I wonder how many of us are aware that Pope Benedict has declared the year from  19 June 2009 until 10 June 2010, to be especially dedicated to the ordained priesthood? The year begins and ends on the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The year 2009, also marks the 150 th. anniversary of the death of St. John Mary Vianney, the saintly Curé of Ars, the Patron Saint of Diocesan Priests. He would say “The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus”. The Curé of Ars was very humble, yet as a priest he was conscious of being an immense gift to his people: “A good shepherd, a pastor after God’s heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish and one of the most precious gifts of Divine Mercy”. We priests have something to strive for!

It came as a great joy to discover that, in our Parish Pastoral Council, there was some enthusiasm for ‘unravelling’ for us what the year of the Priest might mean. This short note is not the place to write about that, for we hope to engage parishioners in helping us to understand their own thinking of the ordained priesthood.  However some stories about priests have struck me recently. Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan was ordained a priest on 11 June 1953. He appeals to me because Vietnam – like the UK – had its martyrs, some 120 of them over a 200 year period and their feast has been celebrated this week on Tuesday 24th November. The family of Francis Xavier had been Catholic for 300 years, and had lived through the persecutions; some of them were martyrs.  Some people that I have met, and who knew him, vouch for God’s presence shining through him.

He must have been a promising young man for, within three years, he was sent to Rome, where he completed a doctorate in 1959. He came from a prominent family; the first President of the Republic of Vietnam, Ngo dinh Diem, belonged to it, and his uncle was the Archbishop of Huê in Vietnam. In 1967, he was nominated Bishop of Nha Trang, by Pope Paul VI, where he served happily for eight years with the war raging around him. In those years, he fostered 700 vocations to the priesthood! He travelled widely and was known outside Vietnam as a member of the Pontifical Council of the Laity. In 1974, when the communist victory in the peninsular was almost complete, he was nominated the coadjutor and successor to be Archbishop of Saigon. It was at this time that he was imprisoned, eventually ending up in a “re-education camp” in North Vietnam. He was suspected of being very opposed to the communist revolution – a reactionary and an ally of the hated USA. Most priests, bishops, religious and active Catholics had been rounded up by the authorities into such establishments. He spent thirteen years in these “prisons” –  nine of those years in solitary confinement.     

He preferred not to speak of that period of time because he felt that it would lead to personal glorification and detract from the ‘Truth’ to whom he bore witness. It was being ‘helpless’ that described his condition: later he said :”I wanted to do so many things, to serve my people, but I could not. Then I came to think of Jesus on the Cross: he was immobilized, he could not speak, nor administer the sacraments, and he was ‘helpless’. Yet it was from there he performed his greatest deed, the redemption of sinners”. In the end he was released from prison, placed under house arrest in Hanoi, and finally expelled from Vietnam wherepon he went to Rome. He was well known in many parts of the world, and came to Manchester at the end of the 1990’s to give a talk and launch his book “The Road of Hope”, and I remember Fr. Frank Johnson speaking of him with great admiration. Pope John Paul II made him a Cardinal of the Church, in 2001; he was to die just a year later, after many illnesses,.

His book was the fruit of the prison experience. At that time, the Catholics  of Vietnam were bereft of their shepherds, priests and bishops, and so the Archbishop took up his pen. He wrote brief messages on scraps of paper, and smuggled them out of the prisons; they contained short practical counsels and add up to almost 1,000 sayings; later these sayings became his book, essentially. How little hope there was there in his country, in those days! The government tried to stop the spread of these sayings, but the people wrote them out by hand and shared them with each other. Here are one or two of them.

Departure: Our Lord guides you on to this road so that you will “go and bear fruit” (John 15:16) which will endure. The road is called The Road of Hope because it is overflowing with hope and is as beautiful as hope itself. And why should you not have hope when it is the Lord Jesus himself with whom you set off on the way to the Father? (1)

Wisdom: The crucifixion of the Lord is the wisdom that comes from heaven. As the experience of the past twenty centuries has clearly shown, it accomplished a brilliant revolution that could neither be concealed nor held back. Consequently many courageous souls have volunteered and continue to do so in the service of this wisdom. (555)

Renewal: The renewal of society will be accomplished by those people who faithfully renew themselves according to the Gospel. Faith will give a new value to their work. People may not recognise them and some may never hear them speak, but everyone wil perceive the difference as they see evidence of a more beautiful way of life. (653)