As Beacons of Gods Love, We Have the Power to Transform
The Magi figurines in our nativity scenes often feature three different looking men, typically one being a person of color. These visitors from the East who come to pay homage to our Lord symbolize how in Jesus, God has become Incarnate for all people. But in a world where there are so many differences, and often anger and hate between people who are very different, how do we take this truth to heart while trying to change hearts? A lesson can be learned from an amazing Vietnamese Cardinal.
When Saigon fell to the Vietcong in 1975, an era of darkness enveloped the country. This, too, was also a dark time for the Catholic Church. When the Communists took over, a target of attack was the Catholic Church, as it had been supported by the South Vietnamese government. At the time, Nguyen Van Thuan was the Coadjutor Archbishop of Saigon, being appointed to this position by the Vatican just six days before the city would fall. Obviously, he would be a target of the Vietcong. In their view, there was a conspiracy between the Vatican and “imperialist” leaders of South Vietnam.
The North Vietnamese government promptly sent him to a “reeducation” camp, where he’d be for 13 years, nine of which would be spent in solitary confinement. He would be released in 1988, and kept under house arrest for three years before being exiled. He’d go on to head up the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, be made a cardinal by John Paul II, and shortly before he died in 2002 his exile was lifted and he was allowed to return to the country.
In the 13 years he was in the prison, no one from outside those walls could hear him, as he was silenced by the government. But inside, he would be heard loudly through his actions.
He gave an address in Los Angeles shortly before he died, and in it, he said 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….No, I will not spend time waiting. I will live the present moment and fill it with love.” Filling it with love though would prove to be quite trying. He says that when he went to prison, he looked at his life and saw that he was in the prime of it at 48, and had so much pastoral experience and could do a lot, but was removed from his people. But then God came to him. He says he heard a voice tell him not to torment himself. Yes, he’d trained seminarians, sisters; he’d built schools, and evangelized. But now, he just had to trust God and choose God. And that’s exactly what he did.
One night, he and 1500 other prisoners were being moved to the North. At that moment, Cardinal Nguyen said to himself “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 indeed, the prison would be his cathedral.
He figured out a way to creatively say Mass. Eventually he would be given bare necessities such as clothing and toothpaste, and could write home to request “some wine as medication for my stomach pains,” code for wine for Mass. The guards gave him the bottle labeled “medication for stomach pains,” and with the wine and some bread he was given, he offered Mass with three drops of wine and a drop of water in the palm of his hand. There were six other Catholics in his group of 50, and he would offer Mass and pray together, distributing Communion to the others under their mosquito nets using tiny bags made from cigarette paper to protect the Blessed Sacrament. They also were able to adore the Blessed Sacrament, which he says even converted Buddhists and other non-Christians in that jail. In his words, “The strength and love of Jesus is irresistible. The darkness of the prison turned into light, the seed germinated silently in the storm.”
He even began to dialogue with the guards, talking about things the Church does and clearing up misunderstandings – such as it’s real history, and what monastic life was. On another occasion, when he was allowed outside to cut some wood, the guards, who had become sympathetic to him, allowed him to make a cross out of wood and a small chain, which might not sound like much but was quite risky for religious symbols were strictly forbidden in this place. He kept that as his pectoral cross, the cross that a bishop wears over his clerical black attire. He later said that “the cross and chain are not only my souvenir of captivity” but are also a “constant reminder that only Christian charity can bring about a change of heart. Not arms, not threats, not the media. It was very hard for my guards to understand when I spoke about loving our enemies, reconciliation and forgiveness.” But eventually, he was able to reach them. He didn’t say in his address how many were converted to the faith. Yet, in his time there, its clear he became a light to that horrible place, and the people who were around this holy man were transformed, because he spoke to them in word and deed. Two years ago, the Vatican began the process of beatification for him. In his encyclical Spe Salvi, Pope Emeritus Benedict would write: “During thirteen years in jail, in a situation of seemingly utter hopelessness, the fact that he could listen and speak to God became for him an increasing power of hope, which enabled him, after his release, to become for people all over the world a witness to hope―to that great hope which does not wane even in the nights of solitude.”
This weekend, we celebrate the great feast of the Epiphany. The day we mark the Magi visiting our Lord, the day signifies how God came for all people, not just some.
I believe Venerable Nguyen Van Thuan’s story today is more timely than ever, because if you think about it, there are so many divisions that we are aware of these days. There’s political divisions; there’s divisions that emerge in parishes; in our universal Church; in our families; in our places of work; in our schools. Sometimes these divisions become toxic, and we think we are the only ones who have things “figured out.”
As we know though this is not how it’s supposed to be. Our Lord is frequently with the poor and marginalized, and those on the outskirts. And after His ascension, He gives Paul the mission to evangelize the gentiles. This mission of evangelization applies to us all.
It starts by striving to see others through the eyes of God. It doesn’t mean we like everyone, but it does mean we try to see others first and foremost as people created by God. Some are easy to love. Others, not so much. But inside all is the potential for such goodness, if only we bring it to the surface. We can start by trying to listen to others; to pray for others; and to be aware of the language we use about others to other people or on social media.
Then, like Venerable Nguyen Van Thuan, perhaps we can reach out to others in different ways. Most of us know people who have left the Church; often within our families. Or we know people who are hostile to the Church. While it can be a challenge, it’s important to look for opportunities like the good bishop did with the prison guards. It could be an invitation to pray with the person; to have a conversation about where you agree and disagree; an invitation to come to Mass with you; or just an open-ended invitation to talk about the faith. Other times people are hostile to certain parts of the faith because they’ve gotten all their information about the Church from culture and the media. Hence some might think the Church “isn’t fair” because we stand against abortion, or same-sex marriage. Again, we can’t fear upsetting people, or giving up on people, but should seek out those opportunities to have a real conversation.
Lastly, we do all of this with patience. Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan didn’t convert guards overnight; but with his patience, with his love, and with his persistence he changed hearts. So can we.
Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan had every reason to fall into despair or hate; his country fell to the Communists; an innocent man suffering in a prison. But instead, he looked at where he was as an opportunity to bring people closer to God, both the other prisoners and the people who kept him there, for he knew God did not just love some, but loves all. On this feast of the Epiphany, may we realize that too, and do all we can as we live our lives to help all people come to know God.
God’s blessings to you, ~Fr. Paul
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