Providence ordained that Cardinal Francis Xavier Van Thuan exercise his priestly ministry as a Vietnam prisoner of war for thirteen years. He entered the school of the cross when he was captured in the midst of a terrifying war and put in a Vietnamese prison camp. He had to overcome himself, his plan, to give assent to God’s permissive will. Could he drink the bitter chalice now offered him, as did Christ in Gethsemane?
He not only drank the bitter chalice to the dregs, he proclaimed Christ’s victory by his witness to merciful love. His Eucharistic witness to divine mercy transformed the prison camp. If a Vietnamese prison camp can be transformed by the witness of one holy priest, one believing, humble, forgiving, man of God, perhaps we can learn from his example how to transform our homes and world.
The Eucharist played a central part in the transformation of the prison camp. The Eucharist then is key to transforming our environments. Yes, the Eucharist must enter into the darkest areas of humanity to transform it. After all, it is true that eyes are opened and we recognize Christ in the breaking of the bread (cf. Luke 24:31). The Cardinal’s story proves this again.
Triumph of Mercy through the Witness of Suffering
In the Cardinal’s own words: “Alone in my prison cell, I continued to be tormented by the fact that I was forty-eight years old, in the prime of my life, that I had worked for eight years as a bishop and gained so much pastoral experience and there I was isolated, inactive and far from my people.
‘One night, from the depths of my heart, I could hear a voice advising me: “Why torment yourself? You must discern between God and the works of God. Everything you have done and desire to continue to do, pastoral visits, training seminarians, sisters and members of religious Orders, building schools, evangelizing non-Christians—all of that is excellent work; the work of God but it is not God! If God wants you to give it all up and put the work into His hands, do it and trust Him. God will do the work infinitely better than you; He will entrust the work to others who are able than you. You have only to choose God and not the works of God.
‘This light totally changed my way of thinking. When the Communists put me in the hold of the boat, the Hai-Phong, along with 1500 other prisoners and moved us to the North, I said to myself, “Here is my cathedral, here are the people God has given me to care for, here is my mission: to ensure the presence of God among these, my despairing, miserable brothers. It is God’s will that I am here. I accept his will.” And from that minute onwards, a new peace filled my heart and stayed with me for thirteen years.”
Eucharistic Transformation Amidst the Darkness
“I was taken to prison empty handed. Later on, I was allowed to request the strict necessities like clothing, toothpaste, etc. I wrote home saying, “Send me some wine as medication for stomach pains.” On the outside, the faithful understood what I meant. They sent me a little bottle of Mass wine, with a label reading, “medication for stomach pains”, as well as some hosts broken into small pieces. The police asked me, “Do you have pains in your stomach?” “Yes.” “Here is some medicine for you!” I will never be able to express the joy that was mine: each day, with three drops of wine, a drop of water in the palm of my hand, I celebrated my Mass.
‘At night, the prisoners took turns and spent time in adoration. The Blessed Sacrament helped tremendously. Even Buddhists and other non-Christians were converted. The strength of the love of Jesus is irresistible. The darkness of the prison turned into light, the seed germinated silently in the storm.
‘When I began to discern between God and God’s works, when I chose God and His will and left everything else in His hands, and when I learned to love others, especially my enemies as Jesus loved me, I felt great peace in my heart.”
The Eucharist Empowers Forgiveness of Enemies
“It was very hard for my guards to understand when I spoke about loving our enemies, reconciliation and forgiveness. “Do you really love us?” “Yes, I really love you.” “Even when we cause you pain? When you suffer because you’re in prison without trial?” “Look at all the years we’ve been together. Of course I love you!” “And when you get out, will you tell your people to find us and beat us and hurt our families?” “I’ll continue to love you even if you wish to kill me.” “But why?” “Because Jesus taught us to love always; if we don’t, we are no longer worthy to be called Christians.”
Reflecting on the Cardinal’s merciful love for his enemies is equally inspiring and challenging. Who is our enemy? The Psalmist articulates, “For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me, speaking against me with lying tongues. They beset me with words of hate, and attack me without cause. In return for my love they accuse me, even as I make prayer for them. So, they reward me evil for good, and hatred for my love” (Ps. 109:2-5).
There is heavenly beauty in the forgiveness we grant to our enemies because it is the essence of Divine Mercy. The Christ life within us, made possible by Eucharistic transformation, makes us capable of great acts of mercy. But mercy for enemies is not cheap. It costs our pride to sacrificially grant mercy as God wills.
Mercy in the Grace of the Present Moment
“On 15 August, 1975, on the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, I was invited to the Palace of Independence, the President’s Palace in Saigon, only to be arrested. The motive was the Pope Paul VI had transferred me from my diocese in Nha Trang where I had been bishop for eight years, between 1967 and 1975, to Saigon, to become Archbishop Coadjutor. For the Communist Government this transfer, made one week before their arrival in Saigon, on 30 April 1975, was proof of a conspiracy between the Vatican and the Imperialists.
‘From the very first moment of my arrest, the words of Bishop John Walsh, who had been imprisoned for twelve years in Communist China, came to my mind. On the day of his liberation Bishop Walsh said, “I have spent half my life waiting.”
‘It is true. All prisoners, myself included, constantly wait to be let go. I decided then and there that my captivity would not be merely a time of resignation but a turning point in my life. I decided I would not wait. I would live the present moment and fill it with love. For if I wait, the things I wait for will never happen. The only thing that I can be sure of is that I am going to die. No, I will not spend time waiting.”
Lessons from the Cardinal’s Eucharistic Witness
- Interior torment can exist because of our unwillingness to let go and let God.
- It is necessary to distinguish between the works of God and God himself. By so doing, we are set free for more love.
- Live well the grace of the present, unrepeatable moment in time. One well-lived day at a time is all that God asks. Resist temptations to look back or too far forward.
- Cardinal Thuan made his prison cell a Eucharistic sanctuary. When we bear witness to Eucharistic life, are transformed by it, we bring the Eucharistic Lord into our circumstance, thereby transforming it.
- Even non-Christians were converted by Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the Vietnamese prison camp. Adoration is transformative as we gaze upon God rather than problems and ourselves. Christ is the solution.
- In the prison camp, the Mass made all the difference in the lives of those who encountered the Eucharist as the saving light in the darkness. This should be our experience also.
- The Eucharist empowers us to forgive our enemies as Christ forgave us from the Cross and as Cardinal Thuan forgave his tormenters.
- We can echo the Cardinal’s words in our circumstance: “…Here are the people God has given me to care for, here is my mission: to ensure the presence of God among these, my despairing, miserable brothers. It is God’s will that I am here. I accept his will.”
- Do not spend your life waiting. Eucharistic life is about engaging in truth not escaping.
Editor’s note: This article contains an excerpt from God’s Healing Mercy: Finding Your Path to Forgiveness, Peace, and Joy, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.