Pope John Paul II led the funeral service for Cardinal Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, praising the Vietnamese church official's heroism and recalling his days in a communist prison. The cardinal, who had been seen as a possible papal candidate, had unfortunately died of cancer at 74. The funeral Mass was attended by top Vatican officials and members of the diplomatic corps. John Paul blessed the coffin, which was placed on a red carpet in front of the main altar in St. Peter's Basilica. A choir sang hymns in Vietnamese.
Nguyen Van Thuan, who went into exile in Rome more than a decade ago, was an inspirational figure for Vietnamese Catholics, the second-largest Catholic community in Asia after the Philippines. He headed the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace.His Holiness Pope John Paul described him as a "heroic herald of the Gospel" and an example of Christian coherence.
Targeted for his faith as well as his family connections - Nguyen Van Thuan spent 13 years in a notorious communist "re education" camp. Nine of those years were in solitary confinement.
After South Vietnam was conquered by the North Vietnamese communists 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. The pope said the man celebrated Mass every day in prison, "with three drops of wine and a drop of water in his hand. This was his altar. This was his cathedral." 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 noble 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 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.
SOURCES: Reuters/VIS 23 Sep 2002 Peter Westmore October 2002