John Janaro is an alum (class of ’85) and associate professor emeritus of theology at Christendom College, and author of Never Give Up: My Life and God’s Mercy (Servant). He blogs at www.johnjanaro.com
John Nguyễn Hữu Cầu
On March 22, 2014, a Vietnamese political prisoner was finally released after thirty-seven years of enduring the horrors of the Communist prison system. He was almost seventy years old, nearly blind and deaf, and afflicted in many other ways because of the brutal treatment by which his captors had sought to erase his humanity.
But Nguyễn Hữu Cầu was not bitter. On the contrary: in spite of the years of injustice inflicted upon him, he said that he had learned to love and forgive his enemies. Amidst the inhumanity of labor camps and prison, Cầu had discovered the truth about humanity: Jesus Christ. The story of his conversion is truly remarkable.
When the long war in Vietnam ended in a Communist victory in April 1975, Nguyễn Hữu Cầu—an officer in the South Vietnamese (anti-Communist) army—was captured and sent to a labor camp for five years of “re-education.” Nevertheless, Cầu already had a considerable education of his own in music and literature. After his release from the camp in 1980, he continued to write songs and poetry, and he maintained a deep love for his country and a passion for justice.
When Cầu saw the corrupt and criminal actions of the Communist Party in his home province, he protested. In particular, he denounced two officials for specific crimes. Cầu sought to bring these men to justice, but instead he himself was put on trial and charged with undermining the government. He insisted that he was innocent, but the courts were as corrupt as the officials they were protecting, and they convicted Cầu in 1983 and sentenced him to death (later commuted to life imprisonment).
Cầu was subjected to long periods of solitary confinement and other specially brutal measures because he continued to protest his own innocence and denounce other injustices in the prison system. He refused to apply for a “pardon,” or special amnesty, or anything that would imply his acceptance of the guilty verdict. Over time, his integrity as a prisoner of conscience became known to international human rights groups.
What remained secret was the source of Cầu’s strength and long endurance in these trials. The first years were desperate. Even as he considered suicide, however, he began to learn the ways of the Catholic prisoners who were sustained by love for Jesus and devotion to the Virgin Mary. One of these was Jesuit Father Joseph Nguyễn Công Đoan, who instructed Cầu. He was struck by Cầu’s progress in faith and prayer after the latter claimed that Mary had saved him from suicide.
Cầu began spending entire days praying the rosary and the Stations of the Cross. From his chains, Cầu marked off fifty links and used them as his rosary. And while he persevered in pursuing justice, his anger and frustration were slowly replaced by love of God and love for his brothers and sisters, his fellow prisoners, even his persecutors. Father Đoan secretly baptized him at Easter 1896.
For twenty-eight more years, John Nguyễn Hữu Cầu prayed. Finally—broken in health but not in spirit, released for pity’s sake in 2014 with his innocent plea uncompromised—he attended Mass for the first time in his life, received the Eucharist, and told his story to the Catholic community of Saigon, and the whole world.