ten rules of life of
cardinal nguyen van thuan
My dear friends,
I do not wish to speak about the negative aspects of captivity. I offered all that up to Jesus, Mary and Joseph. What will interest you most is sincere, fraternal sharing of my experience - understanding God’s liberating power in my day to day existence.
During those thirteen years I became aware of all my weaknesses, physical as well as mental. There were moments when I could not concentrate at all, when I could not even pray. Jesus then sent me light. "I must live the testament of Christ" - In his testament, just before dying, Jesus left me his word, his body, his mother, his Church, his priesthood, his new commandment, his mission, the duty to make all things one. Several times a day, I repeated to myself, "I must live the testament of Christ" - It’s simple, it’s inexhaustible. I will try to explain how I received the strength of God’s liberating power by citing 10 rules.
1. I will live the present moment to the fullest
2. I will discern between God and God’s works
3. I will hold firmly to one secret: prayer
4. I will see in the Holy Eucharist my only power
5. I will have only one wisdom: the science of the Cross
6. I will remain faithful to my mission in the Church and for the Church as a witness of Jesus Christ
7. I will seek the peace the world cannot give
8. I will carry out a revolution by renewal in the Holy Spirit
9. I will speak one language and wear one uniform: Charity
10. I will have one very special love: The Blessed Virgin Mary
Explanations of the Ten Rules of Life
On August 15th 1975, on the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, I was invited to the Palace of Independence, the President’s Palace in Saigon, only to be arrested. The motive was that Pope Paul VI had transferred me from my diocese in Nha Trang where I had been bishop for 8 years, between 1967 and 1975, to Saigon, to become Archbishop Coadjutor. For the Communist government this transfer, made one week before their arrival in Saigon, on April 30, 1975, was proof of a conspiracy between the Vatican and the Imperialists.
From the very first moment of my arrest, the words of Bishop John Walsh, who had been imprisoned for 12 years in Communist China, came to my mind.
On the day of his liberation Bishop Walsh said, "I have spent half my life waiting"
It is true. All prisoners, myself included, constantly wait to be let go.
I decided then and there that my captivity would not be merely a time of resignation but a turning point in my life.
I decided I would not wait. I would live the present moment and fill it with love. For if I wait, the things I wait for will never happen. The only thing that I can be sure of is that I am going to die.
I was removed far from my diocese and was taken to the village of Cay-Vang, 400 km from Saigon. Day and night I was obsessed with the thought of my people. How was I going to stay in touch with my people? Just at the time when they needed their pastor most. The separation was heart-breaking.
One night, light came: "It’s simple, imitate the example of Saint Paul when he was in prison. He wrote letters to the various communities. The very next morning, I called to Quang, a little boy who was coming home from Mass. "Go and tell your mother to buy some old calendars". When evening came, Quang brought me the calendars and every night during the months of October and November 1975, I wrote down my message from captivity for my people. Every morning the boy took the torn-off pages home and his brothers and sisters recopied the message. That is how the book "The Road of Hope" came to be written, and it has been published into six languages: Vietnamese, English, French, Italian, German and Spanish. God’s liberating power gives energy to work to accomplish even in the most desperate moments.
No, I will not spend time waiting. I will live the present moment and fill it with love. "A straight line consists of millions of little points". Likewise, a lifetime consists of millions of seconds and minutes joined together. If every single point along the line is rightly set, the line will be straight. If every minute of a life is good, that life will be holy. The Road of Hope is paved with small acts of hope along life’s way. A life of hope is born of every minute of hope in that lifetime." (RH978).
In 1980, in obligatory residence in Giang xa’ village in North Vietnam, I continued to write other books always during the night and in secret: "The Pilgrims on the Road of Hope" and "The Road of Hope in the Light of God’s Word and the Vatican Council".
Alone in my prison cell, I continued to be tormented by the fact that I was forty-eight years old, in the prime of my life, that I had worked for eight years as a bishop and gained so much pastoral experience and there I was isolated, inactive and far from my people... (1700km)
One night, from the depths of my heart I could hear a voice advising me:
"Why torment yourself? You must discern between God and the works of God. Everything you have done and desire to continue to do, pastoral visits, training seminarians, sisters and members of religious orders, building schools, evangelizing non-Christians. All of that is excellent work, the work of God but it is not God! If God wants you to give I all up and put the work into his hands, do it and trust him. God will do the work infinitely better than you; he will entrust the work to others who are more able than you. You have only to choose God and not the works of God!"
This light totally changed my way of thinking. When the Communist put me in the hold of the boat, the HAI-PHONG along with 1500 other prisoners and moved us to the north, I said to myself, "here is my cathedral, here are the people God has given me to care for, here is my mission: to ensure the presence of God among these, my despairing, miserable brothers. It is God’s will that I am here. I accept his will". And from that minute onwards, a new peace filled my heart and stayed with me for thirteen years.
When I was let out of prison, several people remarked that at least I had had lot of time to pray! It’s not as simple as you may think. God allowed me to see all my weaknesses, both physical and mental. Time passes so slowly in prison, particularly during solitary confinement. A week, a month, two months are exceedingly long but as they turn into years, it becomes an eternity! There were days when I was not able to recite a single prayer.
A story came to my mind, the story of old Jim. Every day at twelve o’clock, Jim went into church and after not more than two minutes, he left. The sacristan was intrigued. One day, he grabbed Jim and asked, "What do you come in here for every day?"
"I come in say prayer"
"That’s impossible. What kind of a prayer can you say in 2 minutes?"
"Me ignorant old man; pray to God my own pray."
"But what do you say?"
"I say, "Jesus, here Jim" and I go out"
Years go by. Jim grows old becomes ill and enters the hospital, in the ward for poor people. After a time, they see that Jim is going to die and the priest and a nurse are with him at his beside.
"Tell us, Jim, why is it that since your arrival in the ward everything has changed for the better? The men are happier and friendlier."
"Dun no. When I could walk, I went around and visit everybody, say hello, talk a bit. When I’m laid up. I call to everybody from my bed, laugh a lot, make everybody happy. Jim always happy."
"But why are you always happy?"
"When you get a visit every day, you happy, right?
"That’s right. But who comes to see you? We’ve never seen anyone."
"Jesus. He come every day at twelve o’clock."
"And what does he day to you?"
"He says, Jim, here Jesus!"
As Jim was dying, he gestured and smiled broadly and pointed to the chair beside his bed, inviting someone to sit down. After a short time, he smiled again, closed his eyes and died.
At times, when my strength failed and I could not even recite my prayers, I repeated, "Jesus, here Francis". Consolation came and I knew that Jesus was replying, "Francis, here Jesus".
Praying is being with someone, with Jesus.
You ask, "what prayers were you able say?"
I prayed with the word of God, the Psalms. I said the prayers I had recited in the family chapel every evening when I was a child. The liturgical songs came back to me. I often sang the Veni Creator, the hymns of the martyrs, the Sanctorum Meritis, the Credo... To truly appreciate those beautiful prayers, it is necessary to have experienced the darkness of incarceration, conscious of the fact that your suffering is offered for faithfulness to the Church. In particular I call two prayers my prayers of liberation.
The Litany of the Saints:
From all evil, Lord save your people.
From every sin, Lord, save your people.
From everlasting death, Lord, save your people.
By your death and rising to new life, Lord, save your people.
By your gift of the Holy Spirit, Lord, save your people.
On one hand, I share the misery of the poor, of those who shed tears those who are persecuted for justice’ sake. On the other, I contemplate God’s mercy and strength which frees them. The Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
"Why are there crises in the Church?"
"Simply because people do not take prayer seriously anymore" (RH 134)
"Were you able to say Mass in prison" - is a question I have been asked many, many times.
And when I say "Yes", I can foretell the next question, "How did you get the bread and wine?"
I was taken to prison empty-handed. Later on, I was allowed to request the strict necessities like clothing, toothpaste, etc. ... I wrote home saying "Send me some wine as medication for stomach pains". On the outside, the faithful understood what I meant. They sent me a little bottle of Mass wine, with a label reading "medication for stomach pains", as well as some hosts broken into small pieces. The police asked me: "Do you have pains in your stomach?" "Yes" "Here is some medicine for you!" I will never be able to express the joy that was mine: each day, three drops of wine, a drop of water in the palm of my hand. I celebrated my Mass.
The six Catholics in my group of fifty prisoners tried to stay together. We lined up the boards we were given as beds; they were about 20 inches wide. We slept close together in order to be able to pray during the night. At nine-thirty every evening when lights out rang everyone had to be lying down. I bent over my wooden board and celebrated Mass, by heart of course, and distributed Communion to my neighbors under their mosquito nets. We made tiny bags from cigarette paper to protect the Blessed Sacrament.
Every week there was an indoctrination session which all 250 prisoners attended. At the break we could smoke a cigarette or chat. My Catholic companions took advantage of the break to pass around the Blessed Sacrament to other groups. Jesus Christ was at work, curing physical and mental suffering. Many of the others who had lost their faith came back during those days.
At night, he prisoners took turns and spent time in adoration. The Blessed Sacrament helped tremendously. Even Buddhists and other non-Christians were converted. The strength of the love of Jesus is irresistible. The darkness of the prison turned into light, the seed germinated silently in the storm.
I spent nine years in solitary confinement and during that time I said Mass every day at three o’clock, the hour of Jesus death on the cross. I was all alone and could sing and chant whatever I wished, in Latin, in French and Vietnamese. I always carried with me the same tiny bag containing Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, "You in me and me in you".
They were the most beautiful Masses of my life. From 9 to 10 PM during the hour of adoration, I sang Lauda Sion, Miserere, Te Deum. In spite of the fact that the loudspeakers continued to bark from 5 AM to 11:30PM, every single day, I felt a singular peace of mind and heart and joy in the company of Jesus and Mary. I sang the Salve Regina and the Salve Mater and became one with the universal Church. I could see from my cell the entire Church, without boundaries, and in the rage of criticism and accusation against the Church, I sang "Tu es Petrus - You are Peter and upon this rock I shall build my Church" The presence of Jesus in the Eucharist consoles and unites us, vivifies and transforms us like the pilgrims on the road to Emmaus.
You believe in one power: the Blessed Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Our Lord which make you live. "I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly" (John 10:10). As the manna fed the Israelites on their way to the Promised Land, so will the Blessed Eucharist nourish you as you travel on the Road of Hope.
When I look back on my past, it’s hard to understand the meandering of the path I traveled. I walked on nettles and rocks, I sang with joy as I moved ahead, groping my way in the darkness. Yet Jesus was there, walking with me, guiding me, carrying me when I could no longer move, when I was inches from death. It was at those moments that I would turn my thoughts to Jesus crucified and abandoned. He could no longer teach or cure the sick or raise his friend from the dead. He was in absolute immobility. In the eyes of the world he had lost, he was useless and frustrated. But in God’s eyes, Jesus, on the Cross, had accomplished the greatest act of all; he had shed his blood to save humanity.
I was liberated by the thought of Jesus crucified. When I was crushed by pain, disdain, unjust accusations, ingratitude and incomprehension, I prayed to unite myself to Jesus on the Cross and I knew that this was the most important act of my life. I often sang "O crux ave, spes unica mundi salus et gloria!" . Jesus, save the World!
You have one wisdom: the science of the Cross. (1 Cor 2:2). Look to the Cross and there you will find the solution to all the problems which are worrying you. If the Cross is the standard by which you make all your choices and decisions, your soul will be at peace (RH 989).
What is foolishness in the eyes of men is wisdom in the eyes of God. 1 Cor 3:19 and 1 Cor 1:27 (RH 106).
The Church was born on the Cross. The Church grows by continuing the passion of Jesus until the end of time. If you put your trust in money, in diplomacy, in power and influence, or in campaigns of any kind, you will be very sadly misled (RH 258).
In his testament, Jesus left me his Church but at the same time he entrusted me with a mission. "Be my witness unto the ends of the earth." (Act 1:8). I cannot be faithful to the testament of Jesus unless I carry out my mission within the Church and for the Church: "Love the Church. Obey the Church. Be loyal to the Church. Pray for the Church (RH 253). There are various kinds of Catholics, the Catholic who makes use of the Church, the Catholic in name only; there is the opportunist and the honorary Catholic looking for status. But Our Lord accepts only those who are one hundred percent Catholic, those who accept him unconditionally. "They left all and followed him" (Lk. 5:11).
I was accused of being involved in the conspiracy between the Vatican and the Imperialist against the Communists merely because Pope Paul had transferred me to Saigon one week before the arrival of the Communist troops. I was imprisoned without trial, without sentence.
I repeated often, as did Paul VI, "For the Church, for the Church".
How can I be a witness of Christ? One day I told a Communist cadre who was criticizing the Church: "We have two different meanings for the same words. If you sincerely wish to understand the Church, to dialogue with Catholics, I propose to write an index of religious vocabulary in Latin, French, English, Italian, Spanish and Chinese with Vietnamese definitions. If you accept my offer, please give me some paper and a pen. He agreed and I began, from "About to Zizania".
When the cadre returned, I explained a few words of the index to him, the meanings, the history and development of the Church, for instance, - what is an abbot - an abbey - life in an abbey - silence, poverty, obedience, chastity, fasting, manual work, pastoral and intellectual work, etc... His curiosity was aroused. Very slowly, I continued to explain the index, a kind of intensive catechism for Communist cadres! It was a way to dialogue in truth and love instead of debate and criticism.
I did the same with my guards who asked me to teach them foreign languages. They brought me French books. While teaching them French history, civilization, literature and culture, I was able to explain the impact of the gospel on France and on European history and its culture.
The role of the apostle in our times is to be in the midst of the world, not of the world, but for the world making use of the facilities of the world (RH 340).
When I began to discern between God and God’s works, when I chose God and his will and left everything else in his hands when I learned to love others, especially my enemies as Jesus loved me, I felt great peace in my heart. Deprived of freedom, of absolutely everything and living in extreme poverty in my dark cell, I was at peace because I could say, "My God and my all".
The peace that the world cannot give brought me great joy. "Holiness consists in being continuously joyful because we possess God" (RH 532).
"Why are you unhappy? It must be that something disturbs your relations with God" (RH 534). "You forget that you have the gift of happiness to present to others, the gift of peace which this world cannot give, your treasure of joy which knows no bounds" (RH 540). In the light of these thoughts, I laughed at myself and at the world. The things that seemed so important ten years ago appeared foolish. Why did I let those things disturb my interior peace? They were all vain, infantile, ambitious, anxious yearnings that separated me from God.
I will say with Mother Teresa: "My message is smile" The by-pass that can cure my heart is called "everything passes". On my Episcopal ring, two words are inscribed: "Todo pasa". Saint Teresa of Avila wrote that, "Todo pasa, solo Dios basta".
Jesus Christ came into the world to bring fire to burn all waste, a sword to cut all the bonds that hold us in slavery. He brought Truth because Truth alone can set us free.
He died to free us from death. He rose from the dead to give us life in abundance.
How do we carry out this revolution? "You desire to carry out a revolution, namely the reform of the world. You will carry out this precious and noble mission which God has entrusted to you by the power of the Holy Spirit. Every day, prepare a new Pentecost around you" (RH 979).
I have lived in a country which suffered through 40 years of war, which experienced the failure of Communist ideology and the frustrations of consumerism. The lyrics of the song "Empty Chairs, Empty Tables" from Les Miserables echo in my mind, after a frustrated and failed revolution:
"Here they spoke of revolution,
Here it was they lit the flame!
Here they sang about tomorrow
And tomorrow never came!"
Where are we going? - Church, Quo vadis?
Where do we find a new way of being the Church?
In Asia? In the USA?
Pope Paul VI clearly expressed this challenge to follow the Spirit in his encyclical Populorum Progressio n.13:
"...As far as experience in human affair is concerned, the Church, without attempting in any way to interfere in the politics of states... seeks but a solitary goal: to carry forward the work of Christ himself under the lead of the befriending Spirit" (GS n.3).
What is the new path shown to us by Pope John Paul II? It is the idea of New Evangelization.
"Every day, re-evangelize your mind and heart with reading and meditation; immerse yourself in the everlasting Word so that the gospel will gradually permeate and take deep root in every cell and every fiber of your body. That is renewal: the most enduring revolution." (RH646) "The most solid barrier is not a fortress; it is not a fence. It is indifference" (RH 652).
When Jesus saw the fear of the apostles and the trembling of his disciples as they received the mission he entrusted to them, "Be my witness unto the ends of the earth", Jesus simply said, "Do not be afraid! (Mt 17:7) "You will receive the power of the Holy Spirit which will come on you and then, you will be my witnesses" (Act 1:8).
Prisoners held captive for very long periods, without trial and in oppressive conditions retain bitter memories and sentiments of hate and vengeance. That’s a normal reaction everywhere.
I was in prison for 13 years, 9 of which in solitary confinement. Two guards watched me but never spoke to me; just yes and no.
But I knew that after all, they were my brothers and I had to be kind to them. I had no gift to offer as a prisoner I had nothing at all, nothing to please them. What to do? One night, a thought came. "You are still very rich. You have the love of Christ in your heart. Love them as Jesus loves you". The next day I set to work, first, by showing gladness and by smiling. I began to tell stories about my journeys in countries where people live in freedom and enjoy their culture and great technical progress. That stimulated their curiosity and they asked many, many questions. Slowly, very slowly, we became friends. They wanted to learn foreign languages. My guards became my disciples! The atmosphere of the prison changed considerably. The quality of our relationship changed for the better.
At that time, in another part of the area, a group of twenty people were learning Latin to be able to read Church documents. Their teachers was a former catechist. One of my guards was in the Latin class and one day he asked me if I could teach him songs in Latin.
"There are so many ", I replied, "And they are all so beautiful".
"You sing and I’ll choose " he retorted.
And so I sang Salve Regina, Salve Mater, Lauda Sion, Veni Creator, Ave Maris Stella - You’ll never guess the song he chose. The Veni Creator!
I can’t begin to tell you how moving it is to be in a Communist prison and hear your guard, coming down the stairs at 7 AM every morning on his way to the gymnastics yard for physical exercises, singing the Veni Creator.
I will speak one language: Charity.
While at prison in Vinh-Quang in the mountains of North Vietnam, I was sawing wood one afternoon. I asked my ever-present guard, who had become my friend, if I could ask him for a favor.
"What is it? I’ll help you"
"I want to saw off a small piece of wood in the form of a cross."
"Don’t you know that’s strictly forbidden to have any sign of religion whatsoever?"
"I promise to keep it hidden."
"But it would be extremely dangerous for the both of us." "Close your eyes, I’ll do it right now and I’ll be very careful"
He turned his back and left me alone. I sawed a small cross which I later hid in a piece of melted down soap. I have kept it always and had it mounted in a piece of metal and it has become my pectoral cross.
In another prison in Hanoi, I became friends with my guard and was able to request a piece of metal wire. He was terrified. "I studied in the University of Police that when someone wants electric wire he want is to kill himself!" he cried. I explained the Christians, and most of all priests, do not commit suicide.
"And so what are you going to do with electric wire?" he asked."
"I need a chain to wear my cross."
"But how can you make a chain from wire?"
"If you bring me two little pincers, I’ll show you."
"Much too dangerous!"
"But we’re friends!"
He hesitated and finally said, "It’s too hard to refuse. Tonight at 7 PM we’ll do it. But we have to finish before 11. I’ll have my companion take the evening off. If he knew, he’d denounce the both of us.
That evening, with the tools he brought, we cut and shaped and worked together to make my chain and we finished it before 11 PM!
This cross and chain are not only my souvenir of captivity, as precious as that may seem. They are a constant reminder that only Christian charity can bring about a change of heart. Not arms, not threats, not the media. It was very hard for my guards to understand when I spoke about loving our enemies, reconciliation and forgiveness.
"Do you really love us?"
"Yes, I really love you."
"Even when we cause you pain? When you suffer because you’re in prison without trial?"
"Look at all the years we’ve spent together. Of course, I love you!" "And when you get out, will you tell your people to find us and beat us and hurt our families?"
"I’ll continue to love you even if you wish to kill me" "But why?"
"Because Jesus taught us to love always; if we don’t, we are no longer worthy to be called Christians."
There is not enough time to tell you all the other moving stories which are proof of the liberating power of the love of Jesus.
"You wear one uniform and speak one language - Charity. "Charity is the sign by which you will be recognized as one of our Lord’s disciples. (John 10:10). It is a badge which costs little but is most difficult to find. Charity is the most important language. Saint Paul regarded it as far more important than being able "to speak the languages of men and even of angels" (1 Cor 13:1) (RH 984).
The harsh years in prison pass very slowly. While suffering humiliation and abandonment, my only support and hope was the love of Mary, Our Blessed Mother. The wonderful servants of Mary, Grignon de Montfort, Don Bosco, Maximilien Kolbe were my companions on the road of hope. They inspired me and gave me unwavering trust in the love of Mary, the Queen of the Apostles and Martyrs.
I said this prayer to Mary. "Mary, my Mother, if you know that I cannot be of any more use to the Church, grant me the grace to die here in prison and consummate my sacrifice. If you know that I can still be of use to the church, grant me the grace of freedom on one of your feast days. In fact, on November 21, 1988, I was cooking my meal when I heard my guard being called to the phone.
I had an idea it might be because of me. A few minutes after, the guard called to me. "Mr. Thuan, have you finished eating?" "No, not yet."
"Right after your meal, go and see the chief... and good luck!"
I was taken to meet the Minister of Police and after a brief conversation, he asked, "Do you wish to express any request?"
"Yes, Mr. Minister, I wish to be let free!"
The Minister feigned surprise but I knew the day had come. It was the Feast of the Presentation of Mary in the Temple and she was answering my prayer.
To counter the Minister’s surprise I replied, "You see, Mr. Minister, I have been in prison for three pontificates: Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II. I have been here during the offices of four Secretary Generals of the Communist Party, Bhreznev, Andropov, Tchernenko and Gorbachev."
His eyes opened wide. "Yes" that’s right. All right. Your request is granted. You are free.