Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen van Thuan 1928-2002

Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen van Thuan 1928-2002
Cardinal d. September 16, 2002

Pope said of Cardinal Thuan, whom he chose to present the spiritual exercises for Lent 2000; see Testimony of Hope: the spiritual exercises of John Paul II (Boston: Pauline Books, 2000)
During the course of this Jubilee, I wanted to give a particular place to the witness of people who have suffered for their faith, paying with their blood for their fidelity to Christ and to the Church, or courageously facing interminable years of imprisonment and privations of every kind” (Incarnationis Mysterium, n 13). It is just such a witness that you have shared with warmth and emotion, showing that in the whole life of man, the merciful love of God, which transcends every human logic, is without measure, especially in moments of greatest anguish. You have brought us into contact with all of those who, in different places in the world, continue to pay dearly for their face in Christ.
In meditation 5, Cardinal Thuan shares the deep lesson he learned during nine long and tortuous years of solitary confinement in stark and degrading conditions – The One Thing Necessary – God and not the works of God.

“To rely on God alone, to choose God alone. This was the great experience of the patriarchs, the prophets, and of the first Christians. . . .  to choose God and not the works of God. This is the foundation of the Christian life in every age. At the same time, it is the truest response to the world of today. Through it, God’s plans for us, for the Church, ad for humanity in our time are realized.”

“Mary chose God. She abandoned her projects without fully understanding the mystery that was being accomplished in her body and in her destiny.”

It took nine years of suffering for him to realize this truth; later when back to work as a pastor he would be tempted again to choose the work of God over God — he was tempted to refuse to leave an assignment or desire a new one, thinking it was all about his work for God — and not God, God working in him and throughout the Church and the world.

See also the biography The Miracle of Hope: Political Prisoner, Prophet of Peace by Andre Nguyen Van Chau (Pauline Books, 2003), chap 21, especially p. 207, for the details of his ordeal. After solitary confinement, torture, starvation, and other indignities, “Thuan had finally grasped the truth that God was showing him. In all the years he had toiled in the Lord’s vineyard, he believed he was doing God’s work. But it was God who was doing the work, and Thuan was his instrument. Thuan had complained about not being able to do God’s work when he should have been leaving the work in God’s hands. Thuan had only to devote himself to loving God, not God’s work. . . . Now his prison cell seem transformed: there, in that damp, filthy hole where had been almost completely broken, he saw another aspect of the face of Christ. . . . Thuan could envision love, and hope for whatever would be in the future even when he could not do God’s work, or  spread the faith, or distribute goods to the poo and needy. Thuan grasped this new knowledge like a treasure to his heart.”

And that treasure he would share with John Paul II almost 25 years later; here is a succinct formulation of the treasure from  his little book of prayers and meditations, Five Loaves, Two Fishes, in the chapter The Second Loaf, pp. 15-24. He said that after his arrest by the communist the Archbishop heard Jesus say in his heart:

You must learn to distinguish between God and the works of God. . .  All of these excellent works, they are God’s work but not God! If God wants you to leave all of these works, place them in God’s hands immediately and have confidence in him. So he asked himself “has the Lord asked me to follow him, or to follow this project or that person.” 

Choose God and not God’s works.

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