Rev Hubertus Blaumeiser's experience with Cardinal Thuan
My first opportunity to come to know Card. Van Thuan more deeply was in the mid ‘90’s when he spent the Easter Triduum in our small community of theology students. It was a time filled with joy. We stayed for a long time talking around the table, with simplicity, in an atmosphere of brotherly love. He shared with us amazing experiences of Gospel life, leaving all of us with a deep impression of having met a confessor of the faith. At the end of his stay one of our students, a Brazilian seminarian, drove him back to Rome. When they reached the house, Archbishop Van Thuan invited the seminarian in and prepared for him a delicious Vietnamese meal. For me this was like a clear sign of how he meant to live his episcopacy: with exquisite love in the service of all.
A few years later, on the threshold of the year 2000, John Paul II unexpectedly asked Archbishop Van Thuan to preach the Lenten Retreat in the Vatican. The Pope told him: “In the first year of the third millennium, a Vietnamese!” I remember the fright he got when he received this request only a few weeks before the beginning of the Lenten Retreat! On several occasions during the following weeks, I was able to witness his untiring work of writing his talks in the brief periods of free time that he had as President of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace. In spite of the difficulty of the task, he never lost his humour. Once he said: “We work with scissors and glue but in reality it is the Lord who does everything”. He revised each one of the 22 meditations several times and often the whole text was rearranged. It was a detailed job that he finished only when the contents were not only true and convincing but also “beautiful”. On this occasion I discovered the Cardinal as a writer with high standards and an excellent preacher, but above all as a great spiritual master. Among the various talks he prepared, all of them on the theme of hope, some were particularly dear to him. For instance, the one on illness and death. Or again his meditation on the situation of the Church living as a minority in many countries. Likewise, in his thoughts on the world today he presented a picture with no illusions about the dramatic situation a major part of humanity is living through today. On the basis of Christ’s words to the seven Churches in the Apocalypse he drew up an examination of conscience for the Church and her pastors “Redde rationem – Give an account of your administration”.
In response, he proposed living the present moment, the art of loving and the need to go outside the “the walls” of the Holy City in order to see – as happened to him – a prisoner ship as his “cathedral”…. His reflections were drawn from Scripture, the great Tradition and the contemporary Church teaching, but all of this was intertwined in a very stimulating way with life experiences. Many of the Cardinals highlighted with gratitude this “new” method of preaching, so much so that each day of the Retreat in the Vatican, a summary of the meditations was published by a press agency and reached all over the world. Since then, these talks have been published in 12 different languages. In Spain it was a religious book bestseller for several months. The Cardinal often spoke to me about all of this with great joy and indeed with a passion. Not that there was any fear of a lack of humility, because in him the unstoppable desire to evangelise was stronger. It was as if it was necessary to arrive in time before it was too late to save humanity from the abyss. Urged on by this zeal, whenever he had time off from his work, he would gladly travel to give retreats even after his illness had made him weak.
A few months prior to the discovery of his illness, Bishop Van Thuan had been invited to be the main celebrant at the concluding Mass at a Congress for 1200 priests from all over Europe. The theme of the Congress was evangelization, and it was to be held in June 2001, at Castelgandolfo. When he came back from Boston where he had undergone the first surgery, hovering for a few weeks between death and life, it seemed impossible that he could take part in this important event. But he didn’t want to miss such an opportunity.
During the concelebration you would not notice how weak he was even though, being close to him, I could see the cold sweat on his forehead. He began his homily in an unusual way by saying: “Buon giorno! Bon jour, Buenas dias!” In this way he wiped out any distance between him and his congregation! He then went on to give a fiery witness on evangelization, sharing as he always did some personal facts. Everyone was enthralled by the Cardinal. On the way to the dining hall, many priests came to greet him, to kiss the wooden cross he himself had made while in prison, and to touch this living saint, as it were. Aware of his condition I tried to make him reach the dining hall as fast as possible, but I could not do so since he was unselfishly giving himself to everyone he would meet.
There would be so much to say about his last illness but perhaps this is not the moment. I cannot, however, forget what he told me in April 2002, before undergoing a serious surgery on May 8th in Milan which was expected to last 24 hours. I asked him if he was afraid. Like a good “strategist of the Spirit” he answered: “No, since there are three possibilities. I can die and this would be a good time since I am ready. I could also continue living but suffer forever. Or I will be able to work again. All three possibilities are equally good!”
In spite of this attitude, in the following weeks, when he realized that death was approaching or at least that his health was forevermore seriously affected, he went through a difficult trial. I believe that the cause was not so much or only because of his physical pain, but above all because of the realization that he would not be able anymore to evangelise. It was as if he felt he had not put to full use the talent God had given him...
One day he expressed the desire to see Chiara Lubich since for years he had held her spirituality in great esteem. The way it came about was quite surprising. On the same day of his departure for heaven, Chiara was coming back from a long trip abroad. She had planned to go directly to the hospital. Unusually, the plane that day arrived half an hour early. In this way Chiara was able to see the Cardinal just one hour before he died.
I would like to conclude by mentioning two memories that remain with me very deeply. In accordance with his wishes, Cardinal Van Thuan’s body was not dressed as is usually the case with the cardinal’s robe but with a beautiful red Vietnamese chausible [in Italian: casula] with a blue rim. I could not but think of the blood of the martyrs as well as of our Lady of Lavang whom he loved so much. The second moment was at his funeral in St. Peter’s basilica, which was presided over by John Paul II. At the Gospel the deacon read, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”. It was a moment of light for me. I thought of the people in Vietnam, the dream of a Church wholly renewed by the Gospel, of justice and peace in the world: all the realities for which Cardinal Van Thuan had lived for so intensely and of which he is now a living seed.
Rev. Hubertus Blaumeiser