Cardinal Van Thuan and a Difficult Teaching

Perhaps some of the most difficult teachings of Christ concern how we respond to oppression.

In 1975, the communist forces of North Vietnam captured Saigon in the south and united the country under one communist rule. The communist authorities view Catholicism as the influence of a foreign power and are ruthless in their persecution of Catholics. Cardinal Van Thuan, the archbishop of Saigon was arrested and imprisoned for 13 years, nine of which were in solitary confinement.

The cardinal relates his experience in prison.

“In the beginning, the guards did not talk to me. I was terribly sad. I wanted to be kind and polite with them, but it was impossible. They avoided speaking with me.

One night a thought came to me: ‘Francis, you are still very rich. You have the love of Christ in your heart; love them as Jesus has loved you.’

The next day I started to love them even more, to love Jesus in them, smiling and exchanging kind words with them.

I began to tell them stories of my trips abroad, of how people live in America, in Canada, in Japan, in the Philippines… about economics, about freedom, about technology. This stimulated their curiosity and they began asking me many questions.

Little by little we became friends. They wanted to learn foreign languages, French, English… And my guards became my students!”

The Cardinal describes how one guard agreed to let him make a wooden cross for himself even though it was severely forbidden to have any religious signs at all. When the guard at first objected, the Cardinal answered, “I know, but we are friends, and I promise to keep it hidden.”

So the guard walked away and let the Cardinal make his cross. Some time later, at another prison, with another guard he had befriended, Cardinal Van Thuan asked for a piece of wire.

“The guard, frightened, answered: ‘I learned at the Police Academy that when someone asks for electrical wire it means they want to kill themselves!’

‘Catholic priests don’t commit suicide.’

‘But what do you want to do with electrical wire?’

‘I would like to make a chain to carry my cross.’

‘How can you make a chain with electrical wire? It’s impossible.’

‘If you bring me two small pincers, I’ll show you.’

‘It’s too dangerous!’

‘But we’re friends!’”

And so the guard brought the wire and together, communist soldier and Catholic bishop, made a cross to hold the bishop’s pectoral cross.

According to a study by the Italian based Center for Studies on New Religions, Christians continue to be the most persecuted religious group in the world. The study found that in the year 2016, 90,000 Christians were killed for their beliefs while an additional 600 million were prevented from practicing their faith.

There are many places in the world where being a Christian is the most dangerous thing you can be.

How we respond to such persecution, hardship and oppression, says much about us to the world. A convicted murderer once remarked.

“Christians are the only people in the world where you can kill their son, and they make you part of your family.”

Turn the other cheek, do more than is required of you, do good to those who hate you, these passages from scripture are frequently used to bolster the assertion that Christianity is a religion for the weak and the passive. But this is a superficial interpretation.

For the past few weeks Jesus has taught us what it means to follow Him. We learned humility from the beatitudes. We learned the importance of using our minds as well as our hearts to serve God. And we learned to be generous with our time and our abilities. Today Jesus teaches us the virtue of forgiveness.

A backhanded blow across the right cheek is the slap of a superior to a subordinate, giving up your tunic and carrying another’s burden for a mile are dictums of an oppressive law, loving your enemies means to love those who consider you beneath them. It is not about how we respond to violence. It is about how we respond to humiliation and oppression. As followers of Christ we are called to a higher standard than the world expects of us. We answer hatred, oppression and humiliation with love and forgiveness.

Humility, wisdom, generosity and forgiveness, these are not traits of weakness.

We are called to take the high road, to set ourselves apart from those who have rejected God. We are told to not only forgive our enemies but to love them and pray for those who persecute us. Anything else is from the evil one.

Pax vobiscum