September 16, 2007
Word from the Vatican in Rome today is that Cardinal François Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan has been discussed with and by Pope Benedict XVI as a potential candidate for sainthood.
Cardinal Van Thuan was a newly appointed Bishop of Saigon in 1975 when the communists captured the city. Along with tens of thousands of Vietnamese people he was sent to communist re-education. He spent 13 years as a prisoner of the communist prison system; ultimately saying “I needed to stay where God wanted me” and “I have no animosity toward my captors.”
After his imprisonment he was selected by the Pope to serve in the Vatican. He was received by John Paul II into the Vatican, and ran the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, handling issues such as Third World debt.
During the Jubilee Year 2000, the John Paul II invited him to preach the annual retreat for the Pope and the members of the Roman Curia between March 12 and 18, 2000.The Pope asked Archbishop van Thuan to speak of his experience as one who could well be called a living martyr, a witness to the Faith.
The retreat talks were part of the daily e-mail dispatches of an international news agency.
Through this retreat, the world began to know Van Thuan and to hunger for his message of hope.His talks were later published under the title of Testimony of Hope. The title is appropriate, for his talks all speak of joy and hope, even in suffering and beyond the fear of death.
Van Thuan was born on April 17, 1928 at Hue, Viet Nam. Van Thuan came from a family of martyrs. From 1885 to 1888, tens of thousands of Catholics were killed by the van than militia, and among them were Van Thuan’s relatives from the village of Phu Cam. Warned of an imminent attatck, the Catholics of the village fled to their church to pray. Van than surrounded the church and set it ablaze and almost the entire community of Catholics died that night, including the family of Thuan’s grandfather. Among the survivors were Thuan’s great-grandmother, grandfather, who were not in Phu Cam that night, and one great aunt who escaped the inferno.
Cardinal Van Thuan’s mother played an important role in his formation. He said of her, “She taught me stories from the Bible every night, she told me the stories of our martyrs, especially of our ancestors; she taught me love for my country. She was the strong woman who buried her brothers massacred by traitors, whom she sincerely pardoned.”
In 1941, Thuan joined An Ninh Minor Seminary and was ordained on June 11, 1953. After six years of further studies in Rome, he was successively faculty member and rector of the Seminary of Nha Trang between the years 1959-1967.
He was appointed deputy archbishop of Saigon April 24, 1975. Within days of his appointment, Saigon fell to the communist Viet Cong and a few months later, the new bishop of Saigon was targeted for his faith as well as his family connection to Ngo Dinh Diem, the assassinated South Vietnamese president. He was jailed by the Communist government and spent 13 years in a communist ”re-education” camp, nine of them in solitary confinement.
He was never tried or sentenced. Speaking again of his mother, Van Thuan said, “When I was in prison, she was my great comfort. She said to all, ‘Pray that my son will be faithful to the Church and remain where God wants him.’”
During that time in prison, the bishop sought to console his people by smuggling out messages to his people on scraps of paper. These brief reflections, copied by hand and circulated within the Vietnamese community, have been printed in the book The Road of Hope. Another book, Prayers of Hope, contains his prayers written in prison. The bishop fashioned a tiny Bible out of scraps of paper. Sympathetic guards smuggled in a piece of wood and some wire from which he crafted a small crucifix.
How he survived the horror of that time is described in a little book Five Loaves and Two Fish, made up of talks he gave to young people. He not only survived, but emerged as a man of transparent integrity, calm serenity and joyful hope. In his book The Way of Hope, Thoughts of Light from a Prison Cell, Thuan wrote: ”In our country there is a saying: ‘A day in prison is worth a thousand autumns of freedom.’ I myself experienced this. While in prison, everyone waits for freedom, every day, every minute. We must live each day, each minute of our life as though it is the last.”
Van Thuan was freed on November 21, 1988 and forced into exile. He was received by John Paul II into the Vatican.
Van Thuan was created a cardinal deacon on February 21, 2001 and received the red biretta and deaconry of S. Maria della Scala. Within a week, Viêt Nam’s Foreign Ministry eased restrictions and the Cardinal could enter his native country with only routine immigration procedures and was afforded all the privileges normally given to overseas citizens.
Nguyen Van Thuan died of cancer on September 16, 2002 in a clinic in Rome. He was 74.
Van Thuan had appeared on lists of possible successors to Pope John Paul II, particularly by those believing the next pontiff could come from a poor, non-European country. Vietnam still has the largest Roman Catholic community in Asia after the Philippines.
The funeral took place on September 20, 2002, at 5:30 p.m., in the altar of the Confession of the Vatican basilica. Pope John Paul II presided and preached the homily, the Ultima Commendatio and the Valedictio. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, secretary of State, concelebrated the mass together with other cardinals.
The first step in the process toward sainthood would be canonization. Canonization is the act by which a Catholic Church declares a deceased person to be a saint, inscribing that person in the canon, or list, of recognized saints.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the act of canonization is now reserved to the Holy See at the vatican and occurs at the conclusion of a long process requiring extensive proof that the person proposed for canonization lived, and died, in such a way that he or she is worthy to be recognized as a saint.
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