Venerable Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan was a beacon of hope during his 13 years in prison.
On Friday, September 15, a solemn Mass was celebrated in Rome at the Church of Santa Maria della Scala honoring the heroic virtues of former Vietnamese cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan. Pope Francis issued a decree on May 4 declaring Van Thuan “venerable,” a crucial step on the way to canonization. September 16 marks the 15th anniversary of Van Thuan’s death. His tomb is currently located in Santa Maria della Scala.
Who was Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan?
Born on April 17, 1928 in Huế, Vietnam, Van Thuan pursued the priesthood at an early age and was ordained in 1953 at age 25. For several years he was a faculty member and rector of the Seminary of Nha Trang before being appointed Bishop of Nha Trang in 1967.
Then a fateful day occurred on April 24, 1975 when he was appointed Coadjutor Archbishop of Saigon. Six days later Vietnam fell to communist forces and Van Thuan was subsequently arrested for being an enemy of the state. He was sent to an isolated prison for 13 years, nine of which were in solitary confinement.
It was during his time in prison that Van Thuan’s strong faith shone through. He was able to smuggle out messages to his people on scraps of paper and these powerful spiritual reflections were later compiled into a book, The Road to Hope. Vatican Radio explains how, “The bishop fashioned a tiny Bible out of scraps of paper. Sympathetic guards smuggled in a piece of wood and electric metal wire from which he crafted a pectoral cross and the chain which he wore till the end.”
During his imprisonment, “he often asked [his friends] to send him what he called ‘his medicine.’ Knowing what he meant, they sent him cough medicine bottles, filled with wine, and small bits of bread. With the wood smuggled in by the guards, he made a small cross for Mass.
He kept all this in a cardboard box. That box became his own private altar. Every day, at 3 pm, the hour of Christ’s death, he would place drops of wine in the palm of his hand, mingled with water, to celebrate Mass.”
Van Thuan was finally released on November 21, 1988, and being allowed to visit Rome, was barred from ever returning to Vietnam. Consequently he spent the rest of his life in Rome and died on September 16, 2002. His cause for canonization was initiated on October 22, 2010 and is continuing to progress with the recent declaration of his heroic virtues.
The decree of Pope Francis said about Van Thuan, “This witness of faith, hope and charity of the Servant of God, given generously day after day with humility and discretion, is a constant invitation to collective holiness, which finds its greatest expression in fidelity to God and in his reciprocal help to travel the way of holiness.”