Viet Nguyen is a seminarian for this diocese who will, God willing, within nine months be ordained a transitional deacon. His journey to priesthood included a number of years in prison in Vietnam, held as an enemy of the state because of his deep Catholic faith and his thirst for freedom and democracy in the country of his birth. Parishioners of St. Paul parish in St. Petersburg know this young man well as he spent most of the last year there on pastoral assignment prior to completing his two remaining years in the seminary preparing for ordinations. There must be something about courage, audacity, faith, hope and love in Viet’s DNA because his 63-year uncle, a priest in Vietnam, has just been re-arrested by the government. I will tell you more in a moment but I have purposely delayed writing this blog to first thoroughly check with our seminarian Viet that nothing I write can possibly bring any harm to his uncle or infringe on Viet’s personal ability to return to Vietnam and see his family in any way. Last week at the seminarian convocation, Viet said that I should proceed as it could not possibly place him in any more “hot water” with the government of Vietnam than he is already in.
Father Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly was rearrested on July 25th having already spent about three and a half years in prison. His crime – spreading what the government called anti-communist propaganda. His sentence – eight years in prison. The propaganda Father Thadeus was spreading – that the government did not have a right to summarily take property from individuals and religious communities, that the government of Vietnam consistently plays loose with the basic human rights of its citizens, and that the people deserved democracy. Neither Father Thadeus’ ideas nor person was new to the Government of Vietnam this year; they had previously arrested him for the first time in 1977 and he has spent a total of fifteen years since in prison. During his last “trial” he was visibly and forcibly “muzzled” when he began to recite an anti-communist poem during his hearing.
In March of this year, Father Thaddeus was released from prison for a one year medical leave to seek treatment for a brain tumor. He was residing at a residence for retired priests when he was rearrested last month. He had suffered multiple strokes during his most recent imprisonment and 37 US senators sought his release last year to which the government responded with the medical leave. Now it is all bets off.
As for Viet he wrote this about his own experience: From 1975 to 1992, all seminaries in Vietnam had been closed. Until [In]1992, three seminaries were opened but under the control of the communist government in Vietnam, which limited the number of seminarians. Every other year, each diocese would choose only five seminarians at a time to study at the seminary in Saigon (HCM City). All seminarians had to be reported and interviewed by the communist officials before going into the seminary. In 1995, 1997, and 1999, after passing the tests, my bishop chose me continuously three times to study at the seminary, but each time my entry was revoked by the communist officials. The government did not allow me to enter the seminary.
In 2001, while I was going to apply a fourth time, my uncle, Father Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly who has been demanding for religious freedom for a long time was arrested. At the same time when he was arrested in May, his mother (she is my grandmother) passed away. For that reason, some overseas Vietnamese in the U.S. asked me to let them know about his childhood life and about my grandmother’s funeral. I wrote a letter to them and sent it by e-mail. One month later, I was arrested; my sister and my brother were arrested too. They accused us of “spying for the U.S.”
At first they were supposed to give me a 12-year sentence, life or even to a death sentence. But thanks to many human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, the Human Right Watch, a German bishop, and especially thanks to many American senators and Congressmen, the U.S. State Department and many overseas Vietnamese around the world, who ceaselessly asked for the intervention for my family, all their efforts brought a good result. As a result, the communists changed my verdict from “spy” to “democratic and religious freedom abuse to harm the nation.” In court, they did not accept my lawyer who voluntarily defended me. For that reason, I remained silent in front of the court. The judges were so angry about my attitude, so they gave me a five-year sentence. After one week, a high official of the communists visited me in prison. He confessed that the government wanted to free me if I would appeal to the Supreme Court and say something. he said I could say whatever I wanted but not be silent. I accepted his suggestion. At the Supreme Court they gave me a 32-month sentence. It meant that there were about 50 days more for me in prison.
In February 2004, I was released. One month later, a German bishop sent me a letter inviting me to join his diocese, but the communists did not grant me a visa. Some months later the U.S. Embassy asked us to proceed with the Immigration Department in order to leave Vietnam. And we left Vietnam in 2005.
What made me believe that God so loved me when I was facing the harsh reality in prison? After realizing God’s will, I found hopefulness and peacefulness. those were divine graces which I had in prison. My hope and peace were transmitted to some prisoner friends. When the communists let me live with prisoners, three other prisoner friends converted to Catholicism, one of them would be getting the death sentence. Others fouond peace when they heard me singing hymns. From my small experiences, I have learned that through hardship God loves me more and makes me grow up; he leads me into a deeper relationship with him and with his people. . . .
Our seminarian loves his uncle dearly and has often sought my prayers for him during his time in prison and now again. Viet does not know the exact condition of his uncle’s medical situation because when one is in prison in Vietnam, they do their best to see that the world and one’s family have little to no contact. My prayer has always been that this brave priest can be free, well and attend his nephew’s ordination. Now I am not so sure on both of this counts. However, if you read this, pause now and say a prayer for Father Thadeus and Viet, truly members of the Church militant and profiles in courage. During his imprisonment, Viet Vu Nguyen composed in Vietnamese first and since has translated this prayer into English:
Lord, thank you for my hunger, so that I can truly experience the hunger of beggars.
Thank you ffor my nakedness, so that I can share the poverty with those who do n not have enough clothes to wear.
Thank you for my illness, so that I can feel sorry for those who have to bear their critical illness without any medicine.
Thank you for my loneliness, so that I can sympathize with those who are lonely and desolate.
Thank you for my sufferings, so that I can empathize with those who are in misery and despair.
Thank you for my imprisonment so that I can truly share with those who are imprisoned unjustly.
Thank you for the persecution, so that I can proudly share with your disciples’ hardship and their fears.
Lord, finally, I want to give you thanks because of this situation, this room, this prison. I do believe that you lead me here and you want me to be here with you. I do not know where I will go,what I will do, and when I will go home, but I trust in your everlasting love and unboken promise: you always love me and reveal to me your love for me in this special seminary. Amen.
Prison Camp B34, R12 – 2002 – Vietnam