Biography of Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan
President of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace
Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan was born on April 17, 1928 in the central part of Vietnam, in Phu Cam parish, a suburb of Hue. He was the eldest of 8 children: Thuan, Niem, Tuyen, Ham Tieu, Thanh, Anh Tuyet, Thuy Tien, and Thu Hong. His father, Mr. Nguyễn Văn Ấm, passed away on July 1, 1993 in Sydney, Australia. His Mother, Mrs. Elizabeth Ngô Đình Thị Hiệp, daughter of the late Mr. Ngô Đình Khả, is now 100 years old. She currently resides in Sydney, Australia with her daughter, Anne Ham Tieu.
Thuan was born into a family with a long Catholic tradition, his relatives were among the martyrs since 1698.
From an early age, Thuan was brought up in a Catholic environment with deep faith, owing much to his exemplary holy mother, Elizabeth. Every evening she told her son stories from the Bible and those of the martyrs of Vietnam, especially of his ancestors. She introduced him to the example of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, taught him to love and forgive, and also taught him to cherish his homeland of Vietnam.
Thuan entered the An Ninh Minor Seminary in his early teens, and followed his studies in philosophy and theology at Phu Xuan Major Seminary. He was ordained priest on June 11, 1953 by Bishop Urrutia. The young priest was assigned to St. Francis parish to help with the transition from a French majority in that parish to a Vietnamese one. After a few months at St. Francis parish, Bishop Urrutia appointed him chaplain of the Pellerin Institute (where he himself had been educated), the Central Hospital, and the provincial prisons.
Only a few months as chaplain of the Pellerin Institute, the Central Hospital, and the provincial prisons, he was once again assigned by Bishop Urrutia to study in Rome. He spent three years (1956-1959) at the Urbanian University, a pontifical institute founded by Pope Urban VIII in 1627. He was awarded the Doctor in Canon Law Summa Cum Laude for his thesis on "Organization of military chaplains around the world".
Upon his return to Vietnam, he was assigned to teach at An Ninh Seminary of Hue, and then become its rector. He went on to serve as vicar general in the Archdiocese of Hue from 1964-1967. On April 13, 1967, Pope Paul VI appointed him Bishop of Nha Trang, the first Vietnamese Bishop of Nha Trang, replacing Bishop Raymond Paul Piquet, M.E.P. (Bishop of Nha Trang from 1957-1967).
He was consecrated Bishop on June 24, 1967, the solemnity of St John the Baptist, at Hue by H.E. Angelo Palmas, Apostolic Delegate for Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. He chose as his motto the title of the new constitution, Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), because he desired to be an apostle of joy and hope.
During his eight years in Nha Trang, he spared no effort in the development of the diocese before the advent of difficult times. He focused on training the grassroots cadres, increasing the number of major seminarians from 42 to 147, and minor seminarians from 200 to 500 in four seminaries, organized In-service Courses for priests of 6 dioceses in Central Vietnam. He also organized other formation courses, such as: development and training of Youth associations, the laity, parish associations and parish councils with training courses for the Justice and Peace Movement, Cursillos and Focolare, and founded the Community of Hope and the LaVang Community.
Bishop Thuan wrote six circular letters for the formation of his diocese:
- Awake and Pray (1968)
- Strong in Faith, Advance with Serenity (1969)
- Justice and Peace (1970)
- The Mission of Christ is also our Mission
- Remembering 300 years (1971)
- Holy Years of Renewal and Reconciliation (1971)
Cardinal Thuan held various positions in the Vietnamese Episcopal Conference: He was Chairman of the Justice and Peace Committee, Social Communication Committee and the Development of Vietnam Committee in charge of Corev to assist in resettlement of refugees from the war areas. He was one of the founding members of the Catholic Radio Station ‘Radio Veritas’ Asia, Manila. He frequently attended the Asian Bishops Conference of Asia (F.A.B.C.). He was named Advisor of the Pontifical Council of the Laity from 1971-1975. It was during these meetings that he had the opportunity to meet Pope John Paul II, then Archbishop of Cracow, and to learn from him of pastoral experiences during the most difficult period in Poland under the communist regime. He was also appointed Advisor, then member of the Congregation for the Evangelization of the Peoples, and member of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of Sacraments. The Congregation for the Evangelization of the Peoples also entrusted him with the responsibility of visiting and overseeing the Seminaries in a number of countries in Africa.
On April 23, 1975 Pope Paul VI named him Coadjutor Archbishop with rights of succession to the Archbishop of Saigon, and at the same time named him titular Archbishop of Vadesi. However the Communist regime did not approve this nomination and forced him to return to Nha Trang.
On the solemnity of the Assumption (August 15, 1975), he was detained and escorted to Nha Trang where he was held in house arrest at Cay Vong. Without ever being tried or sentenced, he was taken to North Vietnam where he was imprisoned for more than 13 years, nine of which were spent in solitary confinement at Vinh Quang (Vinh Phu) prison, then in the prison run by the Hanoi Police. Later, he was again held under house arrest at Giang-Xa. During his years of imprisonment he wrote ‘The Road of Hope’, the Spiritual Testimony (Will) to all the Catholic Vietnamese in Vietnam and abroad.
On November 21, 1988, Feast of the Presentation of Our Lady, 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 travel to Rome to meet the Holy Father and return to Hanoi.
In 1991 he was allowed to travel to Rome but was not allowed to return. Ever since that time he lived in exile, though his heart was always with the Church in Vietnam and his homeland. He spared no efforts to assist social services in Vietnam. For example, leprosarium, charitable organizations, research programs to promote the culture of Vietnam and of the Catholic Church in Vietnam, reconstruction of churches, and the training of seminarians as conditions allowed. In spite of the persecutions imposed on the Church and on himself personally, he always lived and preached forgiveness and reconciliation.
In his life outside Vietnam, he was often 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 the world. At Mexico in May of l998, he preached to more than 50,000 young people. On May 11, 1996 he received an Honorary Doctorate at the Jesuit University in New Orleans, LA, USA. He also received other honorary titles and prizes including:
- 9 June 1999 – Roma: “Commandeur de l’Ordre National du Mérite” Embassy of France to the Holy See;
- 12 December 2000 – Rome (Campidoglio), Italy, Prize “Together for Peace Foundation”;
- 20 October 2001 –Turin, Italy, Prize for Peace (SERMIG – Associazione Missionaria di giovani);
- 9 December 2001 – Pistoia, Italy: Prize of Peace 2001, Center of Studies G. Donati.
On November 11, 1994 the Holy Father named him Vice President of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, and subsequently President on June 24, 1998 replacing Cardinal Y. R. Etchegaray, who had retired.
During Lent 2000, he received a special invitation from Pope John Paul II to preach the Lenten Retreat to the Curia, at the beginning of the third millennium. When the Holy Father received him in private audience after the retreat, giving him a chalice, Cardinal Thuan said: “24 years ago I said Mass with three drops of wine and one drop of water in the palm of my hand, I never would have thought that today the Holy Father would give me a gilt chalice. Our Lord is great indeed and so is his love”.
On February 21, 2001 he was elevated to the College of Cardinals by the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, who named him Cardinal of the Church of Santa Maria della Scala. This church is under the pastoral care of the Carmelite Fathers.
Since his release from prison, he had undergone 7 operations, 3 of which he suffered infections and was critically ill. The second to last operation was on April 17, 2001 at the Saint Elisabeth’s Medical Center in Boston, MA, USA. The last operation was on May 8, 2002 at the Centre of Research for Tumors in Milan, Italy.
His condition worsened at the beginning of June 2002 and received treatment at Agostino Gemelli Hospital, a teaching hospital attached to the Catholic Sacred Heart University in Rome. He was later transferred to Pio XI hospital for further treatment.
God called Cardinal Thuan home on September 16, 2002 in Rome.