by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan died in September 2002. The cause for his beatification is underway. At the end of his life, he was the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
However, in his native Vietnam, then-Bishop Van Thuan spent three years under house arrest and 13 years in prison, nine in solitary confinement. During a portion of his imprisonment, Cardinal Van Thuan was able to smuggle out brief daily messages to strengthen the faith of his people. These have been collected in a book called “The Road of Hope.”
One chapter in the book is devoted to joy. Cardinal Van Thuan wrote: “How is it that you feel discouraged if you are working for God? The more difficult things are, the happier you should be, just as John and Peter were when they were flogged at the hands of the Sanhedrin. ‘So the apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to be dishonored for the sake of the Name.’ (Acts 5:41); or like Paul, ‘I am wonderfully encouraged and, despite all our afflictions, I am brimming over with joy” (2 Cor 7:4).
In another reflection on joy, Cardinal Van Thuan made clear that the Christian always has a reason for hope and joy: “When you are successful, give thanks to God; and when you are a failure, give thanks to God. Rejoice always! When you fail, you will soon see if you serve God or your own will. To be joyful and courageous in a moment of failure is more difficult than in a moment of good fortune.”
Cardinal Van Thuan’s life shows us what is possible when we allow our friendship with Jesus to refresh our soul, give wisdom to our mind, enlighten our eye and rejoice our heart. This is the kind of strength and hope and joy only faith can provide.
Recently, I read a book entitled “Black and Pro-Life in America: The Incarceration and Exoneration of Walter B. Hoye.” It chronicles the events leading up to the arrest, sentencing and confinement of Baptist pastor Walter Hoye in the Alameda County Santa Rita Jail in California.
His crime? Holding a sign outside an abortion clinic that read: “Jesus loves you and your baby. Let us help you.”
Pastor Hoye became passionate about protecting the unborn because his first child was premature. It made him aware of the humanity of life within the womb. He also became disturbed by the disproportionate number of African-American children being aborted.
Pastor Hoye spent several weeks in jail. He did some excellent prison ministry during his incarceration. After a protracted legal battle, the statute used to convict Pastor Hoye was ruled unconstitutional and the city of Oakland had to pay Pastor Hoye’s legal fees.
Pastor Hoye was unjustly imprisoned because of his desire to assist women experiencing a difficult pregnancy and for attempting to save the lives of unborn children. Walter Hoye used his time in prison to give a powerful personal witness of his willingness to suffer for the injustice being done to others.
Father Emil Kapaun, a priest of the Wichita Diocese, died in a prisoner of war camp during the Korean War. His cause for beatification is also under consideration. The American soldiers liberated from the POW camp where Father Kapaun died gave beautiful testimonies of their chaplain’s heroism.
Through his example, he taught the men imprisoned with him that they were still free. Even in the harsh conditions of the POW camp, they were still free to pray and praise God. They were still free to encourage and support each other. They were still free to treat their captors with kindness and respect.
Cardinal Van Thuan, Pastor Walter Hoye and Father Emil Kapaun provide three examples of individuals who were unjustly imprisoned but never lost their capacity for love, hope and even joy.
Pope Emeritus Benedict in his encyclical on hope made this observation about Cardinal Van Thuan: “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.”
The Christian is never without the capacity for love, hope and joy. Our faith is able to provide meaning and reason for hope in the direst circumstances. In fact, it is our ability to continue to love and to evidence joy in the midst of adversity that makes our faith attractive to others.
I encourage all of us to look upon the present difficulties of our lives as precious opportunities to magnify the beauty and power of our Christian faith.