by F.R. Duplantier
Francois-Xavier Nguyen van Thuan was named bishop of Nha Trang in 1967 and coadjutor archbishop of Saigon in 1975. Less than four months later, he was placed under house arrest by the new Communist authorities. In 1976 he was deported to North Vietnam and spent the next ten years in prisons and reeducation camps.
How could he continue to do God’s work from his prison cell? That was the question that perplexed Archbishop Nguyen van Thuan following his arrest by the Vietnamese Communists in 1975. In his new book of prayers and reflections, Five Loaves and Two Fish (Morley Books, Washington DC, $18.95), he recalls being “tormented by the fact that I was forty-eight years old, the age of maturity; I had worked as a bishop for eight years, I had acquired much pastoral experience, and there I was: isolated, inactive, separated from my people, more than one thousand miles away!” Then the answer came to him: “One night, I heard a voice prompting me from the depths of my heart: ‘Why do you torment yourself so? You have to distinguish between God and God’s works. Everything you have done and want to continue doing – pastoral visits, formation of seminarians, men and women religious, lay people, youth, building schools, the foyer for students, missions to evangelize non-Christians – all these are excellent works, God’s works, but they are not God! If God wants you to abandon all these works, putting them in his hands, do it immediately, and have confidence in him. God will do it infinitely better than you; he will entrust his works to others who are much more capable than you. You have chosen God alone, not his works!’”
The archbishop had “always learned to do God’s will. But this light brought me a new strength that completely changed my way of thinking and helped me overcome moments that were physically almost impossible,” he emphasizes. “At times a well-developed program has to be left unfinished; some activities begun with great enthusiasm are held up; large missions are demoted to minor activities. Maybe you are upset and discouraged, but has the Lord called you to follow him, or to follow this project or this person? Let the Lord work: He will work everything out for the best.”
And so, in moments when he was tempted to give way to anger or despair, Archbishop Nguyen van Thuan chose instead to let the Lord work. “When the Communists loaded me into the hull of the ship Hai-Phong with another fifteen hundred prisoners to be transported north, seeing the desperation, the hate, the desire for revenge on the faces of those held under arrest, I shared their suffering,” he confides, “but immediately the voice called out to me again: ‘Choose God and not God’s works.’ I said to myself: ‘In truth, Lord, here is my cathedral, here is the people of God that you have given me to take care of. I have to confirm God’s presence in the midst ofthese desperate, miserable brothers. It is your will, so it is my choice.’”
Archbishop Nguyen van Thuan was exiled by the Vietnamese Communists in 1991 and has since lived in Rome, where he currently serves as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.