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Marcel Van, the inspiring “pastor” of a reeducation camp


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Aliénor Goudet - published on 08/30/21

While imprisoned in a brutal work camp, this holy Vietnamese mystic brought hope and comfort to his fellow prisoners.

Br. Marcel Van (1928-1959), a great Vietnamese mystic who conversed with St. Therese of Lisieux and Christ, suffered many trials in his lifetime. During his captivity in a re-education camp, he brought courage and comfort to the other prisoners.

North Vietnam, 1956. It was 6:00 a.m. in Camp Number 1, but the hammer blows had already been sounding for half an hour. Surrounded by armed guards, the prisoners carried out their forced labor by moving stones and building new barracks.

With nothing but half a bowl of rice in their stomachs, every effort was a source of pain. The scorching heat of the sun would soon make the work even harder.

Tan, who arrived in the night, was one of the workers. Like many others here, he was accused of having spoken against the communist regime.

With a sinking feeling in his stomach, he noted with fear the thinness and the exhausted eyes of the other prisoners. In a few weeks, would he too look like a walking skeleton? This thought haunted him.

Then a small murmur spread through the yard, quiet enough not to attract the attention of the guards but loud enough for Tan to hear. He looked around for the person responsible. 

The whisper of hope

The person leading the murmurs did not stand out from the others. He was wearing the same dirty uniform, two sizes too big. His cheeks were hollow because, like the rest, he was malnourished.

“… blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death,” the man prayed. 

To Tan’s surprise, some of the prisoners began to recite the same words. The moans of pain and sorrow became less loud as the work continued. During the lunch break, the same man joined his hands before taking his meal and gave half of his ration to an elderly and feverish prisoner.

Tan then asked who it was. “It’s Brother Marcel Van,” he was told. “Our benefactor.”

All day long, he heard the brother whispering his prayers. When one of the prisoners stumbled, Marcel negotiated with the guards to take responsibility for him so that he wouldn’t be sent to solitary confinement. 

When evening came, they were locked up in a barracks that was too small, where they had to sleep on the floor. But despite their exhaustion, some of them gathered around Marcel. He prayed with them, listened to their torments and spoke to them at length.

Tan did not dare to get closer to listen. He wrapped himself in his shabby blanket and fell asleep from exhaustion. 

During the night, Tan woke up. This stone bed was a torture for his aching body. Hunger twisted his insides. The urge to scream in anguish seized him. Would he ever see his family again? Would he die here under the torment of his jailers? His heart seemed to be on the verge of exploding.

Then he heard Br. Marcel whispering again. “My dear sister Therese, your servant, told me that I would never be a priest. But Lord, thank you for giving me this little parish to serve.”

The mission of the apostle of love

Marcel was on his knees, his eyes towards heaven. Between each sentence, Marcel let a silence pass. Then, as if someone had spoken to him, he answered. Unlike an ordinary prayer, this sounded like a conversation. Elsewhere, he would’ve been taken for a madman. Tan couldn’t help but listen. 

“Have I done your will, Lord? Have I become the apostle of love that my dear sister wanted? If so, grant me the grace to die and see You.” An angel seemed to answer in a voice that only Marcel could hear.  “Very well,” he finally answered. “If I’m still needed here, then let me stay as long as it takes.”

Tan was startled when Marcel turned to him. He smiled at Tan as if he knew he had been watched all along. Marcel offered to pray with him. Without knowing why, Tan burst into tears. Like the others earlier, he told Marcel about his misery and fear. 

Marcel asked Tan if he was a Christian. The young man answered that his sister had converted recently and that he knew a little bit about Jesus. Then Marcel taught him how to pray the Rosary. “If your heart’s too heavy to carry, entrust it to the Mother of God. She will lighten your burden.”

The Redemptorist brother’s kindness extended to all prisoners, Christian or not. Marcel Van continued to serve his companions tirelessly in order to pursue the mission that God had entrusted to him. He endured hardships with unparalleled dignity, while comforting others.

His dearest wish was granted on July 10, 1959, when he left this world. Thus ended Marcel Van’s life of suffering and light in the darkness of the reeducation camp.

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