St. Paul and St. Silas were preaching in Philippi when they were brutally attacked and imprisoned. They were stripped, beaten, and locked in chains deep within the prison. While praying that night, a large earthquake shook the foundations of the prison. The cell doors flew open, the chains pulled loose, and Paul and Silas were freed (Acts 16:22-34).
During morning prayer last week, I prayed to be freed from the despair of a culture that seems to be losing its focus on God. Then, the Lord led me to a meditation by the Venerable Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan. Thuan would overcome despair by putting his trust in God and praying to love others as God loves them – unconditionally. Feeling hope through Thuan’s words, I wondered who he was. With a little research, here’s what I found….
On April 24, 1975, Bishop Nguyen Van Thuan was appointed Archbishop of Saigon. One week later, the city fell to the communist North Vietnamese Army. He was immediately imprisoned to endure thirteen years of harsh treatment and deplorable conditions. Nine of those years were spent in solitary confinement. During his years of isolation, rather than give in to despair and self-pity, Thuan found God in the darkness: he was never alone, never without comfort. His life still had purpose, even in the midst of incredible suffering. Thuan used scraps of paper to compose a tiny Bible; and write messages of hope which were smuggled out to his fellow believers, many who were also suffering for their faith. He even made a small crucifix from a piece of wood and wire smuggled in by sympathetic guards.
In November 1988, Archbishop Thuan was released but kept under house arrest in Hanoi. Three years later, he was allowed to visit Rome and did not return until after Vietnam’s government eased restrictions on him. By now, Thuan was a Cardinal working on the Pope’s staff in Rome. He died of cancer in 2002 at the age of 74 in Rome. In 2007, on the fifth anniversary of his death, Pope Benedict began the beatification process for Cardinal Thuan.
Over a thousand of Cardinal Thuan’s messages were smuggled from the damp darkness of his prison cell – passed between barbed wire, traveled thousands of miles across oceans, and handed down over the years to compose a book: “The Road of Hope – a Gospel from prison.” I bought the book and began reading it. In the first chapter, Cardinal Thuan writes “I have traveled along life’s road where I have experienced both joys and sorrows; but always I have been overflowing with hope because I have our Lord and his mother at my side…If you wish to set off on this road, you must go regardless of what other people may say to ridicule you. The Magi set off hoping to find the newborn Savior, and they found him…St Paul knew imprisonment and affliction awaited him (Acts 20:30) and Jesus foresaw the road to Jerusalem would lead to his great Passion (Matthew 16:21). Yet both continued forward…The Lord guides you on this road so you will ‘go and bear fruit’ (John 15:16) which will endure.”
As we face our joys and hardships, our happiness and despair, may we pray to be courageous to trust in God and travel the Road of Hope. For as Psalm 43 says, “Why are you cast down, my soul. Hope in God; I will praise him still, my savior and my God.”