Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Prisoner for Christ: One Cardinal Learns God's Peace in His Darkest Hour

God does not find success where the politician, celebrity or even the wealthy might find them. No, he finds them in those circumstances and situations the world considers unimportant. Failures, suffering and death are God’s chosen instruments of success and resurrection. This lesson comes through loud and clear at the beginning and end of the life of Christ. The circumstances surrounding his birth were by no means ideal; indeed, the manger was barely suitable for animals. The world would have looked upon St. Joseph as a failure for not providing a warm comfortable room for the birth of the long awaited Messiah. But what the world deemed as failure, God used to bring about the greatest of blessings for generations to come. As for Christ’s death, the Cross on which he was hoisted was an emblem of public shame; so much so that it became a stumbling block for the Jews. These two hallmarks of the life of our Lord- his birth and his death -speaks to the contradictions and setbacks in our own life.

Enter Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan. His cause for canonization was recently opened in late 2010. His life and trails in a Vietnam prison speaks to "God's liberating power." What God taught him the dark cell of solitary confinement can be applied to any arduous circumstance we might find ourselves in.

In 1967 he was ordained bishop of Nha Trang, South Vietnam. However, in 1975 after South Vietnam fell to Communist North Vietnam, he recounts, “I was invited to the Palace of Independence, the President's Palace in Saigon, only to be arrested.” He was then incarcerated for thirteen years. Nine out of those thirteen was spent in solitary confinement. One would think that the dark, stifling quarters he was confined to would have been the primary source of his torment. Not true. What tormented the bishop was that the fact he could no longer shepherd his flock in Nha Trang. Indeed, the pain of being prevented from celebrating Mass, catechizing, evangelizing and ministering to the poor in his diocese as their bishop was a sacrifice that equaled Abraham’s call to sacrifice his son Isaac.

A man’s work and mission is so interconnect with his identity and self-worth that the inability to provide for his subjects or the failure to fulfill his duties is a kind of death for him. In extreme and rare cases, this anguish can result in suicide or homicide. The temptation to go “postal” or to take his own life over a lost job may overcome a man, but never a woman. A man can be the best husband and father at home but if he is not fulfilled in his vocation or career, he feels like half a man. When Adam sinned in the garden, God’s punishment did not primarily affect his relationships like it did for Eve, but rather, it cost him where it counted- at work; this was enough to weigh him down. The fields he was called to cultivate were cursed with weeds. It was only in toil that he would yield his crops.

As for the Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, his burden was not being able to shepherd his people when they needed him most. However, all of this was beyond his control. He was called to resign himself to the new and trying circumstances that were thrusted upon him. In order to retain his sanity, he had to choose God over God's works. Either the Cardinal (then bishop) embrace God's will as it was given to him in that moment or he grope for what he thought God's will should be. That was his choice, plain and simple.

More on the next blog