Updated: July 19, 2021 06:10 AM GMT
Brother Van seemed to know beforehand about sufferings and even death facing him for his love for God. (Photo courtesy of nhathothaiha.net)
“No hardship can erase the gentle smile that always flickers across my thin face. And my radiant smile is just for my Jesus lover! I am the offering of love, and love is my perfect, eternal happiness. Anne Marie, my dear sister, I advise you not to cry, but try to have fun and give all to God.”
The message was excerpted from the late Redemptorist Brother Joachim Marcel Nguyen Tan Van's letter to his sister while he was imprisoned in northern Vietnam.
Brother Van, who was then 26, bravely left Da Lat in Vietnam’s Central Highlands and returned to Thai Ha monastery in Hanoi to bear witness to the Good News in northern Vietnam, which was controlled by communist forces who defeated French troops in May 1954. At that time hundreds of thousands of people including Catholics fled to the south to escape political and religious persecution by the government.
Before taking flight to Hanoi, the Redemptorist told those who advised him not to leave: “"No one, nothing can disarm my weapon of love. I leave to prove that there were still people who love God in the communist-ruled region. My death will be the life of many people. My death will mark the beginning of peace for Vietnam."
Thai Ha monastery, which was founded in 1929 by Canadian Redemptorists, at that time had only five Redemptorists — two Canadians and three Vietnamese including Van.
Canadian Father Denis Paquette served as their superior until he was forced to leave the Southeast Asian country in 1958, when Brother Van had been imprisoned for over three years.
Communists will force me to slander you, but you should not be afraid as I will never slander you
Brother Van, who entered the Redemptorists in Thai Ha in 1944 and took his first vow two years later, seemed to know beforehand about sufferings and even death facing him for his love for God. "Communists will force me to slander you, but you should not be afraid as I will never slander you. I will put up stiff resistance to them, and then I will win them," he told his superior.
What he foretold happened to him nine months after he returned to Hanoi. He was arrested on May 7, 1955, while he was bearing witness to the truth on the street. Some people talked about untrue stories in the south: Southern people were forced to work as slave labor and youths were made to join a foreign army. He told them that “I myself come from the south. I confirm that the south government never did such things.”
His superior Father Denis Paquette said: “Brother Marcel Nguyen Tan Van has been accused of spying for the American empire and the government of South Vietnam. From intimidation to promise, they forced him to plead guilty and simultaneously denounce his superior as the commander of espionage and anti-government propaganda. He will be released if he pleads guilty and denounces the superior. Marcel is no stranger to communist gimmicks and has become a loyal hero to God and his conscience."
He spent five months in a dungeon. He was once questioned for 15 consecutive nights. His fragile health exceeded its level of suffering. He was taken gravely ill but on the threshold of death he remained constant and true to his faith and love of the Church.
All harsh measures against him seemed ineffective and the communists no longer had any hope of exploiting him. He was sent to a central detention camp in Hanoi along with hundreds of prisoners, mostly Catholics including two priests. His sneaked letters from the prison showed his inner suffering and dogged determination: "Father, wanting to live is easy. I'm just slandering you. But don't be afraid, I'll never slander you. I will resist them to death."
Later many of his fellow inmates who were released expressed their affection and admiration for him during his detention. His face always reflected transcendental playfulness, he prayed all day, dedicated to charity with his inmates, and shared his food, clothes and money with them.
After being repeatedly questioned and racked, he was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor and sent to the No. 1 Camp in Mo Chen, a 2,000-prisoner facility with two cemeteries to bury dead prisoners.
He said in a letter: "Here I am blessed to live among many Catholics including the manager of Phat Diem Church and the mother of the Lovers of the Holy Cross convent in Phat Diem. All of us show strong faith and many strictly fast on Wednesdays and Saturdays. For my part, I have to work as a priest — outside working hours, I receive and comfort inmates. All people come to you. Thank God wholeheartedly. Prison conditions do not shake the sacred living level of my soul. At times, God makes it clear that I am doing his will here."
In the camp, he was exhausted from lack of food, suffering severe tuberculosis, and eventually oedema ended his heroic life
In August 1957, he was transferred to Camp 2 in Yen Bai province. People were no longer allowed to visit him. They were told: "That guy did not progress at all after the brainwashing period. You shouldn't visit him anymore!"
In the camp, he was exhausted from lack of food, suffering severe tuberculosis, and eventually oedema ended his heroic life. At noon on July 10, 1959, he was dying and his inmate Father Vinh helped him in his last moments. His inmates marked his grave with a bottle. Brother Van was 31. His remains are beneath Thac Ba hydroelectric lake in Yen Bai province.
Redemptorist Father John Nguyen Ngoc Nam Phong said his late confrere’s life, death and magnificent example in the struggle for justice and truth have spawned constant Catholics and always inspire younger Redemptorists to follow his path in the struggle for people who are oppressed and marginalized in society.
Father Phong said Brother Van’s sacrifice has ripened blessings that helped the monastery in Hanoi overcome the most difficult periods in the process of its development over the past 90 years.
This article used information from www.nhathothaiha.net