Whenever I feel a little distant from God, because I haven’t been praying well, or I haven’t been focused on my faith, my heart and mind drift back to the way I felt when I first learned about Vietnamese Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan — and his experience with the Eucharist during his imprisonment.
Cardinal Van Thuan spent thirteen years in prison, nine of which were spent in solitary confinement. NINE. The first time I ever even heard of the cardinal was reading his own words about the Eucharist in his re-education camp, and his words remain for me some of the most chilling and most inspiring I have ever read:
The Eucharist became for me and for the other Christians a hidden and encouraging presence in the midst of all our difficulties. Jesus was adored secretly by the Christians who lived with me, just as happened so often in other prison camps of the twentieth century.
In the re-education camp, we were divided into groups of fifty people; we slept on a common bed, and everyone had a right to 50 centimeters of space. We managed to make sure there were five Catholics with me. At 9:30pm we had to turn off the lights and everyone had to go to sleep. It was then that I would bow over the bed to celebrate the Mass by heart, and I distributed communion by passing my hand under the mosquito net. We even made little sacks from the paper of cigarette packs to preserve the Most Holy Sacrament and bring it to others. The Eucharistic Jesus was always with me in my shirt pocket.
Every week there was an indoctrination session in which the whole camp had to participate. My Catholic companions and I took advantage of the breaks in order to pass the small sack to everyone in the four other groups of prisoners. Everyone knew that Jesus was in their midst. At night, the prisoners would take turns for adoration. With his silent presence, the Eucharistic Jesus helped us in unimaginable ways. Many Christians returned to a fervent faith-life, and their witness of service and love had an ever greater impact on the other prisoners. Even Buddhists and other non-Christians came to the faith. The strength of Jesus’ love was irresistible.
In this way, the darkness of the prison became a paschal light, and the seed germinated in the group during the storm. The prison was transformed into a school of catechesis. Catholics baptized fellow prisoners and became the godparents of their companions.
While I feel sick to think of what all his holy man endured, I do love reading and rereading his testimony, especially this portion. It’s a shocking and beautiful reminder of the gift of the Eucharist, and how rich we are when we have God, even if we seem to have nothing else.
At another point on his imprisoned journey, then-Bishop Van Thuan was transported in chains and near complete darkness with 1,500 other prisoners on a ship. He’d previously been imprisoned, but took some comfort in the fact that he remained within his own diocese. Now, he had no idea where he was heading. The first night was one of “terrible anguish,” and he spent much of the night counseling the distraught prisoners, including one man who tried to hang himself.
It is with this context that he later wrote:
Upon my departure from Saigon, Jesus, crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem, made me understand that I had to engage in a new form of evangelization. I no longer acted as a bishop within a diocese, but … going outside, for all my life, to the very limits of my capacity to love and give of myself. …
In the obscurity of faith, in service and in humiliation, the light of hope had changed my vision.
And then, my favorite part:
I understood that at this point, on this ship, in this prison, was my most beautiful cathedral, and that these prisoners, without exception, were the people of God entrusted to my pastoral care. My prison was divine providence. It was the will of God.
Rereading and typing that now gives me goosebumps, just as it did when I first read the words. If I close my eyes and concentrate, I can almost see his “cathedral.” I hear him calling it “most beautiful.” Today, as always, I then consider my own cathedral — where I’m called to serve, who I’m called to serve.
All of the above quotations are excerpted from the spiritual exercises Cardinal Van Thuan prepared for St. John Paul II; twenty-four years to the day after he was taken by force from his home, he concluded leading the pope through these exercises. His meditations and witness — while intended for a pope — are accessible to all of us, now published in a book, “Testimony of Hope.” It’s a favorite of mine, and I recommend it for any Catholic’s bookshelf, not to mention the bookshelf of anyone struggling with suffering and searching for hope.
Maybe this comes to me today because it’s a cold, snowy day here in Colorado (yes, in the middle of May). I know for sure that I’m silly for struggling to feel the joy of Easter just because it’s a gray day, and I do know how good I have it. But I believe we all have periods of relative feast and famine along our spiritual journeys. And when I’m hungry for the Truth, I often turn to Cardinal Van Thuan.