Cardinal van Thuân: Man of Hope Who Loved His Persecutors

Postulator of His Beatification Cause Gives Overview

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ROME, JULY 18, 2012 (Zenit.org).- To speak of the Servant of God Cardinal François Xavier Nguyen van Thuân is to consider a life tested in suffering, in injustice and in the three theological virtues: faith, hope and charity. He suffered hunger, cold and the contempt of one imprisoned. He was a victim of a blind totalitarian system, which detained him without accusing him of anything, just because he was considered "dangerous." However, he had faith that God had a plan for him through that cruel life; he hoped against all hope together with all his own, and loved his persecutors to the end, some of whom were converted while guarding him in his cell.

ZENIT spoke with Dr. Waldery Hilgeman, postulator in Rome for the cause of beatification of this member of the "victorious team," to which Pope Benedict XVI referred, when wishing to encourage the universal Church in these difficult times.

When asked what most caught his attention about Cardinal Van Thuân, Hilgeman remarked on the cardinal's complexity. "Something that touches me in his spirituality is the constancy of his love of neighbor. Because he was imprisoned, and in his imprisonment he did not cease to love those who were his persecutors, from the highest officials of the regime, to the guard of lowest rank."

Cardinal Van Thuân was coadjutor archbishop of Saigon when the city fell under communist control in 1975. Shortly after, the Vietnamese prelate was imprisoned in a re-education camp for 13 years. 

Dangerous for an empty system

Cardinal Van Thuân was an unjust prisoner, Hilgeman said, "in the sense that there never was a real accusation, as there was no trial and even less so a sentence. Hence, to be able to tell you of what he was accused, is a great question for us as well. There are many aspects in the social context of that time that point to this bishop as dangerous for an empty system, based on nothing, as is that of Communism. However, there was no formal accusation."

During his detainment, he wrote messages in secret to the faithful, which were collected many years later and published. The postulator for the cardinal's cause stated that in these secret messages, Cardinal Van Thuân realized from the beginning "that God was asking him to give Him all, to leave everything and to live for God." 

"Because the cardinal understood – especially in the first period of his imprisonment -- something very strong, which is this: the work of God is God. And already as archbishop coadjutor he lived for the work of God. And he perceived that with his imprisonment God was asking him to leave his work and to live only for Him," Hilgeman said.

In regards to anecdotes during the cardinal's imprisonment, Dr. Hilgeman recalled the conversion of several of his prison guards. Cardinal Van Thuân, he said, "with his total love for these persons, demonstrated what the love of Christ is; without being able to preach, without being able to speak directly of Christ with these persons, with his example of the incarnate Christ he was able to convert them, which is a unique aspect." While stating that, due to the political context in Vietnam, it is difficult to interview the former guards for the cardinal's cause, the postulator said that their testimonies can be included in the process. 

Promoter of justice who lived injustice

Cardinal Van Thuân was released from the camp in 1988 though kept under house arrest. Restrictions were eased for him to travel to Rome in 1991 but he was denied entry into Vietnam until 2001 after his elevation to Cardinal Deacon of Santa Maria della Scala. Speaking on the cardinal's contributions as head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Hilgeman stated that God had been preparing Cardinal Van Thuân for his ministry in the Roman Curia. "It can be said that with his arrival in Rome, the events were translated, because the role of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace is of extreme sensitivity in our context, given that it pays much attention to the economy, to justice, to hunger in the world, to peace, to solidarity and thus successively; it embraces the whole of the Social Doctrine of the Church," Hilgeman said.

"Thus, a bishop who came from a social fabric of extreme poverty, as Vietnam was, and who had even been imprisoned, had lived in his own skin the injustice of the world for the simple fact of being a Christian. There is no doubt that Jesus prepared him very well for his ministry here in Rome."

Cardinal Van Thuân died in Rome in September 2002 of cancer. Speaking on the beatification process, Hilgeman stated that over 130 witnesses ranging from cardinals and bishops to religious and lay people have been interviewed. The process, according to Hilgeman, is in a very advanced phase. 

Regarding Cardinal Van Thuân's many devotees who hope for the cardinal's sainthood, the postulator reflected on the Vietnamese prelate's words regarding hope. "In his writings and in his books, he has a term to which he always returns," he said, "and it appears also in the witnesses who arrive before the Court of Rome, and it is this: hope, not to lose hope in God. And he might well be the 'saint of hope.'"

[Reporting by Jose Antonio Varela Vidal]