During the height of the Vietnam War, Nguyen Van Thuan served as the bishop of a small diocese in South Vietnam. Along with his brother bishops, he tended to the needs of his flock during the most trying of times.
In 1975, Pope Paul VI called on him to serve as archbishop of what was then the capital of Vietnam, Saigon.
When he arrived in the capital, he was invited to a meeting at the president’s palace. There he was arrested by the Communist authorities and placed into solitary confinement. During the next thirteen years, he would be sent to several prisons without ever being tried for a crime and with no opportunity to prove his innocence.
At first, he felt bewildered by his situation. He wondered how it could all be happening to him. Feeling abandoned by God, he was tempted to become bitter and angry. But, as he was being transported to the prison in a boat along with fifteen hundred other prisoners, a thought came to him. He would make the prison his mission territory and the prisoners his parishioners. Rather than allow the experience of being imprisoned break him, he would transform it by allowing God’s love to shine through him. As he put it in his memoirs, “I decided then and there that my captivity would not merely be a time of resignation but a turning point in my life.... I would live the present moment and fill it with love.”
During his stay in prison, he showed unfailing kindness to the guards no matter how cruelly they treated him. He would speak to them about the love of God and how it gave him freedom and peace even behind bars. Because of his gentleness, he was able to win the sympathy of his captors. They helped him smuggle in bread and wine so that he could say Mass. They also helped him smuggle out messages to the Catholic people of Vietnam in which he encouraged them to remain faithful to Christ and to have courage under Communist rule.
Whenever a guard or other prisoner asked him why he kept such a positive attitude and showed such kindness to his captors, he would reply that Jesus taught us that we should love even our enemies. If we cannot love those who treat us harshly as our Lord did, then we do not deserve to be called Christians. Many people, both guards and fellow prisoners, were converted to Christ by his witness.
When he was finally released in 1988, he went around the world telling people about his experience and encouraging those who find themselves persecuted and despised that they do not have to give in to bitterness or despair but that they can transform their circumstances by allowing the light of God’s love to shine through them.
This brave and holy man’s life is a perfect example of the words of our Lord which we hear proclaimed in today’s gospel: “You are the light of the world.... Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” Cardinal Thuan went into one of the world’s darkest places - a Communist concentration camp - and let his light shine there. He did not allow the bitter circumstances he found himself in to extinguish the light he carried within him. And by showing love instead of hate, by responding to cruelty with kindness, he touched many hearts and changed many lives. He turned a place of torture and despair into a cathedral where the love of Christ could be experienced.
In our day-to-day life we run into people who have never experienced the love of Christ. The trials and difficulties of modern day life have made them cynical and hard. They can find no other direction or meaning in life except chasing after their own comfort and pleasure. As lost and wounded as they are, they lash out and belittle those around them. It can be easy for us to react by avoiding them or treating them as harshly as they treat us. But Jesus teaches us another way. He wants us to befriend such people and treat them kindly so that they can have an experience of God’s love. How else can they realize that the love of God is real unless we show them the love which is within us? And seeing our willingness to forgive and treat others with kindness, they will get a glimpse of God’s love for them and come to find a better way in life - the way of faith.
We live in a society which is skeptical about the ability of people to change. For that reason, we have created a vengeful culture which expects harsh prison sentences and even death penalties to be handed out leaving little room for mercy or hope that criminals can be rehabilitated. Laws, harsh punishments and crowded prisons cannot change hearts. Only God’s love can really transform people. It can break down barriers of hostility. It can thaw out cold attitudes and soothe raging hostilities. When people meet Christians who are truly living the gospel of Jesus - who show love to those who hate them and forgiveness to those who harm them - they begin to change. Each of us gathered here today can make that happen by committing ourselves to living the words of Jesus in the power of the Spirit and not allowing the difficulties of life or the meanness of the people around us to make us bitter.
We are the salt of the earth and the light of the world because we have experienced the love of a God who was willing to die on the cross for us. We carry that love within us, and it shines with a brilliance that no darkness can overcome. The world outside is counting on us to bring that light along with us to the dark places of life - to bring hope where there is despair and faith where there is doubt - so that one day all the universe may be set aglow by the love of God.