Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan Foundation

My captors, my friends: Cardinal Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan

Sydney, 18 March 2001 | The Catholic Weekly

If I was serious about Christianity, I knew I had to love my captors, said Vietnam’s Cardinal Van Thuan, who was in Sydney visiting family last week. Report by Johanna Bennett and Marita Franklin.

They changed his Polish guards every two weeks but eventually gave up as he steadily converted all those sent to guard him and his captors came to fear if he carried on he would convert them all.

One of the 44 new cardinals appointed by Pope John Paul II in February, Cardinal Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan was in Sydney last week on a private visit to see his family. His mother, aged 98, and his two sisters live here. One of them, Anne, who came to Australia in 1961, spent many years campaigning for the release of her brother after he was jailed by the Communist Government in 1975. He was to spend the next 13 years in prison – nine of them in solitary confinement.

Speaking in Sydney last week, Cardinal Van Thuan said he had recognised the possibility of going mad and told how his faith saved him, strengthened him and led to conversion of many of those who guarded him.

Now 73, and still the Archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), the new cardinal told how he kept himself sane by exercising every day and by befriending his guards, telling himself that if he was serious about Christianity he had to love these people. The friendships that grew between himself and his guards eventually grew so strong that they began smuggling pieces of paper into him so he could write. On these he wrote his book, The Road to Hope, his little book of reflections on hope that kept his mind active and helped preserve his sanity.

He also asked his guards if they would bring him a small piece of timber so he might make himself a cross. Religious artifacts were not allowed so when he finished his cross he had to hide it in a piece of soap. When he was eventually released from jail he had his prison cross covered in metal with decorative holes cut in the metal so the original wood of the cross would show through.

His guards also helped him fashion a chain from electric wire they brought him. Initially reluctant to give him the wire, because they thought he intended to commit suicide, they eventually bought him a length of wire and some pincers. The prisoner and one of the guards then made a chain in four hours – the length of private time they had available. They did this by cutting the wire into 44 pieces and twisting them into links. The chain now bears his pectoral cross, the insignia of his new office.

A Thanksgiving Mass was held at St Mary’s Cathedral last Wednesday at which Cardinal Clancy welcomed Cardinal Van Thuan to Australia. He has “suffered grievously for his faith”, said the cardinal. “Visiting Australia, now as a cardinal, he will surely be a source of inspiration and hope for us all.”

Cardinal Van Thuan gave the homily at the Mass – first in English then in Vietnamese. He also speaks Italian, French, Spanish, Latin and even some Russian. Prison, he said, gives you time for such intellectual pursuits.

In his homily he told how “Australia is my second homeland” as his parents are here. His mother lives here and his father is buried here. They came to Australia in 1975, sponsored by the cardinal’s sister, Anne, arriving just five days before Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, was taken by the Communist forces.

In Vietnamese culture, said Cardinal Van Thuan, we believe that where your parents are that is your homeland.

The cardinal also thanked Australia for its “struggle for my freedom”. His sister Anne lobbied intensely for her brother’s release. She and their parents were greatly aided by the Australian bishops, as well as Amnesty International and the International Society for Human Rights, who also helped campaign for Cardinal Van Thuan’s release.

Cardinal Van Thuan also told how he first visited Australia in 1963 and met many of the clergy, including Cardinal Gilroy and Cardinal Freeman and Dr Mannix. Since he had gone to Rome, he said, he had made friends with many Australian priests who had proved “faithful friends in good and bad times”.

Appointed Bishop of Nha Trang in 1967, Cardinal Van Thuan was appointed Bishop of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) seven years later, but was imprisoned after a crackdown on the Catholic Church for both his faith and his family connections. He was the nephew of President Diem who was assassinated in 1963.

He was released from prison in 1988 and exiled from Vietnam in 1991 and has never been back. He says he has not been asked and needs to pick the time and circumstances for a visit, although he said recently that since being made a cardinal there had been “good signs of openness” towards the Catholic Church in his homeland.

There are seven million Catholics in Vietnam – eight per cent of the population. The cardinal said that nowadays they are allowed to practise their religion but there are no Catholic schools or hospitals. But other recent reports say that leaders and members of all religious groups in Vietnam are still strictly controlled by the state, and people continue to be harassed for their religious beliefs.

The cardinal remains the Archbishop of Saigon.

“After I was released I was allowed to go to Rome to meet the Pope,” he said. “The Pope said I had suffered enough and the Church would not punish me anymore.” He was to be allowed to return to Vietnam. But the Vietnamese Government would not allow this so, instead, he was named vice-president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, of which he became president in 1998.

Since then he has spent his time travelling the world promoting justice and peace, of which he himself is a living example. A man of such peace and goodwill, he forgave even his captors and made such good friendships with them that he converted them by the example of his own most Christian conduct.

But even these days he doesn’t feel totally blessed.

Asked if he could be the first Asian Pope, he says “God only knows”. But he does feel that, like the much-loved but rather ugly Pope John XXIII, if this were to come about he should have blessed with a more photogenic face.