Last week was a busy news week for the Vatican: the release of Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, and the announcement that two former popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, will be canonized. Almost overshadowed is the story of another remarkable leader, Cardinal Văn Thuận and the cause for his beatification. (Beatification is the first step in declaring a person a saint, and allows for public veneration.)
Cardinal Văn Thuận spent 13 years in prison as a political prisoner in Vietnam, shortly after being named coadjutor archbishop of Saigon. The North Vietnamese army invaded Saigon, and the archbishop was sent to a “re-education camp”, where he endured 9 years of solitary confinement. It would seem to be a situation where one would lose hope.
But instead of wallowing in his misfortune, he saw it as an opportunity to come into closer communion with Christ, increasing his hope, which he was then able to pass on to others.
After his release in 1988, he was exiled in 1991, but welcomed home by Pope John Paul II, who made him an official in the Roman Curia. The Holy Father later appointed him president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, a post he held from 1998 to 2002. He was elevated to the College of Cardinals in 2001.
Meeting with those who helped complete the diocesan phase of Cardinal Thuận’s beatification last week, Pope Francis recalled his “witness to hope,” saying his memory is still alive and that he had a “spiritual presence that continues to bring his blessing.”
Kishore Jayabalan, Director of Istituto Acton in Rome, worked with the cardinal at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and was impressed by his holiness and simple manner.
“He came in to see me unannounced and without any fanfare; I didn’t even recognize him and thought it was some old priest who happens to work there coming to say hello,” Jayabalan recalled to the Register. “It was only when I saw his pectoral cross that I realized who he was.”
In another anecdote, Jayabalan recalled the moment when two newly ordained priests came to visit the pontifical council and asked for his blessing. “I didn’t see him in his office, but we later found him in the mailroom, sorting through the mail,” he said. “When asked for his blessing, he knelt down right there, in the cramped mailroom, and pulled the hands of the priests towards him and made them give him a blessing first.”
Those closest to him remember the Vietnamese cardinal for his inner joy. “He was almost always smiling or laughing, but never in a superficial or happy-go-lucky way,” said Jayabalan. “You could tell his joy came through his suffering and identification with Christ.”
During his time at the Pontifical Council, the cardinal aided in the creation of The Social Agenda, a compendium of Catholic Magisterial texts in a “user-friendly” form for those interested in studying the Church’s teaching on politics, economics, and culture.
Jayabalan was also interviewed by the Catholic News Agency regarding Cardinal Văn Thuận’s legacy.