“Will you be my son’s spiritual father?” my mother asked Cardinal Van Thuan. He responded, “Yes, I will be like a father to him.”
It was a crisp winter afternoon in the year 2001. My mother and I were invited for a visit at his office next to Santa Maria in Trastevere. At the conclusion of our conversation, mom made the request without first consulting me. I felt like one of the brothers when the mother of James and John went to Jesus and asked that each sit next to Him when he reigns in his kingdom. We all know how the rest of the disciples reacted. I managed to receive a promise from mom to never reveal this secret to anyone.
The gentle bishop was a source of pride for Vietnamese Catholics as a witness to the power of faith and hope in the midst of our very tragic history of violence, suffering and persecution. As a third-year seminarian, I was deeply touched by the meditations he had written in various books. These reflections touched on many familiar Christian virtues such as love, hope, humility, and service, but what was unique about them is that they were profoundly shaped by the ordeals of his life, especially the thirteen years of imprisonment, nine of them in solitary confinement.
It is one thing to read stories; it is another to hear them directly from the person who not only wrote them, but lived them. I was excited for the opportunity to hear the stories from his own lips. To my utter surprise, I never got a chance to make this request. The bishop asked both of us questions of our origin, our faith, my parents’ vocation, my vocation, what I liked most about Rome, how were my studies and similar questions. He was just as interested in us as we were in him. Before we knew, the hour had flown by and it was time to say goodbye.
Walking back, I was not disappointed. The stories did not need to be retold by words; they were transmitted through experience. This is what it feels like to be with one who has been humbled by suffering, lived in the present by having endured excruciating agony, docile to the Word through forced silence and solitude, remembered that he is loved through the presence of Word and sacrament. I was both inspired and profoundly challenged.
Meeting this man of God was an experience of renewing my own roots to Vietnam, a country devastated by continual invasions from outsiders culminating in civil war and the collapse of the South to communist North and suppression of the practice of the Christian faith. Being both exiles from our own homeland, we feel the words of Psalm 137, “by the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept, remembering Zion; on the poplars that grew there we hung up our harps.” Within that first year of his imprisonment, I was born. My family lived under the same cruel regime and escaped by boat five years later. I struggle to forgive the wrongs they have done to us and our country. This man went through some of the worst of the violence and not only emerged free from bitterness, but loved the very people who killed his relatives and imprisoned him. This is not human love, it is divine. He is to me both an inspiration and a provocation.
I continued to have short encounters with the gentle Cardinal throughout the year as he was very present and available to the numerous gatherings of Vietnamese clergy and religious of Rome. At the end of one of these gatherings, I approached him as we waited for his ride on the Gianicolo hill and asked if he were available to come to my diaconate ordination. He answered, “My son, I want very much to be there, but I’m afraid this cancer won’t allow me to travel. I will offer Mass for you on that day.” This Mass promise is indeed special for it comes from a priest who has for years, offered Mass in secret with three drops of wine and one drop of water in the palm of his hand. I was ordained a deacon in February and the gentile man of God returned to his Lord that September. He kept his promise; I felt his presence.
A father is first a son. As I am now called to be a spiritual father for my own community, I look back with gratitude for the fathers of my life. With his life and presence, Cardinal Van Thuan continues to inspire and challenge me to love as I have been loved. Thank you, Father. Love, your son.
*Abbot of St. Martin Abbey
By Fr Marion Nguyen, osb *