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This is a Mission

Written by Lê Xuân Hy
February 4, 2011

Editor’s Note: As previously reported in The Commons, Associate Professor of Psychology Lê Xuân Hy was in Israel this December on a Fulbright Senior Specialist grant. During his visit, Hy, left, was reacquainted with Nguyen Cong Doan, S.J., right, rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute house in Jerusalem, and previously regional assistant to Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, former Superior General of the Society of Jesus. Following is a remarkable story of how Father Doan continued to live out the Jesuit mission while imprisoned in Vietnam, as adapted from a sermon Hy recently delivered at Mercer Island Presbyterian Church. 

Let’s go back to the evening of April 21, 1975. Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus in Rome, tapped Nguyen CongDoan, S.J., on the shoulder and sent him to Vietnam with a short phrase: “This is a mission.” Fr. Doan was 35 years old, fluent in the ancient biblical languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin and a number of other modern languages. The next day, he finished up the last requirement for his Licentiate in Scriptures (SSL) at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome—one of the most rigorous degrees in the world. At noon the following day, he boarded an Air France flight to the Republic of Vietnam—the last one that landed just before the airport was shut down and the government fell.  

Five years later in 1980, and on the other side of the world, an electrician named Lech Walesa led workers to topple the Polish regime and eventually the Communist Party there. The Vietnamese government, worried by the events in Poland took preventive measures within their own country. On Dec. 12, five Jesuits at The Alexander de Rhodes Center were imprisoned. Less than a month later on Jan. 8, 1981 their superior—Doan—joined them in a special prison at police headquarters. The men were imprisoned because they showed three dangerous signs: intelligence, immense influence on the young people, and guiding the Christians along a flexible course. They were held without trial at the police station month to month, year after year. 

How did Doan take this? He saw prison clearly as a new expression of “This is a mission.” He was presented and served some of the most astounding cases in prison, literally saving many lives and many souls. Let’s follow his mission of serving others in the face of adversity. 

At police headquarters among his cellmates were two of the highest-ranking deposed officials in the country. Doan nourished their spirits with jokes and stories drawn mostly from the Bible, peace and joy. Eventually, even his guards and interrogators soon became his friends. His cell became something like a monastery where they put all the food they received in common under Doan’s care and distribution—a miniature of the Primitive Community in Jerusalem. His cellmates called him “Father Superior” as he had been outside. 

Thirty months later, due to international pressure, Doan was tried and received a prison sentence. He was then transferred to the famous Chi Hoa Prison. In the Common Prison of Chi Hoa he shared a 70-cm-wide reed mat on the floor with two teenage criminals. When they lay down, they had to alternate direction, and often the teens kicked Doan’s head in their sleep. Their mischief played right into the concealed and forbidden daily church service, right under the guards’ noses, with Scripture readings, homilies and even the Eucharist. Where did the Scripture readings come from? They came from Doan’s memory. What about Sacramental wine for Eucharist? It was slipped into prison, sealed and submerged inside a bag of cheap fish sauce, supposedly for “banh cuon” or rice crepe to which Doan was supposedly addicted. Criminals turned into catechumens. The transformation became apparent and incredible after the teens were released: They had become model young Christians, while attending daily services at their church! 

After a year and a half in Chi Hoa, Doan was transferred to a labor camp far away in the country. Unbeknownst to him, Doan would save several dozen lives here and to turn his adversaries into friends and admirers. His story gradually unfolded in unimaginable ways as he was shown his path. Due to his organizational skills and commitment to work, Doan was appointed assistant director of production. The director loved it because as the assistant, Doan, did all the work. One day as a prisoner Doan took the warden through a tour of the camp’s agricultural production sites. Doan frankly informed him that camp production would remain totally ineffective until systematic changes had been made. The warden asked him to elaborate, and asked for a written report. Doan wrote up a 12-page report by hand which the warden took to the meeting of Communist Party members. 

What were some of the solutions that Doan proposed? First, the guards needed some compensation, or they would take half of every 1,000 kg of fertilizer intended for the fields. Second, the prisoners needed some food, or they would swipe another 200 kg of the remaining fertilizer to grow their own food. Third, the assigned work should be reasonable. When underfed prisoners were assigned an immense area to weed and till, they could neither weed nor till well, and thus the crops could not grow.  

The Communist Party members were persuaded by the logical arguments in the report and agreed to the proposed changes. The guards were grateful to Doan for writing up what they could not do themselves. They had begun as his adversaries, and over time had become his friends, and now his admirers. The prisoners were also satisfied with Doan’s progress.  They were now fed better and had a more realistic workload.  

Although Doan had won over the guards and many of the prisoners, he still had work to do. Intellectual prisoners such as the Buddhist Venerable Thich Tri Sieu, a medical doctor and fluent in 15 different languages, some university professors and some famous writers made up a new group of adversaries who were not accustomed to manual labor in the fields. There was also a group of elderly prisoners in precarious health. The warden questioned how all people could be made productive instead of having their health further damaged in work field. Doan, through his outside connections, found an easy-to-do indoor job for each group. Every month, Doan would take a truckload of “sedge”—a fibrous plant. The elderly prisoners would split and prepare the strands into threads, which would be woven into baskets in a later stage of production outside the camp. Doan would deliver the truckload of the prepared strands in exchange for a new truckload of raw material. Later, Doan found an even more suitable job for the intellectual-linguists: translating foreign books for a very modest fee. At this point the friendly warden allowed the group to use this money to buy piglets and raise them for the consumption of the whole camp on feast days.  

After all of his work within the camp, there was still one group to be saved: Isolated in one house were 26 prisoners with Tuberculosis, waiting to die. Occasionally they received some medicine from family members, which unfortunately trained the virus to become resistant. The number of the infected was expected to increase as new and old prisoners showed symptoms of TB, only to decrease after each death. What could Fr. Doan do to ease their suffering?  

I met Doan for the first time during one of his monthly guarded business trips to town to deliver and pick up sedge. Fr. Doan managed to contact the person in charge of controlling Tuberculosis for the whole country. Doan convinced the official to travel to the camp a few days later. This official then convinced the warden to allow the prisoners be treated. However, the problem was not quite solved: a number of the prisoners had developed a resistance to the common drug. They were still treatable if a supplemental medicine was added. This medicine was expensive and not provided by the national office. Doan found the money to buy the medicine. The end result: 25 of the 26 were cured and lives were literally saved.  

Would Fr. Doan continue to offer counseling and church services in the labor camp, even to larger groups? You bet. Precious, high-quality coffee and top grade cigarettes, supplied by his Jesuit brothers during visitation, were necessary supplies for church service. The “Sunday congregation” would sit down among other self-organized coffee tables, purportedly for a smoke early Sunday mornings. When a guard approached, Doan would stand up to welcome him and offer him a reserved cup of good coffee and some good cigarettes carefully planted in the left-hand-side lower pocket of his prisoner’s shirt. Guards did not refuse such a gracious sign of friendship. They talked with him gently then left. The secret and outlawed Sunday church service continued in the open, still with “readings” from Doan’s memory, the bread in one upper chest pocket and the wine in the other. When he consecrated them, “this is My Body” and “this is My Blood,” his hands were at his heart. 

Guards from the labor camp eventually let their family members and their children who lived close to the camp become friendly with Doan. When I wondered about this, he reminded me of the Golden Rule:  

“What you want others to do to you, do it first to them.” Everybody wants to have friends. Be their friend and they will be your friends. Yes, prisoners and guards are all human beings and share the same aspiration of having friends in their life. There’s a Bedouin hospitality saying: you come the first time to their tent, you are a guest, you come the second time, you are a friend and you come the third time, you are like a member of their family." 

I also asked him to elaborate on how he understood the mission he received from Fr. Arrupe: 

"The mission of Christ and the plan of the Father was that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved by Him (John 3:16). It is easier to condemn than to save, to hate than to love. God did not choose an easy way, but the way of the cross to show His love and His saving power. The salvation has been given by the cross and cannot be preached otherwise than by the cross, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church” (Tertullian, 197AD). Martyr means witness—witness to the love of God. Some friends asked me why I never show bitterness and anger against those who oppressed me. How can you be bitter and angry against the people to whom God sends you as messenger and witness of His presence and His love? Jesus died also for the high priests and Pilate!" 

Soon after Doan’s release, the two former officials who had been Doan’s cellmates a decade earlier invited him to a private dinner under a star-lit sky where they professed that he was the best friend they had encountered. He saved their lives. Through them, Doan met some top leaders in the country who asked him about suspicious activities in the church. Doan had the opportunity to explain, diffusing what had seemed to be problems. 

Once, a group of us, Vietnamese Americans who knew the difficulties he faced in Vietnam, met Fr. Doan in Washington D.C. and asked him how we could support him. He surprised us with the answer that we have been missioned here as descendants of the Vietnamese Martyrs, so ask instead what love we can witness to, here in the U.S.  

Before, during and after imprisonment, Doan was the official superior of all Jesuits in Vietnam, thus in 1995 he actively participated at the 34th General Congregation in Rome. A few years later, Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach S.J., Superior General, called Doan to Rome to be his regional assistant. After the 35th General Congregation, and approaching the age of 70, Doan “retired” as the rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem, lecturing and giving retreats both at the Institute, around Jerusalem and internationally.  

His personal touch remains electrifying. One day during our stay at the Institute, my son Don skipped supper to sleep. Fr. Doan noticed that Don liked soup so he saved a bowl of soup for him. A few days later we left Jerusalem before suppertime.  Fr. Doan invited us to the dining room, went to the kitchen to get the food, warmed it up, and sat with Don and me for an hour as we ate. On the flight home I asked my son what he liked most about the three weeks in Israel and Jordan. I thought he would nominate the wonder-of-the-world Petra, the legendary Masada, or the African village on top of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem but Don declared, “meeting Fr. Doan.”