Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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January 17, 2004
Saint Anthony

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

A French author wrote of the Vietnamese people: «This nation is impressed only by wisdom, knowledge, and moral dignity, never by force, which it sees as a form of barbarianism.» This sort of disposition was favorable to the introduction of the Catholic faith in Vietnam, and since the sixteenth century, the Church has grown deep roots there, thanks in particular to the many martyr missionaries like Saint Théophane Vénard († 1861). At the beginning of the twentieth century, Vietnam was under French rule, but nationalism was developing there. In 1930, Hô Chi Minh created the Vietnamese Communist Party, and in September 1945, a war began between the Viet-Minh Communists and France. This war would lead to the Geneva Accords (July 1954), following which the country would be split in two, with the North coming under a Communist regime.

It was into this setting that on March 15, 1928, in a village in the North (Tonkin), a boy, Joachim Nguyên Tan Van—«Van» for short—came into the world. He was born into a Christian family that already had a boy and a girl, and where everything radiated joy and reflected beauty and love. His father was a tailor. His mother stayed at home and sometimes worked in the rice paddies. Van would say of his mother: «God had graced her with an ardent heart that united prudence with kindness... While she surrounded me with affection, she also was able to form me in holiness.» The young boy had a precocious aptitude for reason and an excellent memory, but also possessed a nature that was stubborn, domineering, inflexible, and yet hypersensitive. He could not bear any separation from his mother. One day, the maid tried to take him to play away from home. Several minutes later, she had to bring him back: «She had my nail marks all over her face,» explained Van.

A drop of water in the ocean

Van loved games very much. He also organized «processions» in honor of the Blessed Virgin. He was almost four when a little sister was born. In his excess of affection for her, he monopolized her so much that it was necessary to exile him to his aunt's house. The separation was very difficult, but after a few days, he began to enjoy his cousins' company. At the age of six, he returned to his parents' home, and prepared himself for First Holy Communion. He would later write of this blessed day: «The hour has come, the moment so greatly desired has arrived... I gently draw out my tongue to receive the Bread of Love. My heart is overcome by an extraordinary joy... In an instant, I have become like a 'drop of water' lost in the vast ocean. Now there remains only Jesus, and I am Jesus' little nothing.» From this day on, Van received Holy Eucharist every day. Shortly thereafter, he received the sacrament of Confirmation. A future prospect took shape in his heart: «I longed to become a priest, so as to bring the Good News to non-Christians.»

At school, the teacher was excessively severe with the students, beating them with a cane at every turn. Van's health began to fail: «I became thinner and more pale by the day,» he would write... «It's only because of the very strict educational system that I have come to such a state of exhaustion.» Van's mother entrusted him to Father Joseph Nha, parish priest in Huu-Bang. This priest ran a «House of God,» an institution where young boys started more in-depth schooling in religion, while continuing their studies and helping the priest. The most capable among them could be admitted to the Minor Seminary. The «Houses of God» bore indisputable fruit, but sometimes serious scandals crept in at these institutions. For Van, everything started well. He was passionately fond of his new life, and became a star student. However, his exemplary conduct offended certain lukewarm catechists. One of them, Vinh, tried in vain to abuse him, then made him submit in secret to a series of episodes of ill-treatment. After two weeks, the priest's laundrywoman noticed traces of blood on Van's clothes. Father Nha, made aware of the situation, had the child see a doctor and forbade Vinh from receiving him in his room from then on.

But shortly thereafter, the catechists, jealous of Van, organized a sort of tribunal to «try» him. After several humiliating scenes, they criticized him for receiving Communion every day. This reproach brought about a spiritual crisis: «I was disturbed and I suffered terribly to think that, without being worthy like the saints, I had had the boldness to receive Communion every day... I then saw the faults from my early childhood return.» In this difficult trial, Van turned to Mary and recited his Rosary with perseverance.

Finally, Vinh left the «House of God» with several other catechists. Calm returned, but the atmosphere at the house did not change much—alcohol, gambling, foul language, the presence of shameless girls. Van had to devote the majority of his time to manual labor. When he reached the age of twelve, he received his certificat d'études (a certificate awarded after a student passes an exam at the end of his elementary studies), but he wasn't allowed to go to the next level in his schooling, and all his time was spent working. One day, he ran away to return to his parents' home—but they sent him back to Huu-Bang. Two months later, Van ran away again and began living as a beggar. «My profession,» he would write, «consisted from then on of holding my hand out to passers-by... After a week of this life, I was unrecognizable. My hands and feet were thin, my skin was tanned by the sun and my cheeks were hollow... And yet I found this life of a poor vagabond not at all difficult. On the contrary, I felt a peaceful joy in suffering for God. I knew that by escaping, I had avoided sin, I had avoided what grieves the Heart of God.»

When he returned home after wandering for some time, he was received like a degenerate son. «My mother was very annoyed, and treated me as if I were no longer her child... The door of her heart was closed tight. I no longer dared speak an affectionate word to her, and I cried for long nights.» Lê, his older sister, remained his only support. Shortly thereafter, Father Nha, while visiting his family, without a moment's hesitation accused Van of stealing. A terrible temptation then beset the child. «I came to consider myself a despicable creature. The devil made this thought develop in me—if people could no longer endure me, how could God still endure me? I'm going to die soon and I will have to go to Hell.» Fortunately, Mary remained his hope. One day, he opened his heart to a priest who comforted him with these words: «Willingly accept all these trials and offer them to the Lord. If God has sent you the cross, it is a sign that He has chosen you.»

Transformed in an instant

Christmas 1940. «The mysterious meaning of suffering escaped me,» Van would write... «Why had God sent it to me?... Midnight Mass starts... In my heart, it is dark and cold.» The moment of Communion arrived: «I embrace Jesus in my heart. I am seized with an immense joy... Why do my sufferings seem so beautiful to me? It's impossible to say... In an instant, my soul was transformed. I was no longer afraid of suffering... God entrusted me with a mission: changing suffering into happiness... Drawing its strength from Love, my life from now on will only be a fountain of happiness.» This grace was no illusion. Van was never the same. His environment likewise changed—his aunt Khanh took him into her home for several months. A humble task fell to him—taking the cow to pasture. But he intensified his union with God. He would write, «How many souls, in their relationship with God, are still afraid of Him as of a very exalted and distant being? Not perceiving Him who is Love, these people never dare allow themselves the least thought of intimacy with God.»

Nevertheless, Van still came up against his faults. After a vexation, he persisted in eating very little, and his aunt had to take him back to his parents. Shortly thereafter, Father Nha came to set the record straight on the matter of the theft, clear Van, and ask to take him back to Huu-Bang. After praying about it, Van accepted. But at Huu-Bang, disorder and scandal still reigned. «Why did God lead me to come back?» Van asked himself. Inspired by the Blessed Virgin, he made a vow of virginity. He then understood that his mission was to oppose bad examples and love his companions, which he strove to do with a group of younger friends.

I will never achieve it

Thanks to a friend, Van was admitted to the Minor Seminary in Lang-Son in 1942. Six months later, for lack of funds, the institution had to close its doors, but Van was able to continue his studies in the parish of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus in Quang-Uyên, under the direction of two Dominican fathers. He wanted to become a saint, but didn't know how. «In spite of my great desire to attain holiness, I was certain that I would never achieve it, because to be a saint, you have to fast, lash yourself with a whip, wear a rock around your neck and little chains covered with spikes, a coarse horsehair shirt, endure the cold, the scabies, etc. My God, if it is like this, I give up... All that is way too much for me.»

Van spread out several lives of saints on a table. Then, with his eyes closed, he put his hand down at random. «I opened my eyes. My hand was resting on a book I had never read before—Story of a Soul by Saint Therese of the Child Jesus... I had scarcely read a few pages when two floods of tears were flowing down my cheeks... What moved me so deeply was little Therese's reasoning: 'If God only stooped to the level of the most beautiful flowers, the symbol of the Holy Doctors, His love wouldn't be quite absolute, because it is Love's nature to stoop to the farthest limit... Just as the sun shines at the same time on the cedars and on every little flower as if it were the only one on earth, so does Our Lord take care of every soul as if there were no other soul like it'... I understood then that God is Love... I can sanctify myself through all my little acts... A smile, a word or a look, provided that everything is done in love.» One morning, Van went on foot to a nearby hill. Suddenly, in the silence, he jumped—a voice was calling him. «Van, Van, my dear little brother!» No one was around him! The voice started again: «Van, my dear little brother!» He shouted for joy—«Oh, it's my sister Therese!»— «Yes, it is indeed your sister, Therese... From now on, you will personally be my little brother... From this day on, our two souls will be just one soul, in God's one love... God wants the lessons of love that He taught me before in the secret of my heart to live on in this world. This is why He has deigned to choose you as a little secretary to carry out His work.»

Tell Him of your marble games

Saint Therese of the Child Jesus taught him, «God our Father watches over the slightest details of our lives... God is Father and this Father is Love. His goodness and kindness are infinite... But ever since the day that our first parents sinned, fear has overcome the heart of man and has taken away from him the thought of a God who is our infinitely good Father... So God sent his Son... Jesus came to tell His brothers on earth that the Father's love is an inexhaustible source... We are immensely fortunate to be the children of God. Let us be proud of this and never give in to excessive fear... Never be afraid of God... Do not be afraid to speak familiarly with God as with a friend. Tell Him about everything that comes to your mind—your marble games, a mountain climb, your friends' teasing, your outbursts, your tears, or the little fleeting pleasures...»—«But little sister, God already knows all these things...»—«That's true, little brother... However, to give and to receive love, He must stoop and He does this as if He has forgotten that He knows everything, in the hope of hearing an intimate word burst forth from your heart.»

For a very long time, Van had wanted to become a priest. «For that,» he wrote, «I had sacrificed everything by imposing many spiritual and physical exertions on myself.» But one day, Therese told him, «Van, my little brother, I have something important to tell you... But this will make you very sad... God has made it known to me that you will not be a priest.» The young man began to sob. «I will never be able to live if I am not a priest...»—«Van,» Therese resumed, «if God wants your apostolate to be carried out in another field, what do you think of that?... What remains most perfect is doing the will of our Father in Heaven... You will be above all an apostle through prayer and sacrifice, as I myself was before.» Therese then guided Van's gaze to this very important passage from the Story of a Soul: «I understood that Love alone put the members of the Church in motion... I understood that Love contains all vocations, that Love was all, that it embraced all time and all places... in a word, that it is Eternal.»

Van was still intrigued. «Therese, my sister, what does this hidden vocation involve, if I am not to become a priest?»—«You will enter a monastery where you will devote yourself to God.» One night during the winter of 1942-1943, Van had a mysterious dream. «I saw someone coming towards the head of my bed... This person dressed completely in black was rather tall, and his face reflected great kindness... He asked me the question 'My child, do you want to?' Spontaneously, I answered, 'Yes.' » Several days later, Van discovered a statue in the house that bore a strange resemblance to his dream. It was a statue of Saint Alphonsus of Liguori, founder of the Redemptorists (1696-1787). Saint Therese confirmed his vocation to be a Redemptorist Brother, then gave him notice of new trials. «Little dear brother, you will encounter thorns on the way, and the sky that is now calm will be covered with dark clouds... You will shed tears, you will lose your joy and you will be like a man reduced to despair... But remind yourself that the world treated Jesus like this and that a Redemptorist resembles his Savior... Nevertheless, do not be afraid. During this storm, Jesus will continue to live in the boat of your soul... Little brother, you will no longer hear me chat so familiarly with you as I do now. Do not think that I am abandoning you. On the contrary, I constantly remain close to you like a big sister should... In this world, suffering is the proof of your love, and suffering gives your love all its meaning and value.»

All the way to the end of the road

Shortly thereafter, the atmosphere at the rectory in Quang-Uyên worsened because of the food restrictions due to the war. After much bullying, Van was driven out of the community at the beginning of June 1943. At the brink of despair, he exclaimed, «O my God, I want to die, and die on the spot, so I don't have to bear this shame in my family's presence!» But Therese, who had been silent for some time, encouraged him once more. Van turned to the Most Blessed Virgin. «O Mother, I abandon myself completely to You... I have nothing but my wounds and my tears to offer You... But with You, I want to go all the way to the end of the road...» When he returned to his parents' home, he asked to be admitted to the Redemptorists in Hanoi. On July 16, 1944, he presented himself at the monastery but, in view of his age, they required him to wait three years. Dejected, he returned home. However, his mother encouraged him to persevere.

In fact, at the beginning of August, on a friend's recommendation, Van was received at the Redemptorists in Hanoi as a domestic and, on the following October 17, he was finally admitted as a postulant and received the name Brother Marcel. After an initial period of joy, crosses appeared, especially in the form of his confreres' ridicule. Starting in his novitiate, at his spiritual director's request, he wrote his autobiography. For two years, Jesus, Mary, and Therese favored him with intimate conversations. But on September 9, 1946, the day after his first profession, Jesus told him, «My child, your portion now is to sacrifice the moments of sweet intimacy with me, to allow me to go in search of sinners... Then, my little Van, know that you will have to suffer because of your Superiors and Brothers. But these trials will be the sign that you are pleasing to My Heart. I am begging for all these sufferings to unite you to Me in the work of sanctification of priests.»

Brother Marcel entered a new «night» of faith. All sensible consolations disappeared and only the monotony of sacrifice in pure faith remained. In 1950, the young Brother was sent to Saigon, then to Dalat. In July 1954, North Vietnam was handed over to the Communists. Many Catholics fled for the South. Several Redemptorists remained in the house in Hanoi to take care of the Christians who stayed. Brother Marcel understood that Jesus was asking him to join them. «I am going there,» he said, «so that there might be someone who loves God in the midst of the Communists.» After several weeks, he wrote to his sister Anne-Marie: «Quite often I am overcome with sadness, and I only think, 'Oh, if only I hadn't come to Hanoi... But there was so much insistence in Jesus' voice!»

On Saturday, May 7, 1955, as he was going to the market, he heard people criticizing the government in the South. Brother Marcel interrupted, «I just came from the South and the government never acted like that!» Several minutes later, he was arrested and taken to the criminal investigation office, then jailed. Five months later, he was transferred to the central prison in Hanoi, where he met many Catholics and priests. He wrote to his Superior: «If I wanted to live, it would be easy for me. I would only have to accuse you. But don't worry, I will never agree to it.» Then, to his confessor: «In the last months, I have had to struggle as hard as I can and endure all the torture of brain-washing. The enemy has used many tricks to make me capitulate, but I have not allowed any weakness.» To his sister: «Nothing can take the weapon of love from me. No affliction is capable of removing the kind smile that I let appear on my thin face. And who is the caress of my smile for, if not for Jesus, the Beloved?... I am the victim of Love and Love is all my happiness, an indestructible happiness.»

A little parish priest

One year after his arrest, calm and self-controlled, he appeared before the court in Hanoi. Upon his refusal to confess that he had electioneered for the president of South Vietnam, he was condemned to 15 years of imprisonment in a «reeducation» camp. He was taken to Camp No. 1, where he came across Catholics «all very firm in the faith.» He wrote, «I am very busy, like a little parish priest. Apart from the hours of forced labor, I must constantly welcome the people who come one after the other looking for comfort from me... God Himself has made known to me I am doing His will. Many times, I have asked of Him the favor of dying in this camp, but every time, He has answered me, «I am ready to follow your will as you always follow Mine, but there are souls that still need you...»

In August 1957, Brother Marcel Van was transferred to Camp No. 2. After an escape attempt to go look for consecrated Hosts, he was recaptured, beaten, and locked up in an unhealthy cell. Everything became harder for him—no more visits, no more mail, and, at the beginning of 1958, he spent three months in irons, alone, without support and without light, except for that which shone in his heart. Consumed by tuberculosis and beriberi, he breathed his last on July 10, 1959, at the age of 31.

The day after his religious profession, Brother Marcel Van had heard Jesus tell him, «My child, for love of mankind, offer yourself with Me so that they might be saved.» Assured of the value of suffering united to that of Christ, he wrote, «Jesus wanted to use my body to endure suffering, shame, and exhaustion, so that the flame of Love that consumes His divine Heart might spread in the hearts of all men on earth.» Let us ask him to teach us to transform the sadness of our sufferings into the joy of participating in the Savior's redeeming love.

The Informative Process of the Cause for the

Beatification of Marcel Van was opened in 1997.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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