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Archbishop in exile

by Bruce Nolan, San Jose Mercury News 05/18/96

New Orleans - As a prisoner of the communists, the former archbishop of Saigon celebrated Masses on the palm of his hand with crumbs of bread and drops of wine, wrote a book that he smuggled out page by page and was forced to confront the Christian mandate to love his enemies. "I had nothing, but I was rich," Archbishop Francis Xavier Thuan Van Nguyen told Catholic seminarians here at Notre Dame Seminary earlier this month. "I had the love of Christ to offer my guards."
n 13 years in prison-nine in solitary confinement- Nguyen, now 68, "contaminated" his guards by refusing to hate, he told the seminarians. In return for his gifts of tutoring and satisfying their odd appetite to learn Latin hymns, they allowed him pencil and paper and looked the other way as he carved the small wooden cross he still wears at his breast, hung from a handmade chain of electrical wire.

Exiled from Vietnam after his release in 1988, Nguyen works in Rome for a Vatican office promoting peace and justice. He was in New Orleans to speak at the seminary's commencement and to meet with Vietnamese-Americans here -hero to many of them. "Older people remember him and respect him. Even middle-aged people and children know him through his book, which is widely circulated through the Vietnamese community," said the Rev. Joachim Hien of Spokane, Wash., president of the Federation of Vietnamese Catholics of the USA.

"For Vietnamese people he is a symbol of unity and strength and trust in the Lord, especially in his liberating power." Much of that spirit is in "The Road of Hope," a series of reflections Nguyen scribbled on the backs of old calendars and smuggled out with the help of a small boy. For that book, and two others he wrote in prison, Human Rights/Asia Watch honored Nguyen last year for his courage in response to persecution.

At 47, Nguyen was one of the youngest bishops in Vietnam when the Vatican appointed him deputy archbishop of Saigon a week before the capital fell to communist tanks in the spring of 1975. Because Nguyen was the nephew of deposed South Vietnamese dictator Diem Dinh Ngo, the victors saw the appointment as an attempt by departing Western forces to booby-trap the new regime by planting an opposition figure in its midst.

Four months later Nguyen was called to the presidential palace and arrested on the spot. He disappeared without charge into a succession of distant prisons and rural re-education camps until his release in 1988.

Nguyen recounted hungers so deep he and fellow prisoners ate raw herbs in the fields where they found them. He experienced at times such spiritual disorientation that "Ave Maria"-"Hail, Mary"-was the only prayer he could manage. But prison was made livable, he said, because prisoners were able to maintain some community of faith, smuggling bits of consecrated hosts among themselves at the mandatory indoctrination sessions.

Five years after his release, the Vatican tried to reappoint Nguyen archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City. The Vietnamese government, which asserts veto power over all church appointments, flatly refused, leaving Nguyen to minister to Vietnamese over short-wave radio and by visiting their scattered global communities.

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) is still technically without an archbishop, Nguyen said.

"It's important, I think, fur people to hear his story and to understand the conditions the church faces in some parts of the world," said Monsignor Gregory Aymond, the seminary rector who invited Nguyen to the United States. According to the State Department and human rights groups, the Vietnamese government keeps a chokehold on all religious expression, apparently taking a lesson from the potent marriage of religious sentiment and political opposition that helped the Soviet empire implode.

The Vietnamese government maintains an attitude of frank hostility to Buddhism, the faith of most Vietnamese. It tolerates the Catholic Church only under the most stringent conditions. Catholics represent about 10 percent of Vietnam's 70 million people. The government now permits public worship, according to human rights groups. But Catholic schools are closed, and the state limits the number of seminarians who can be trained, approves priests' assignments and censors sermons.

Still, Nguyen said, that represents some improvement. Moreover, the church understands that those strictures, though difficult, are more easily borne than its experience in China, where it is almost cut off from its people. Nguyen said he accepts his exile as he learned to accept prison. He almost certainly will never live in Vietnam again.

But in an interview in Aymond's office he fingered the prison cross at his breast, now encased in an open frame. As a prisoner he fashioned the cross in a camp near Vinh Phu, not far from the mountain where stood, in Vietnamese legend, the temple of the Hung kings at the dawn of Vietnamese civilization 3,000 years ago.

"I am still near the roots of my homeland," he said.

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