La luz brilla en las tinieblas. Cardenal Van Thuȃn: historia de una esperanza


Publisher: Ediciones Palabra
Pages: 268
Price: €17,50

This biography by Miguel Angel Velasco, a Spanish journalist specialized in religious information and contemporary hagiography, fills an editorial gap in its own way. In fact, despite considerable research endeavors over the past few years, at present there aren’t many reasoned biographies on the life and teaching of Van Thuȃn, especially relative to the last part of his life, the spreading of his odor of holiness, and the beginning of the cause of Beatification. In general, what the vast public knows about this great Cardinal is more the fruit of anecdotal and relative brief narrations as if his life was confined to the albeit significant period of his years in prison, a discussion with John Paul II, and a citation by Benedict XVI. In fact, we could say Van Thuȃn lived numerous lives: a first part going from his precocious vocation to his time in the seminary and ordination to the priesthood in Vietnam, a second part including the years of his episcopacy and the many years he spent in prison (13) with nary the shadow of any trial, and lastly the third part encompassing his liberation, expulsion from his beloved homeland, his arrival in Rome to take up universal service to the Church as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, his illness,  his being raised to the rank of Cardinal, and his death.  During his lifetime lasting 78 years the world changed as never before: the beginning of his life coincided with the age of totalitarian regimes, followed by World War II and in its wake the process of decolonization which had a decisive impact on domestic events in his own country,  then 1989 with the downfall of the USSR – but not the regime in Vietnam – and lastly the onset of so-called worldwide globalization.  In the Church as well there were equally significant changes when taken into consideration is the corresponding period from Pius XII to John Paul II, with the XXI Ecumenical Council of Christianity in the middle. Therefore, if we try to situate the biographical parabola of Van Thuȃn in this rather well structured framework we may have an inkling of just how complicated it is to write a circumstantial book on an historical personality, who, in one way or another, lived in contact with all these events.  Evoking Pope Francis’ recent reflections on the forgotten martyrology of our time, the author’s chosen interpretation is that of “martyr” and “martyrdom. Now, if “martyr” in Greek means “witness”, the Cardinal, master and prophet of hope in the darkness of the structure of human sin, is undoubtedly to be included in the category of the loftiest witnesses of Christianity in the XX century. This explains the quotation from the prologue of the Gospel according to St. John (cf. Jn 1:5) chosen by Mr. Velasco as the title of this book which proposes the light of Christ victorious over the shadows of this world, and his principles, also on the basis of impressions stemming from his personal knowledge of Van Thuȃn – the Spanish author says this at the very beginning of the book – which he looked upon as a true and totally unexpected “grace” (pg. 17) in his life.

Nonetheless, this did not induce him to shed his cloak as a consummate researcher. Therefore, cited/quoted in the meticulous reconstruction of the Cardinal’s life are practically all the documents – gleaned from both the general and the specialized press – published in this regard, including the articles published by our Observatory (cf. pgs 95, 96, and 97). Hence, also with input from other persons who knew him in person, Van Thuȃn is depicted as a “living Gospel” (pg. 68) on a par with St. John Paul II and St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the saints followed and loved the most among young people today. The reason is that – just like in their case – anyone attracted to the charismatic figure of this indomitable Vietnamese Pastor with his ever ready smile, his simplicity and his wisdom, cannot help but fall in love with him, immediately grasping the intrinsic consistency between his writings and his life, his sermons and his works. This is a quality which young people and those ‘distant’ from the faith in general immediately notice as the foremost feature of personal credibility. Coming to mind is that well-known observation on the part of Paul VI when he said that the world today needs witnesses more than teachers since even when teachers are followed, it usually happens to the degree that they prove to be convincing witnesses of what they say. It is useless to add that this was precisely where Van Thuȃn had what it takes. As revealed also in depositions being given during the cause of beatification now underway, ‘holy’ and ‘holiness’ are the words most often used to describe the ultimate and most genuine identity of this humble Pastor enamored of Jesus.

In all this, however, also present in this biography is a detailed reference to the spiritual dimension of his priestly life, mainly grounded in the primacy of the daily Eucharist, celebrated also when Van Thuȃn was imprisoned, constant prayer, and his Marian devotion: a very concrete faith free of frills and so far removed from both sophisticated intellectual flights of fancy and the search for the surprising sensationalism of things miraculous (pg. 70). Nowadays, and not by chance, the most oft studied part of his ‘heritage’ is ‘the Christianization of here and now’ as reflected in his meditations from prison. The focus is on the sanctification of each day, hour by hour, moment by moment, since this is the vocation God calls each baptized person to live insofar as the past cannot be changed and no one knows what the future holds in store. If someone were to object that it certainly wasn’t necessary to wait for Van Thuȃn to discover such an evangelical truth, it would be easy to respond that other witnesses in this same sense and of the same lofty reaches have yet to be seen, because it’s one thing to know which things have to be done, and quite something else to really do them. As a preacher once said: the devil in person knows Sacred Scripture, knows it perfectly, and so perfectly as to be able to quote it ‘face to face’ to Christ in the well-known temptations. The devil, however, not only fails to follow it, but manipulates it and does just the opposite. Conversely, our Cardinal centered his life on the imitation of the Gospel sine glossa which he defined as “superior to all the Constitutions” (pg. 75) known in the world – just to be clear about what he meant – and whose Magna Carta is the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes (cf. Lk 6: 20-23). We are not going to dwell here on the civic-political education of the laity theorized and pursued by Van Thuȃn during the years of his episcopacy – reflections in this regard have already been published in other documents of this Observatory – but rather on his conviction that the main crisis afflicting modern times was neither economic or political in nature, but spiritual: “There are few Saints” (pg. 169) he often repeated during the last years of his life. In brief, the true crisis of contemporary man would be a crisis of holiness, which would be nothing less than a social crisis of Christian virtues, and therefore quite literally a crisis of faith and the selfsame practice of Christianity.  After all, this was the very message of Vatican II which, ushering in a new missionary season of the Church after the new-paganism and mass materialism of the major totalitarian regimes, had also determined the instruments to be used in that endeavor. Evident from  this point of view is an extraordinary consonance between the Polish episcopacy – later pontificate – of St. John Paul II and that of Van Thuȃn: both had lived the years of the Council personally, with Pope Wojtyla actually taking part in it, and both were convinced that above and beyond the different states of consecration, the ultimate objective of all – laypersons, religious, and Pastors – was holiness, nothing less than the sublime practice of the Christian virtues. Moreover, this was the reason why both of them lamented the fact that the Council remained a ‘dead letter’ for many Christians: not because footnotes were lacking in this or that Council document, but because the apostolic thrust and the awareness of the magnitude of the task to which all were called were still absent in many, all too many communities, almost as if the evangelization of the world was a task pertaining to one or two persons. Nevertheless, even though he was not an intellectual, Van Thuȃn always did everything he could in Vietnam to transmit the social Magisterium as a whole on the basis of the most well known encyclicals (Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, Divini Redemptoris) distributing them personally, explaining them and commenting on them, thereby helping to develop an awareness of the organic teaching of the Church that was to bear fruit on the local level years later (cf. pg. 186). In brief, Mr. Velasco’s book will provide – especially to the Cardinal’s many Spanish speaking admirers and devotees – further food for thought in order to gain an even better understanding of the charism and spirituality of this extraordinary witness of hope, our contemporary, trusting and hoping – Mr. Velasco does not hide this feeling at all, nor do we – that the day when his name will appear in the liturgical calendar of the universal Church in order to honor his memory and beseech his intercession may not be that far off in time.              


Omar Ebrahime             


M. A. VELASCO, La luz brilla en las tinieblas. Cardenal Van Thuȃn: historia de una esperanza, Ediciones Palabra, Madrid, Pp. 268, Euro 17,50.