"Jesus, I will not wait; I will live in the present moment and fill it with Love"
Early Life and Career
Thuan was born on April 17th, 1928 in a suburb of Hue city. He was born into a deeply religious family with strong and deep Vietnamese Catholic ties. His grandfather was Ngo Dinh Kha, a high-ranking Catholic in the Court of the Emperor Thanh Thai. One Uncle was the first president of South Vietnam (Ngo Dinh Diem) and the other was the third ever Vietnamese Catholic Bishop. As the oldest of 8 children, his mother Elizabeth taught him bible stories and his many familial ties to the Catholic faith. He would later write that from an early age his mother impressed upon him examples from Saint Therese of Lisieux's life, especially on love and forgiveness.
In his teenage years he entered the An Ninh Minor Seminary and studied philosophy and theology at Phu Xuan major seminary. At the age of 25, he was ordained by Monsignor Jean-Baptiste Urrutia and assigned to the Saint Francis parish where his language skills could be put to best use as the parish members spoke both French and Vietnamese. He would continue in service soon after by being appointed Chaplain of the Pellerin Institute, the Central hospital and the provincial prisons. After several months he was transferred again, this time to study in Rome at the Urbanian University and was awarded a Doctorate in Canon Law, Summa Cum Laude.
He then returned to Vietnam in 1959 and was appointed as the rector of the Seminary of Hoan Thien in Hue City. In the spring of 1967, he was appointed Bishop of Nha Trang, a coastal city in South Vietnam and was the first ever Vietnamese Bishop of Nah Trang. He immediately set out to development the diocese and increased the number of major seminarians from 42 to 147, minor seminarians from 200 to 500 and organized in-service courses for priests of 6 dioceses. During this time he was also the Chairman of the Justice and Peace Committee, Social Communication Committee, and the Development of Vietnam Committee. He was a founding member of the "Radio Veritas" program in Manila, and named Advisor of the Pontifical Council of the Laity.
On April 24th, 1975, he was appointed Coadjutor Archbishop of Saigon. Only six days later, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army.
Arrest and Years in Prison
When Saigon fell, somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 Vietnamese were arrested and sent to re-education camps. Many of those arrested with religious members who were seen as a threat to the communist regime, and the Archbishop was arrested along with them. On the Solemnity of the Assumption in 1975, he was detained and escorted to Nha Trang. With no trial or sentencing, he was taken to Vinh Quang pirison and placed in solitary confinement. The day after his arrest he was allowed to write to his parish in order to gather personal belongings. He wrote:
"Please send me a little wine as medicine for my stomach pain."
The parish members understood the request and sent a small bottle (cleverly disguised as a medicine bottle) containing wine and some pieces of the Host in a small burner. Each day he would celebrate mass in secret using only three drops of wine in the palm of his hand.every day in prison with the prisoners he could find, He would later right in Testimony of Hope:
"Each time I celebrated Mass, I had the opportunity to extend my hands and nail myself to the cross with Jesus, to drink with Him the bitter chalice. In the re-education camp, we were divided into groups of 50 prisoners. We slept on a common bed, and everyone had the right to 50 cm of space. We managed to make sure there were Catholics around me. At 9:30 pm, we had to turn off the light. It was then that I would bend over the bed to celebrate Mass by heart, and I distributed communion by passing my hand under the mosquito net. We even made little bags with the aluminum foil from cigarette packs to preserve the Holy Host and take it to others. The Eucharistic Jesus was always present in my shirt pocket."
In prison, he tore a apart a small calendar and used the scraps of paper to secretly share messages of encouragement and hope to Catholics both in and out of the prison. After befriending some of the guards, barb wire and pieces of wood were smuggled into his cell from which he was able to craft a small Crucifix. He detailed this event in his writings:
At that time I was in a closely guarded cell but children were allowed to visit me. One day I said to one of them: ‘Ask your mother to buy me a calendar-block.’ When I received it I wrote my thoughts on the back of a sheet each night and in this way I produced my first book, Pilgrims on the Road of Hope.
One day I asked one of them to bring something to trim a piece of wood. He did and I was able to make a cross. Even though all religious symbols were prohibited, I now had a cross in my quarters. I hid it in a bar of soap. Another time I asked for a piece of wire and a pair of pliers. My friendly policeman said, ‘I will bring them but you have to finish in four hours’ – the length of his particular shift. In four hours I had fashioned a chain for my cross. The cross was later enclosed in silver and it is the cross and chain I still wear.
He also documented the state of his time in prison:
In my initial period in prison I spent many months in an extremely narrow space without windows, half suffocated by the heat and humidity. Often I had great difficulty in breathing. They tortured me by leaving me under lights day and night for ten days and then depriving me of all light for long periods. One day in the darkness I noticed a tiny hole through which the light shone. From then on I used to put my nostrils there to breathe more easily.
Whenever there were floods snakes used to invade my cell and sometimes climbed my legs to avoid the water. They used to stay with me until the floods passed. I had no toilet but since I received hardly any food I had little need of one. My daily rations consisted of some rice and vegetables cooked with salt. From five in the morning until 11:30 at night there was a constant din of voices over loudspeakers. To distract myself I did exercises, jumped, danced, sang and prayed. Prayer saved my life. In moments of great suffering, sometimes when I wanted to pray I couldn’t. I was desperately tired, sick and hungry . . . often I was tempted to despair and rebellion. But the Lord always helped me.
On October 7th, 1976, the Feast of the Holy Rosary, he would write the following in Phu-Khanh prison during his solitary confinement:
I am happy here, in this cell, where white mushrooms are growing on my sleeping mat, because You are here with me, because You want me to live here with You. I have spoken much in my lifetime: now I speak no more. It's Your turn to speak to me, Jesus; I am listening to You.
Release and Exile
On the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lady (November 1988) Thuan was released from prison and sentenced to house arrest at the Archbishop's house in Hanoi and forbidden from performing clerical work. In 1991, the communist government allowed him to take a trip to Rome, but would not allow his return to the country. In Rome, the Vatican assigned him a post at the International Catholic Commission for Migration in Geneva Switzerland and in 1994 was appointed President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. By this point he had mastered five languages and became an extremely popular speaker across the globe.
In May of 1998, he preached to over 50,000 youth. He received an Honorary Doctorate at the Jesuit University in New Orleans, LA. Among the many other titles he would receive in his life, some highlights are:
"Commandeur de l'Ordre National du Merite" - Embassy of France to the Holy See
Prize for "Together for Peace Foundation"
Prize for Peace from the SERMIG - Associazione Missionaria di giovani
Prize of Peace 2001, Center of Ctudies G Donati.
During Lent in 2000, Saint Pope John Paul II invited him to preach the Lenten Retreat to the Curia. Cardinal Thuan would later say of that time:
"24 years ago I said Mass with three drops of wine and one drop of water in the palm of my hand. I never would have thought that today the Holy Father would give me a gilt chalice. Our Lord is great indeed and so is his love".
On February 21st, 2001, he was elevated to the College of Cardinals by Saint Pope John Paul II as Cardinal of the Church of Santa Maria della Scala, a Carmelite church. He would die of cancer in Rome on September 16th, 2002 at the age of 74.
On the fifth anniversary of his death, the Catholic Church began the beatification process. Pope Benedict XVI expressed "profound joy" at the official opening. In his encyclical Spe Salvi, he referred to the Cardinal's book Prayers of Hope :
During thirteen years in jail, in a situation of seemingly utter hopelessness, the fact that he could listen and speak to God became for him an increasing power of hope, which enabled him, after his release, to become for people all over the world a witness to hope—to that great hope which does not wane even in the nights of solitude.
His remains are currently interred at the Santa Maria della Scala in Rome, and he was officially declared Venerable in 2017 while the canonization cause continues.