Cardinal Van Thuan looks ahead to Day of Prayer in Assisi
ROME, JAN. 22, 2002 (ZENIT.org-Avvenire).- Bishop Francois Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan could be forgiven for missing the 1986 Day of Prayer for Peace of religious leaders. He was in a Vietnamese prison.
He had to wait two years to find out what happened at that summit. In 1988 he was released after 13 years of incarceration under the Communists.
Now, as Cardinal Van Thuan, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, he eagerly awaits the Day of Prayer for Peace this Thursday in Assisi, Italy.
"I never imagined that one day I would be present at a Day of Prayer in Assisi," the cardinal said.
Recalling his prison days, he said: "I never hated my jailers, not even in the darkest moments." If there is someone for whom the Assisi message is not merely a proclamation but a lived experience, it is this Vietnamese prelate.
Zenit: This is not the first time that John Paul II convokes representatives of all religions in Assisi. However, this time the convocation seems to be extremely urgent in character. Is this so?
Cardinal Van Thuan: In order to understand the deep motivations which led the Holy Father to take this initiative, we must refer to his message for this year's World Day of Peace.
Here we have the first organic reflection of the pontifical magisterium on the phenomenon of terrorism. The Pope goes beyond the common point of view. After Sept. 11, people have remained shaken. The economic, financial and military superpower has discovered it is tremendously vulnerable. There is a demand for security, an urgent call for justice.
Pope John Paul shares these feelings, but he goes further: The thirst for justice might be turned into vengeance if there is no desire for forgiveness and reconciliation. Hence the need for a strong gesture that proposes this fundamental truth, without which the world will sink into new and lacerating conflicts.
Zenit: There are those who believe that religion is one of the causes of the conflict.
Cardinal Van Thuan: Precisely because of this, the Holy Father calls leaders of religions to pray and give common witness of the will for peace. Judging from the great number of adherents, coming from all parts of the world, I would say this will exists.
Zenit: Will there be a clear condemnation of terrorism in Assisi?
Cardinal Van Thuan: Yes, and it is the new element compared to the two preceding Days of Prayer in 1986 and 1993. There will be a common commitment to peace that will be read by the different religious leaders; a solemn reaffirmation of authentic religious feeling, as the Pope has written, which is the source of mutual respect and harmony among peoples.
Zenit: Is not Islam a stumbling block in this path?
Cardinal Van Thuan: We must look at the Islamic religion with great respect, distinguishing its teachings from fundamentalist fanaticism. The Pope moved immediately in this direction.
Let's not forget that a few days after Sept. 11, he was visiting a Muslim country like Kazakhstan, where he stretched out his hand to Islam, to authentic Islam, he said, the Islam that prays and knows how to be in solidarity with those in need. It is not accidental that the Muslim people and authorities welcomed him with great cordiality, in a spirit of friendship.
Zenit: You have experienced martyrdom. What do you think about the so-called martyr-killers, who in the name of Islam kill and kill themselves?
Cardinal Van Thuan: The Christian martyr does not have contempt for life; he suffers and is prepared to die for love, but he is afraid of death, and is not indifferent to life, neither his own or that of others. Martyrdom is the suffering of the one who accepts to be treated unjustly in order to remain faithful to God. It is not a claim to do justice in the name of God.
Zenit: Is it possible to discuss these topics with someone who has the exact opposite point of view?
Cardinal Van Thuan: One can begin a discussion with anyone. I experienced this during my years of imprisonment in Vietnam. Among my unfortunate companions there were Catholics, but also Buddhists of different confessions.
In normal life, it would be difficult for a Buddhist to become friendly with a Catholic, especially if it was a Buddhist inspired by fanaticism. We began to talk, to discuss in prison, until we regarded one another as brothers. Some helped me. One policeman obtained the wood for me with which I was able to make a small cross, which I always kept hidden in my soap and which now, covered in iron, is my pectoral cross.
They understood that Christianity was not their enemy. All this [happened] through patient dialogue. Never, I repeat, never, can a genuine religious sentiment turn to violence.
Zenit The meeting of religious leaders in Assisi will undoubtedly be something spectacular, but what will be its concrete efficacy?
Cardinal Van Thuan: I think there will be great efficacy, especially at the level of education. It's what the Holy Father calls the pedagogy of forgiveness. The Assisi gesture has the force of example. It is as though all the religious leaders were saying to the world: Look how we can all walk together on the way of peace, while respecting one another's differences.