A Hero

Perhaps many of us get discouraged in life because we have tried and failed. Perhaps some of us become cynical because we look for heroes and we do not find them anywhere.

Recently I came across a hero that helped me in my buried cynicism and low toned discouragement. He is Vietnamese and his name is Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan. He died just a few months ago. In 1967 he was made bishop of Nha Trang and in 1974 coadjutor bishop of Saigon, today known as Ho Chi Minh City. A few months later, accused of ‘contaminating’ the people, he was arrested and spent thirteen years in prison, nine of them in solitary confinement. There he faced what he describes as ” the agonizing pain of isolation and abandonment’.

Released from prison he was put under house arrest until 1991 when he was rudely expelled from Vietnam. He went to Rome. The Pope appointed him first Vice President and then President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. For the jubilee year, the Pope personally selected him for the course of spiritual exercises that the Pope has for himself and the Roman Curia.

Recounting the details of those long years, Archbishop Van Than revealed the secret that allowed him to cling to hope in the midst of despair. Basically they can be reduced to three… the Cross, the Eucharist, the Church.

The Cross… When in isolation, no one was allowed to speak with him. Not even the guards; they only answered with a yes and a not. “I was terribly sad,” he said to the Pope. He wanted to speak with them but it was impossible. One night a thought came to him, “Francis, you are still very rich. You have the love of Christ in your heart; love them as Jesus loved you.”

Taking that inspiration at heart, he managed to make of his guards friends. Having befriended them, he could ask favors from them. Once he asked a guard to cut some wood in the shape of a cross.

The guard was terrified because it was severely forbidden to have any religious symbols in prison. “I know” the Bishop answered, “But we are friends and I promise to keep it hidden…”

The Bishop cut the cross and kept it hidden in a piece of soap up until the time of his release. This piece of wood, later placed within a metal frame, became his pectoral cross.

The Eucharist…. In the re-education camp, they were divided into groups of fifty people. They slept on a common bed and everyone had a right to 50 centimeters of space. They managed to organize themselves so that there were always five Catholics around the bishop. When the lights went off at night, instead of going to sleep, the Bishop would bow over the bed to celebrate the Eucharist by heart and then he distributed communion by passing his hand under the mosquito net.

They even made little sacks from the paper of cigarette packs to preserve the most holy Sacrament and bring it to others. At night the prisoners would make turns for adoration. When the wine supply for the Eucharist got very low, he would sent a message saying that he needed his medicine for his stomach pains! The faithful understood the message and sent him a small bottle of wine with a label that read ‘medicine for stomachaches’. They also sent some hosts hidden in a flashlight for protection against humidity! The creativity of the people of God is unbelievable.

The Church … While he was in isolation in Hanoi, one day a policewoman brought him a small fish for him to cook. When the Bishop saw the wrappings, he was overjoyed! They consisted of two sheets of a newspaper. Why this excitement? Because the newspaper was the Osservatore Romano, the officious paper of the Vatican. Obviously he hid his inner agitation, but the moment the guard left him alone, he undid the wrappings, picked up carefully the two sheets, washed them delicately to remove the smell and then dried them in the sun and preserved them as a relic.

As he himself explains, “for me in that unbroken regime of isolation, those pages were a sign of communion with Rome, with Peter, with the Church, and embrace from Rome. I would not have been able to survive without an awareness of being part of the Church.”

The cross, the Eucharist, the Church…. Three secrets. All pointing to the ultimate hope of every Christian : Jesus Christ, Hope of the World! The Latins will say, ‘Omnia vincit amor’, love conquers everything, especially if it is Love with a capital L.


(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.