As World War II ended, Vietnam began to suffer the same types of persecution and martyrdoms that Communism brought to China and Korea. But at that very moment a spiritual story was unfolding that shows how grace operates even in the most terrible circumstances.
Van had a precarious early life. His family were simple rice farmers. They instilled a pure, childlike faith in him and early he realized he had a vocation. Unfortunately, Van first came into contact with harsh and sadistic catechists and priests. At his minor seminary he was frequently beaten by a vicious catechist. The same teacher tried to abuse the boys, who all resisted violently. They were threatened, If you talk I will bury you alive! In various parishes to which he later went to study, the pastors were often corrupt. Remarkably, the young Van never let these gross vices change his view of the Churchs goodness.
He showed great spiritual and moral maturity from the first. He writes of this period: The more I discover the superficiality of love in this world, the more I feel drawn into the depth of the heart of God. Van escaped at around age 12 to become a street urchin, living any way he could. At one point, he was almost sold into slavery by a woman who had pretended to befriend him.
He also came into contact with Vietnamese revolutionaries trying to drive out the French colonial power. Though a firm Catholic and grateful to the French for bringing the faith to Vietnam, Van hated the French forces and hoped for their withdrawal. The time seemed right to him for Vietnam to have its own independence.
Sleeping under the stars, contemplating on hillsides, living by handouts, even eating wax that had dripped from altar candles in church, he found himself experiencing great humility and littleness before everything. Even before he read St. Thérèse of Lisieux, his experiences moved him in directions similar to those she took. A sweet tenderness remained with him in the midst of his lonely and challenging circumstances.
When he was finally admitted to the minor seminary of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux at Lang-Son, almost by chance he came upon the saints spiritual autobiography, Diary of a Soul. The saints little way seemed made personally to order. From age 14 on, he always had it with him. Then an odd thing happened. In prayer, he found himself in conversation with Saint Thérèse. She began giving him advice. He was taught how to overcome fear and a lack of trust. Thérèse told him that he was distant from God because he had a wrong conception of the Almighty. God loves us: Never be afraid of God. All He can do is love.
These conversations went on for years. Thérèse deplored the bad behavior of the French, but she advised him, instead of taking up arms, to use the tactic of prayer. Only the Christian approach of praying for enemies and a change of heart that will reveal to them the evil they are doing could succeed.
All his life, Van had wanted to be a priest. He was told another hard truth: he would only be a lay member of the Redemptorists in Hanoi to serve God as He wanted to be served. Van was also warned that he would face hard trials. Conversations with Christ himself and mystical experiences followed. At one point, Christ even asked Van to tell him some funny stories. During a Mass, Van had a vision of the millions upon millions who assault Christ through their sins while He can only take it and love. The crowd had surprising members: adults, men and women, certainly, but The most painful part of it was seeing innocent children throwing stones at Jesus. Later he was told that he had a special mission to children.
On September 2, 1945, Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the countrys independence. Van fled to Saigon in the South. He took final vows with the Redemptorists and busied himself at various simple tasks. When the country was cut in two after the fall of Dien Bien Phu, masses of people, Catholic and not, fled to the South. But according to Van, Jesus had insisted that he was needed where the trouble was greatest. Van immediately flew to the North on Sept. 14, the Feast of the Cross: I am going so that in the midst of the Communists, there will be someone who loves Our Dear Lord.
Van was quietly conducting his duties when one day he went out shopping. Hearing some agents provocateurs spreading lies about the South, he blurted out, I have just come from the South and the government has never done anything like that! He was taken to Sureté headquarters, where a familiar pattern began. Interrogations went on for several days from seven in the morning until midnight seeking Vans confession of what is not clear.
He spent five months in solitary confinement during sweltering summer heat. Then he was transferred to the main Hanoi prison and locked up with other reactionaries. Notes he wrote were smuggled out. One to his Superior read: It would be easy for me to stay alive: all I would have to do is make an accusation against you. Dont be afraid, I would never do it. . . . I will resist to the death. The prison officials used brain-washing techniques to break him and prevent his dying a heroic death. Near the end, he got out a message, Today, I am a corpse who can still breathe. . . .I am the victim of Love. Love is my joy, an indestructible joy.
A show trial, during which he displayed great calm and dignity, ensued, and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for spreading propaganda. Other prisoners flocked to him because of the strength he displayed. Perhaps because of this good effect on the others, he was transferred to a new prison: Camp 2 at Yeh Binh. There he endured the worst treatment of all: he was beaten and put in a dark cell for two years and, at the beginning of 1958, chained up for three months with no outside contacts. When he was finally set loose from the special confinement, he had tuberculosis and beri-beri. His body was emaciated. On June 10, 1959, he groaned and quietly passed away, leaving some future Vietnam to absorb the spiritual lessons of his life.
Royal, Robert. The Spirit in Vietnam. Arlington Catholic Herald (2000).
Published by permission of Robert Royal and the Arlington Catholic Herald.
Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. Among his books are A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive Global History, Dante Alighieri: Divine Comedy, Divine Spirituality, The Pope's Army: 500 Years of the Papal Swiss Guard, 1492 and All That: Political Manipulations of History,The Virgin and the Dynamo: The Use and Abuse of Religion in Environmental Debates, The Virgin and the Dynamo: Use and Abuse of Religion in Environmental Debates, and most recently, The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West. Robert Royal is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2000 Arlington Catholic Herald
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