Many of us might have heard of the extraordinary story of a Vietnamese Archbishop named Cardinal François Nguyen Van Thuan who was imprisoned by the communist government in Vietnam just three months after he was appointed coadjutor Archbishop of Ho Chi Minh (Saigon). He then spent 13 years of his being an Archbishop in prisons of the regime, nine of which was spent in solitary confinement. His extraordinary determination to be able to accomplish something good for God and for his people helped him survive in prison. The Cardinal then recalled that prayer saved him. ‘The Lord always helped me,’ he said. He also did write books about hope in prison. Another thing that sustained him in prison was the Eucharist. Because he couldn’t take anything of religions connotations with him he had to ask his friends to smuggle mass wine into the prison with a label ‘Medicine for Stomach Aches’ and also some hosts hidden in a container. ‘Every night I kept a tiny piece of bread for the following day’s Eucharist. And so every day for many years I had the joy of celebrating Mass with three drops of wine and one of water in my palm. This was my altar, my cathedral. For me it was the true medicine of body and soul something to stave off death in order to live for ever in Christ. One more thing he did that really made his life more remarkable was the friendship he had struck with his own jailers- or those who were assigned to guard him. ‘Those in charge had forbidden them to speak to me.’ The Cardinal recalled. ‘Initially my guards were changed every fifteen days. Prison authorities believed the guards risked being contaminated if left with me for any length of time. Eventually they stopped changing them because apparently they were afraid I would contaminate the whole force. And so the young students became my friends. The love of Christ has great power to change people.’
What an extraordinary story of hope, of faith, and love. Yet it is also a powerful witness for all of us how to love God and our neighbour altogether. The Cardinal’s love of God was so deep that even the walls of the prison wall and the censor of the government didn’t stop him from taking him as his nourishment everyday as he celebrated the Eucharist on his palms as his altar. This love of God also reflects his love to his neighbours, which in his case his jailers. He made them his friends. He had no grudge against the people who have put him there. Instead he showed the loving Christ to them.
Friends, in our gospel today a scribe, one who knows a lot about the Jewish laws and prohibitions, all 613 of them, approached Jesus wanting to know which one of the laws is the key to all or the most important one. Jesus reminded him that it is love of God and love of neighbours one loves him/herself, taken as one commandment of love. Cardinal Van Thuan has concretely carried this out when he took his time in prison as an opportunity to be united with God all the more in the Eucharist and to show his jailers the love and forgiveness of Christ for all.
‘But what does Love of God and love of neighbour really mean?’ we may ask. Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical letter Deus caritas est while reflecting on the passage of the first letter of John (1 Jn 4:20 “If anyone says, ‘I love God’ and hates his brother, he is a liar’ for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.) reminds us that ‘one is so closely connected to the other that to say that we love God becomes a lie if we are closed to our neighbours or hate him altogether.’[#16]. The Pope adds that the ‘love of neighbour is a path that leads to the encounter with God, and that closing our eyes to our neighbour also blinds us to God.’ [#16].
So what does it mean for us now? We need not only to know who our neighbour is but more so of taking the move to help them in any way. Our neighbour is one who needs us and whom we can help Pope Benedict XVI would say. (Deus Caritas est # 15). We are also to bear in mind always, as Mother Teresa of Calcutta would remind us that ‘At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. We will be judged by “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.’ But this also means we must not just understand our neighbours as people who are helpless or needy or far less privileged than we are. Rather, we are to look at them, (not to look down) as a whole person, to be appreciated of who they really are, and not to be looked down because of what they have- very little.
So it’s worth reflecting and asking ourselves: How in love are we with our God and our neighbours? If we say we love God, have we expressed and lived out this love by showing to our neighbours that we care, support, and love them as they really are, not on what they have, or what they don’t have? Cardinal Van Thuan expressed his love of God despite his being imprisoned, in constant prayer, in taking the Eucharist his spiritual support and nourishment, and in showing to his jailers the love of Christ for them. Jesus, our High Priest is showing us how he sympathizes to all our human needs, weaknesses and limitations. He is a concrete example of one who is in love with God with all his heart, with all his mind, and with all his soul. He is also a definite paradigm of a person who is in love with his neighbour as he loves himself. In him all is one. We who are free: What are we doing to show that we care for and work out our fundamental calling: to love God and our neighbour as we love ourselves?