Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan’s Beatitudes for a Political Leader

“Put not your trust in princes,” the psalmist advised long ago.

People didn’t choose their leaders back then, so they were, on a material level, absolutely beholden to a king’s whims for good or ill. The psalmist reminds them of the human tendency to view the world from a material point of view only, forgetting the volatility of all human hearts in comparison with the God who never changes. Put not your trust in princes.

We, on the other hand, participate in the process of leader selection. Unfortunately, this right and duty carries with it a strong temptation to put our trust in those we’ve backed for office even when they violate our principles.

In contrast to the political sloganeering of our times, the wisdom of Scripture is timeless. While we exercise our right to vote, we’re still well advised to “put not our trust in princes.”

While reading The Miracle of Hope: Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan; Political Prisoner, Prophet Of Peace, I happened on the Cardinal’s “Eight Beatitudes of a Political Leader.”

Thuan’s political beatitudes reveal how just how far removed from the permanent things our political discourse has become. They are a standard of possibility while gently reminding of us of the truth embedded in the proverb.

Understanding the author’s story raises their value.

Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan (1928-2002) was raised in a devout Vietnamese family with a memory of horrific religious persecution in the complicated history of Vietnamese Catholicism. (His grandfather’s cousin “Aunt Lien” was present when, in 1885, the Catholics of Dai Phong gathered in their church to escape a raid planned against them. The church’s bamboo roof was set ablaze and inside, the people’s prayers were drowned by the cries of the children. Nguyen Van Thuan grew up hearing the stories of that night and was acutely aware that he was related to martyrs.

He was ordained a priest in 1953 and obtained a doctorate in canon law in 1959. Bishop of the Vietnamese coastal city Nha Trang during the war-torn years between 1967 and 1975, he would pay a price for his faith soon afterward.

Thuan had just been appointed co-adjutor Archbishop of Saigon when the city fell to the North Vietnamese. They arrested Thuan because of his spiritual influence and the fact that his uncle had been the first president of the Republic of South Vietnam.

As the Vietnam war came to a close, Thuan spent the next 13 years in a communist re-education camp. He lived the majority of those years in solitary confinement.

Ever a spiritual father, Thuan did not allow his imprisonment to deter his mission.

After a deep interior struggle to accept his confinement, the Archbishop took action in three ways. First, he recommitted himself to prayer, even celebrating Mass using his own hand as a chalice, with bread and wine smuggled to him by friends on the outside.

Next, Thuan began writing to his people, recording brief spiritual insights on the back of calendar pages. With the help of nearby village children, his words of encouragement were smuggled to the outside, published and distributed locally and eventually around the world.

Finally, Thuan chose to prayerfully live every moment of his captivity in love. He befriended his captors, teaching them French as well as hymns. He evangelized them so successfully that at one point his guards were changed every 15 days to keep them from being swayed by the patient prisoner who remained cheerful under duress.

Thuan later said that “his prison experience ‘enlarged’ his heart and taught him how to talk to people whose perspectives differed from his own.”

These are the acts of an authentic witness, a true believer, a holy man.

When Thuan was finally released, the Viet Cong exiled him from his homeland. He lived for a time with family members in Australia but then went to Rome, where he would become vice-president and then president of the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace. During that time he oversaw the compilation the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, “which concerns the whole person and is addressed to all people.”

Thuan was made a cardinal of the Church in 2001, but shortly afterward he contracted stomach cancer, suffering its ravages until his death in 2002.

The wisdom born of his confinement remains.

Published as The Road of Hope: A Gospel from Prison, Nguyen Van Thuan’s spiritual insights sent to his people during his imprisonment speak of the importance of unity, hope and forgiveness.

They strike a chord with faithful souls who believe, as he did, that this world is not all there is and that only love endures.

From the heart of his confinement, Thuan reminds us of the evanescence of the material and trivial pursuits that so often enslave us rather than filling us with joy.

That doesn’t mean we evade our responsibility to our neighbor, our country and the world. Instead, we are invested in what happens in around us and we order our priorities according to human dignity and freedom. We understand the imperfections of politics and we do not put our trust in anyone but Christ.

The “Beatitudes of a Political Leader” come from the heart of a heroic witness to hope in a brutal world.

They speak of a much higher order than any found in this world. They help us see the world with fresh eyes.

“Blessed is the political leader who understands his role in the world.” writes Thuan. “Blessed is the political leader who personally exemplifies credibility.”

Blessed is the political leader who works for the common good and not for his personal interests. Blessed is the political leader who is true to himself, his faith, and his electoral promises.

Thuan, not ashamed of the gospel for which he suffered more than most of us can imagine, continues with the authority of a successor to the apostles:

Blessed is the political leader who works for unity and makes Jesus the fulcrum of its defense. Blessed is the political leader who works for radical change, refuses to call that which is evil, good, and uses the Gospel as a guide.

“Blessed is the political leader who listens to the people before, during, and after elections, and who always listens to God in prayer.”

And finally, this:

Blessed is the political leader who has no fear of the truth or the mass media, because at the time of judgment he will answer to God alone and not the crowds or the media.

Idealistic as Thuan’s beatitudes may seem, they inspire us to be better people than we are today and to expect more from our leaders as well.

“The just man justices,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins in that powerful poem, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.”

Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces; 
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is — 
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places, 
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his 
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

The just leader’s being is justice. The just leader reminds us of our values while consistently living them as well. The just leader engages opponents in conversation and respects their dignity. The just leader offers more than slams and slogans. The just leader speaks the truth in love.

In love for all the people in this divided nation.

It’s a bit like looking for a political unicorn candidate. Even if you think you’ve spotted one, it’s best to remember not to put your trust in princes.

Thuan’s God is a far surer Guide.

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Related post: Land of My Sojourn: Ugly Politics and our True Home.

“Eight Beatitudes for a Political Leader” was written for the funeral Mass of Amintore Fanfani, the professor of economic history, Italian Prime Minister, foreign minister, and president of the United Nations General Assembly who died in 1999. Renouncing the fascism of his early career, Fanfani was known for his leadership in Italy’s post-WWII reconstruction and his expertise in foreign affairs. But his record is mixed, another reminder not to put our trust in princes. This video is an overview of his remarkable political career.

Photo by Vincent Guth on Unsplash.