OBITUARY: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Heroic Vietnamese cardinal Van Thuan dies in Rome
, October 5, 2002
Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, a symbol of resistance to the communist regime in Vietnam, died in exile in Rome last month. He joins a long line of Vietnamese Christians who have suffered for their faith over the past 300 years.
Up until 1975, when the Communists overran South Vietnam, an estimated 130,000 Vietnamese Catholics had died for their faith, of whom 118 have been beatified. An unknown number died since 1975.
In the mid-1960s, he visited Australia, and there met Mr B.A. Santamaria, with whom he developed a close friendship.
After South Vietnam was conquered by the North Vietnamese Army in 1975, Archbishop Thuan - who had just been appointed Coadjutor Archbishop of Saigon - like hundreds of thousands of his countrymen, was imprisoned.
He served a total of 13 years in prison, for nine years of which he was in solitary confinement at Vinh Phu prison in Hanoi, former capital of North Vietnam.
During this period, many people - including many Australians - wrote letters to the Communist Government protesting against his imprisonment. Eventually, the Government capitulated, but held him under house arrest.
How he survived the horror of that time is described in a little book, Five Loaves and two Fishes
($6.50 from News Weekly Books including postage). He not only survived, but emerged as a man of great integrity, calm serenity and joyful hope.
During his years of imprisonment he wrote Testimony of Hope
, an autobiographical account of his life, which was dedicated to all Vietnamese Catholics, in Viet Nam and abroad.
In 1988, he was released from detention and was ordered to live at the Archbishop's House in Hanoi, without permission to perform any pastoral work. In March 1989 he was allowed to visit his aged parents in Sydney, Australia, and travelled to Rome to meet John Paul II and return to Hanoi.
In 1991 he was given a one-way ticket out of Vietnam.
From exile, he continued to assist the development of social services in Viet Nam, for example leprosariums, charitable organisations, research programs to promote the culture of Vietnam and of the Catholic Church in Vietnam, reconstruction of churches, and the training of religious, as conditions allowed.
In spite of the persecutions he and the Church suffered, he always lived and preached forgiveness and reconciliation: virtues he had learned as a child. He was the eldest of 8 children: three boys and five girls. His father, Mr Nguyen Van Am passed away on July 1, 1993 in Sydney. His mother, nèe Ngo Dinh Thi Hiep, is now 100 years old, and lives in Sydney.
Cardinal Thuan was born into a family with a long Catholic tradition, with relatives among the early Vietnamese martyrs. After studying philosophy and theology at the major seminary in Hue, in Central Vietnam, he was ordained priest in June, 1953.
He was made bishop of Nga Trang in 1967 when just 39 years of age, and spent the next eight years, during the height of the Vietnam war, building up the church in central Vietnam, before the country was overrun by the communists, and he was imprisoned.
In November 1994, the Pope appointed him Vice-President of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, and he became its President in June 1998.
He was invited to preach and lecture in many countries and to various audiences, for example at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris during Lent, and at various universities. In Mexico, in May 1998, he preached to more than 50,000 young people.
He did not shy away from controversy, and at one conference, spoke against Microsoft Corporation's Bill Gates on the subject of the future of globalisation.
He was invited to preach the Lenten retreat to the Papal household in the Jubilee Year, 2000, and in the following year, the Pope appointed him a Cardinal. Almost immediately, the Communist regime in Hanoi revoked its ban on his return to the country of his birth.
Although plagued by ill-health in recent years, his vision was undiminished. Just five months ago, he announced that the Church would publish a compendium of its social doctrine within a year.
He said the document would be "a discussion on the nature of Catholic social teaching, on the human person, the family, the social order, the role of the state, democracy, work and salaries, unemployment, poverty and charity, the environment, the beauty of creation, environmental problems, the international community, immigration and foreign debt."
After Cardinal Thuan's death, the Pope himself celebrated the requiem Mass in St Peter's Basilica, praising his heroism and recalling his days in a communist prison.
He pointed out that he was an inspirational figure for Vietnamese Catholics, the second-largest Catholic community in Asia after the Philippines, and described him as a "heroic herald of the Gospel".