The impressive life of Cardinal Van Thuan

It has been 20 years since the death of Cardinal Van Thuan. His beatification process continues after being declared venerable and his devotion is growing worldwide.

Pedro Estaún-September 14, 2022-Reading time: 4 minutes
cardinal van thuan

Photo: Cardinal Van Thuan. ©CNS photo by Dave Hrbacek, Catholic Spirit

Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan was born on April 17, 1928 in a small town in Vietnam. He was the eldest of 8 siblings. The Van Thuan family had been Catholic for several generations and lived in an atmosphere of unshakable faith, so it was not surprising that the young Nguyen decided to enter the seminary.

He was ordained a priest in 1953 and, seeing that he had intellectual qualities, his superiors sent him to Rome to broaden his knowledge. After completing his studies, he returned to Vietnam, where he taught at the seminary and later became rector and vicar general of his diocese. His pastoral work was very effective. In 1967 he was appointed bishop of Nha Trang. 

A year later, communist troops occupied many cities in North Vietnam. On April 24, 1975, a few days before the regime seized power over the entire country, Paul VI appointed him coadjutor archbishop of Saigon. Three weeks later he was arrested and imprisoned. Thus began a very long period of captivity that lasted thirteen years, without trial or sentence, nine of which he spent incommunicado.

Van Thuan in the face of adversity

He was then isolated and without contact with his people, but he looked for a way to communicate with them. One morning he said to Quang, a seven-year-old boy: "Tell your mother to buy me old calendar pads". In the evening the boy brought him the notebooks, and so "I wrote to my people my message from captivity". The bishop returned the writings to the boy who gave them to his brothers. The latter were in charge of copying and distributing them to the Catholics who had to act clandestinely.

From these brief messages a book was born, "The path of hope". He wrote it quickly - in a month and a half - because he was afraid that he would not be able to finish it if he was transferred to another place. In the same way, new books came out later on.

Masses in captivity

Van Thuan knew that the strength he needed to sustain his soul and his state of mind could only come from an encounter with the Lord. "When I was arrested, I had to leave immediately, empty-handed. The next day I was allowed to write to my people to ask for the most necessary things: clothes, toothpaste... I wrote to them: 'Please send me some wine as medicine for my stomach ache. The faithful understood immediately. They sent me a little bottle of wine from Mass, with the label: 'medicine against stomach ache', and hosts hidden in a torch against humidity. The police asked me:

-Does your stomach hurt?


-Here is some medicine for you.

I will never be able to express my great joy: daily, with three drops of wine and a drop of water in the palm of my hand, I celebrated Mass (...). The Eucharist became for me and for other Christians a hidden and encouraging presence in the midst of all difficulties".

Apostolate with the guards

Then came even more dramatic moments. He was transferred to another place on a grueling boat trip with 1,500 other starving and desperate prisoners. There he was imprisoned again, but now in solitary confinement. A new and long period began, even more painful than that of the previous years. His unusual attitude of respect for the guards in charge of controlling him allowed a relationship that could be described as surprising.

At the beginning, his dealings with them were non-existent; they did not speak to him, they answered only "yes" or "no"; it was impossible to be nice to them. So he started smiling at them, exchanging kind words and telling them stories of his travels, of how they live in other countries: United States, Canada, Japan, Philippines, Singapore, France,...; and he talked to them about economy, freedom, technology, etc., he even taught them languages like French and English: "my guards become my students!" He thus improved relations with them and the atmosphere in the prison, and then took the opportunity to talk to them also about religious topics.

A trip to Lourdes

She had received her love for Our Lady from her family. At home they prayed the rosary daily and lived many Marian devotions. During his seminary years he also lived, with deep unction, many practices directed to the Mother of God. During his stay in Italy he traveled to several European countries; in August 1957 he was in Lourdes and there he felt a strong presence of Our Lady. Kneeling before the cave, where Bernadette had once done the same, he heard in his heart the words that Mary had addressed to that young woman: "I do not promise you joy and consolation on earth, but rather adversity and suffering".

He understood that these words were also addressed to him. It was a premonition of what was to come. During his long captivity, the Virgin Mary played an essential role in his life and, recalling his stay in prison, he wrote: "There are days when, at the limit of fatigue, of illness, I cannot even recite a prayer! Our Lady was for him his constant companion during that painful captivity.

Van Thuan released

His freedom came suddenly on November 21, 1988, and was a great joy for Vietnamese Christians, but he could not stay long in his homeland. He was soon exiled to the West. In the Vatican his presence was immediately appreciated and he was called to participate in different missions. It was during these years that he was healing from the hardships he had suffered for so long, but he continued to lead a sober life until the end of his days.

In 2000 came a poignant moment in his life: he was called to preach the Lenten Spiritual Exercises to John Paul II and the Roman Curia. When the Pope received him to congratulate him and have an endearing conversation with him, Cardinal Van Thuan replied: "24 years ago I was celebrating Mass with three drops of wine and one drop of water in the palm of my hand. I would never have thought that the Holy Father would receive me in this way... How great is our Lord, and how great is his love". In 2001 the Pope named him a cardinal of the Catholic Church. On September 16, 2002, after suffering from cancer for years, he took the definitive step into eternal life.

Five years after his death, Pope Benedict XVI ordered that the process for his beatification be initiated in Rome. Without suffering physical martyrdom, he can be considered a true martyr of Vietnamese Catholicism and, at the same time, a model of fidelity to the Church in difficult and compromising situations.

The authorPedro Estaún

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