Written by Joe Waters
Yesterday, those tuning into the proceedings of the 49th International Eucharistic Congress in Quebec heard the testimony of Elizabeth Nguyen Thi Thu Hong, the sister of the late Archbishop of Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City and President of the Pontifical Council Iustitia et Pax Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuân. Those of you familiar with his writings and the story of his life are well aware of his great witness to Jesus Christ. His sufferings were tremendous: 13 years in a Vietnamese prison, 9 years in solitary confinement, the inability to freely shepherd his flock, and finally the incurable stomach cancer that killed him in 2002. However, throughout it all he had his gaze totally fixed on Jesus, particularly in His Eucharistic Presence. Elizabeth had much to say about her brother and his relationship with our Lord, but for our purposes her meditation on the Eucharist and missionary activity was particularly striking:
The Eucharist is the heart and soul of missionary activity. Indeed it was during those years of silence and solitude, cut off from all pastoral duties, but intimately united to the Eucharist that Francis understood with his whole being that it is only God, and not God's work, that should be the centre of our lives. That understanding opened the door to the Holy Spirit to transform those years of severe restrictions into the most active and fruitful evangelization periods of his life.
ln his book Five Loaves and Two Fish, Francis recounted the special period of his life which he considered as his period of major spiritual growth. Many times I was tempted, tormented by the fact that I was only 48 years old, in the prime of my life. I had acquired a great deal of pastoral experience, and there I was, isolated, inactive, separated from my people. One night I heard a voice encouraging me from the depth of my heart: ‘Why do you torment yourself so? You must distinguish between God and the work of God. You must choose God alone, and not his works.
When the communists threw him into the old of a cargo ship headed to Haiphong, 1700 m north, he suddenly found himself among some 1500 desperate, starving prisoners. He sensed their anger, their despair and desire for revenge, and he started to share in their human suffering; but with the inner voice immediately urging him to choose God, and not the works of God, he quickly realized that, in that captive company, he had just been handed a cathedral full of faithful to minister to. He decided to be an affirmation of God's presence in the midst of that cargo of human misery. He sustained his fellow prisoners during the 10-day trip, and managed to provide comfort for them.
By the time the cargo ship of prisoners reached Haiphong, Thuan realized he was already following Jesus to the roots of evangelization. It was like going with Him to die "extra muros", i.e., outside the walls, outside the sacred walls (Five Loaves and Two Fish).
Van Thuan described how he practised his ministry in the Vinh Quang Prison Camp: At night, the prisoners would take turns for adoration. With His silent presence, the Eucharistic Jesus helped us in unimaginable ways. Many Christians returned to a fervent faith ife, and their quiet display of service and love had an even greater impact on other prisoners. Even Buddhists and other non-Christians joined in the faith. The strength of Jesus' loving presence was irresistible. The darkness of prison became a paschal light, and the seed germinated in the ground during the storm. The prison was transformed into a school of catechesis. Catholics baptised fellow prisoners and became godparents to their companions.
Zenit has the whole text of her testimony here