Imprisoned for Christ: Cardinal Van Thuan

I once worked with a woman who had lived through the fall of Viet Nam and then stayed in the country after the communist takeover.

She told me that where she lived, the officials would call someone in for questioning. She said that this person was never seen again. They simply vanished.

When they called her to come in for questioning, she and her large family stayed up all night discussing what to do. They decided to walk out of Viet Nam under darkness and take their chances on the open sea as stateless refugees. They did this as an entire family group.

She cried when she told me of the terrible things that happened in the boats with the other refugees.

Long story short, she and her family ended up in Oklahoma, where, when I knew her, they were working together to build a new life.

This lady was not a Christian. She was a Buddhist. They were rural people who had never had contact with the Americans during the war. Her crime was that her family was a well-to-do family who owned a granary in her small town. She was also an attorney.

Cardinal Van Thuan committed a much worse crime, one that continues to be punished in Viet Nam today. He was a Christian. Not only that, he was a leader in the Catholic Church.


The result was that Cardinal Van Thuan spent 13 years in solitary confinement inside a Viet Nam prison. He was so completely shut off from the world that most of his friends and followers thought he was dead. I would guess that what happened to him was somewhat like what happened to the people my friend knew: He went in, and was never heard from again.

I’ve read The Miracle of Hope by Andre Nguyen and Van Chau and also The Testimony of Hope which is a retreat Cardinal van Thuan gave for Pope John Paul II. I recommend both books to those who want to learn more about this great man of Christ.

My archbishop, Archbishop Paul Coakley, ordained our newest priest on June 29. Here is what he said:

We are living in an age of increasing indifference or even hostility toward faith and toward the Church. The generation of priests ordained today will, I suspect, witness increasing persecution and perhaps even a new age of martyrdom. It is already happening in other parts of the world.

Given certain signs of our times today, it is naive to believe it could not happen here. It is important, therefore, to be clear. The priesthood is not a career; it is not a path for those seeking a comfortable life. The priesthood is a vocation of radical commitment and radical dependence on Jesus Christ, who came not to be served but to serve.

I’m glad my archbishop realizes this and has the courage to say it publicly. Far too many priests are either unaware of it, or indifferent to it. As a Public Catholic in the political realm, and more specifically as a Catholic Democratic elected official, I’ve been on the tip of the sword for a long time now. I can tell you without reservation that I saw this coming way back for the simple reason that I was the object of so much excoriation and social/verbal abuse in my office because of my faith.

I had the advantage of perspective, since I had been in office in the 1980s, then left to raise my kids and was later re-elected to the same position. The changes in attitude and behavior toward Christians by non-believers was stark. However, most Christians were reacting by either allowing themselves and their faith to be co-opted so they’d feel comfortable with this new world, or by withdrawing into their Christian friendships and refusing to see it.

I knew it was a matter of time before it started expanding to other Christians who try to follow the Gospels but who were not in the hot spot of being Democratic elected Catholics. I found then, as I do now, that not many people want to hear the truth of what is happening. This attitude further isolates the Christian who is being attacked for Christ and also encourages the attackers to continue. At the very least, we need to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ when they are attacked for the faith we hold.

These head-in-sand Christians compare themselves to people like Cardinal van Thuan and say, I’m not afraid of being arrested in the middle of the night and put in solitary confinement for 13 years, so there is no problem here.

My answer to them is the same one alcoholics anonymous says to its adherents who claim they aren’t so sick since they’ve never done what that other drunk next to them has done: Not yet.

If you consider where we are now compared to where we were even 10 years ago, I don’t believe you can honestly say that this country, and indeed the whole Western world is not on a trajectory of overt hostility and verbal abuse and lately legal discrimination against Christians. If this trajectory is not reversed, it will inevitably end up at active persecution.

This video about Cardinal van Thuan describes a priest who was Christ’s man first. May his tribe increase.

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