We will have dinner.’ And he said, ‘From now on call me uncle.’”
Father Tagle kept his promise. Every time he was in Rome, he called his friend and “uncle,” and they would eat in a Chinese, Italian or Vietnamese restaurant. But “he just ordered food and watched me eat. That was his joy,” Tagle said. “Then I was named a bishop and he wrote to me. The following year, he became a cardinal. I went to Rome in 2002, a year after my ordination as a bishop. I called Cardinal Thuận, but there was no response. I looked for him, and I was told he was in a hospital. A few days later he died.
“Over here he was Bishop of Nha Trang, so whether you like it or not, Nha Trang has a nephew! I come to savor, to see the spirit of hospitality, the evangelical gentleness that attracted so many people to the Gospel.”
When he was Bishop Tagle of Imus from 2001 to 2011, he himself showed his hospitality in welcoming seminarians from Nha Trang to his diocesan seminary at the request of their Bishop Paul Nguyễn Văn Hòa. After their ordination, one of them became a missionary in Japan.
Cardinal Tagle concluded his homily with a prayer, “Let us pause and pray for all people, the people whom Jesus welcomed into his heart.
They are our brothers and sisters. (Let us pray) that we will be welcoming, hospitable, not neglecting to be open and simple hosts because all of us are guests of God.”