Sunday, March 11, 2012

Bishop Imprisoned: "Here's my cathedral!"

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 in 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.

Not being able to shepherd his people when they needed him most was obviously 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 Nguyen Van Thuan would embrace God's will as it was given to him in that moment or he would grope for what he thought God's will should be. That was his choice, plain and simple.

The irony of Divine Providence is that the Lord sometimes calls us to renounce the work he has called us to. He will inspire the zeal, guarantee success and then let the floor drop out from underneath us. After the dust settles, it would seem all is lost. To be sure, God pushes us to the brink. But it is in this hour of darkness that purification reaches the depths of the soul. We are forced to answer the same question Jesus asked of St. Peter: Do you love me more than these? Being given the opportunity to love God for his own sake- and not for any delight we take in his gifts -makes us worthy servants of his. It prepares us for great achievements.

This opportunity was given to Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan. A light pierced the darkness and this light was the key to his peace and happiness even in the Vietnam prison.

This prisoner for Christ tells us the turning point from which he began to see the grim and inhospitable conditions in a new light. The following extracts were taken from an address he gave at a religious education conference in Los Angeles just before his death in 2002. The theme of his talk was Experiencing God's Liberating Power.

In his own words:

"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.

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 it 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!'

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. No, I will not spend time waiting. I will live the present moment and fill it with love.

This light totally changed my way of thinking. When the Communists 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."

The cross Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan carried from 1975 to 1988 was that he was unable to fulfill his regular duties as Bishop of Nha Trang in South Vietnam. Instead he was thrown into solitary confinement- Vietnamese style. While in the wine-press of suffering, he probably was tempted to blame God for the losses he had to endure. But like so many other Saints, Cardinal Van Thuan saw God's hand in the suffering he had to endure.