“My God, if that’s how it is, I give up!” It was October 1942. With this cry from the heart, a fourteen-year-old youth directs his steps to the study hall of the seminary of Quảng-Uyên, run by French Dominicans. Despite his simple, friendly and even charismatic character, we find him in a state of torment and affliction.
For a boy like Van, who had fought tooth and nail to achieve his ideal, the awareness that he would not be able to do so was an unbearable disappointment; the thought of being forced to surrender shook him to the core.
Joachuim Nguyen tan Van wanted to be a saint by becoming a priest. From the age of three, he had tagged after his mother in the house and the rice paddy, pestering her: “Mama, make me a Saint!” At eight, he had left an idyllic family life on the outskirts of Hanoi to pursue his goal.
Along the often-cruel twists and turns that Van’s life had taken since then, Providence never stopped speaking to his heart; the calls for intimacy with Jesus were insistent. “But there was this problem,” he wrote in his memoirs: “In spite of my great desire to attain holiness, I was certain I would never succeed, since to be a Saint it was necessary to fast, give oneself the discipline, carry a stone round one’s neck.”1
A typical adolescent of his time – almost ours – his scant spiritual reading had left him with an apotheotic concept of holiness beyond his capacity and willpower. Above all, the image so often held out to him of a demanding and punishing God, whom the sinner, in his wretchedness, could not come near, repulsed him. “I came to the conclusion that my desire for sanctity was for me pure madness,” he affirmed.2
Such thoughts produced intense vexation of spirit, for his aspirations were quite different: “Compatible with my personal idea, I would have wished that my life of sanctity could conform to the thought of St. Augustine: ‘Love and do what you wish.’ Yes, I would have wished that all my actions, all my gestures were devoted to the service of God, so as to reach right up to Him who is absolute perfection.”3
Accordingly, Van found himself on the horns of a dilemma: “I was looking, therefore, for a Saint of my imagination; but where then was he hidden, as I could not find him anywhere? I dare not invent a new way myself. So, what was there to do?”4
More than a book… a solution!
At this spiritual crossroads, Van went to the study hall on that afternoon in 1942, having first thrown himself at the feet of a statue of Our Lady, his “lifeline” in so many afflictions, imploring Her for a sign, a counsel and a return to peace.
Specifically, he had asked the Blessed Virgin to lead him to a good book. Now, shuffling an assortment of lives of the Saints on a table, he made the resolution to read the one on which his index finger randomly fell. He closed his eyes…
After reading “Story of a Soul”, Van decided to take St. Therese of the Child Jesus as his sister
Br. Marcel Van in Hanoi, Vietnam, between the years 1954-1955
In a gesture of utter disappointment, Van dropped the chosen book noisily on the table. Story of a Soul… Who was this St. Therese of the Child Jesus? Where did she come from? He mused to himself: “Since her birth until her last breath she had many ecstasies and performed a number of miracles; she fasted on bread and water, only taking one meal a day…”5
But, having made a commitment, he picked it up and began to leaf through it. He was soon absorbed. He skipped to the last chapter and then started reading it in earnest. After only two pages, his eyes misted over. Tears of remorse ran down his face for having scorned the book, and his heart welled with joy and relief at having made a wonderful discovery:
“So, to become a saint is not only to walk by the path of ‘saints of bygone days.’ There are many paths leading to holiness. […] What moved me completely was this reasoning of St. Therese: ‘If God only humbled himself towards the most beautiful flowers, symbols of the holy doctors, His love would not be an absolute love, since the characteristic of love is to humble oneself to the extreme limit. […] As the sun shines at the same time on the cedar and the little flower, in the same way the divine Star especially lights up all souls, big or small.’ Oh, what reasoning, so deep in its simplicity! […] I found in these words the key which opened for me a way which was direct and pleasing, leading right to the summit of perfection.”6
His heart was full, and his soul felt light; but at that moment he could read no more, for the simple reason that his tears had soaked the pages, making it impossible to turn them… Regretfully, he had to resign himself to closing the book.
“United in the sole love of God”
Over the days that followed, Van and Story of a Soul became inseparable. The boy felt his soul resonate with every “yes” and every “no” of Therese, with her every pain and joy.
At first, he addressed the book’s author by the title “Saint”. But then he began to feel the need to treat her in a closer way, as a younger brother treats his older sister, but he did not dare to do so until he read in the autobiography the passage in which Therese recounts the death of her mother. On this occasion she said, referring to her older sister, “As for me, it is Pauline who will be my mother.” Taken then by an inspiration of grace, on his knees Van spoke a simple and sincere formula: “For me, it is Therese who will be my sister.”
The reply did not delay: “From now on you will be my little brother!”
St. Therese of the Child Jesus in 1896
Van relates what happened next: “As soon as I had said these words, my soul was invaded with such a current of happiness that I remained stunned by it […]. I was dominated entirely by a supernatural force which flooded my soul with unspeakable happiness.”7
Taken by this mystical grace, he left the chapel where he was and went running outdoors, his soul overflowing with a joy “which I could only express with a great variety of songs and a thousand childish skips.”8 And he added: “I jumped from rock to rock, […] crying out my happiness and sending into the air all the songs I knew by heart in Vietnamese, in Thai, in French and in Chinese.”9
Finally, worn out from gambolling “like a madman or rather, like a butterfly that the wind carries here and there,”10 but still flooded with intense happiness, he stretched out on a rock and went over his behaviour in his mind with a certain shame: “Have I lost my mind? If not, why am I so full of joy?”11
Suddenly, an unknown voice called him by name:
“Van, Van, my dear little brother!”
Van leapt up, this time in fright! He looked around, convinced that someone was there, but he was puzzled by the familiar treatment, since it was a female voice he had heard.
“Van! My dear little brother!”
The voice was gentle as the passing breeze. Guessing at its supernatural origin, Van let out a hurried cry of joy:
“Oh! It’s my sister St. Therese!
The reply was not long in coming:
“Yes, it is really your sister St. Therese who is here. I hardly heard your voice when I understood, deep down, your guileless and pure heart. I have come here to reply to your words which have echoed in my heart. Little brother! You will be personally and from now on my little brother, just as you have chosen me personally to be your big sister. From now onwards our two souls will be separated no longer by any obstacle as they formerly were. They are already united in the sole love of God.”
Despite his turbulent childhood, marked by poverty and persecution, the suffering that hurt Van’s heart the most was always his profound isolation: “I could not find anyone in whom to could confide my thoughts. Consequently, I had to put up with everything in silence until the day when I met my sister St. Therese on the hill at Quảng-Uyên.”12 Through a strong, intimate and lasting relationship – which he faithfully recounts in his writings – the Saint of the Little Way works an admirable miracle in Van: by way of a warm, spiritual tête-à-tête, she helps him understand something of the Father’s love.
With Therese at his side, Van begins to glimpse the mercy of God in everything. He understands – and he convinces us! – that there is no separation between Heaven and earth, and that there is a strong bond of souls and missions between the Glorious Church and the Church Militant. This was the case, even with him, as his guardian assures him: “Therese has always been your Therese and you, Van, have been equally the little brother of Therese since the moment when we existed, both of us, in the thought of God.”13
With time, the Blessed Virgin herself would give Van a clearer vision of this connection between missions. In a communication of January 4, 1946, Mary tells him: “Do you not know that later, in Heaven, you will have a mission similar to that of your sister Therese? You will be like a second Therese of the Child Jesus. The first taught you the manner of entering into relation with the love of Jesus.” The second, She says, referring to Van, “will teach souls the manner of entering into relation with me and to expand my reign in the world. […] So your role, my child, will not consist in being the apostle of my reign but rather in coming to the aid of the apostles of this reign.”14
With Therese at his side, Van began to glimpse the mercy of God in everything. He learned that there is a strong bond of souls and missions between the Glorious Church and the Church Militant
From left to right: Marcel Van at the age of twelve; with his sister Anne Marie Te on the occasion of his profession of vows in September of 1952; with Fr. Antonio Boucher, his spiritual director in the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer
A great renunciation…
Therese of the Child Jesus guided this weak yet faithful soul with mastery, unveiling panoramas that moved his will and changed his mentality. At some moments she patiently listens to Van; at others she gives him clear advice. Sometimes she chides him in a friendly way, telling him that he shouldn’t cry so easily… She even sings and composes verses for him!
As the emissary of the divine will to his soul, Therese was also obliged one day to announce a delicate and difficult message to her protégé: he was not to become a priest. This news sparked consternation and sorrow, and Van broke into tears. Wishing to encourage her charge, she assured him that his apostolic desires would be fulfilled even outside the priestly state, through prayers and sacrifices, just as she herself had fulfilled her vocation: “Little brother, rejoice and be happy at having been placed among the number of ‘Apostles of the love of God’ who are privileged to be hidden in the heart of God in order to be the vital force of the missionary apostles.”15
Entry into religious life
This news began a new phase in Van’s life. His destiny had to be decided, and for this purpose Therese recommended that he turn to the Blessed Virgin, to find out which religious congregation he should enter.
Two weeks later, Van had a symbolic dream which gave him a clue: he suddenly saw someone dressed in black, of a luminous supernatural beauty and whose face revealed great goodness, approach his bedside. Caressing his head, the person asked him very gently, “My son, do you wish?” Unable to identify the person and feeling rapt by such indescribable goodness, Van immediately thought it was Our Lady, more precisely the Sorrowful Virgin, because of her dark clothing, and replied enthusiastically: “O Mother, yes, I wish!”
This dream filled Van with joy, although he did not yet know its meaning. When he told it to his big sister, she was happy to say: “Ask Our Lady to explain it to you.”16 Apparently, however, this did not happen and Van continued to search for his vocation.
He had already thought of becoming a Dominican, or even a Cistercian, but neither of these charisms satisfied his soul. Then, a few days after the dream, while cleaning a part of the house, he found a magazine entitled Our Lady of Perpetual Help, published by the Redemptorist Fathers, and began to read several articles on the Blessed Virgin Mary. This reading had its effect on him, as he states in his memoirs: “I began to know and love the congregation for the simple reason that the Redemptorists had a very special devotion to the Blessed Virgin.”17 From then on, he desired with all his soul to become part of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer.
St. Therese promptly supported him in this decision: “You wish to join the Redemptorists? Very good, little brother. This is precisely the congregation the Blessed Virgin wishes to take you to.”18 In fact, after overcoming some difficulties, Van entered the Redemptorist novitiate in Hanoi on August 15, 1945, taking the name Marcel.
It was St. Alphonsus himself who had appeared to Van in a dream, calling him to be his son
St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori – Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Granada (Spain)
One day, entering the chapel for a brief visit to the Blessed Sacrament, he saw a statue of St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, founder of the Congregation, on a pedestal. Seeing him dressed just like Our Lady of Sorrows in his dream, and making the same gesture as She had at his bedside, a suspicion arose in his mind: was the mysterious figure that had caressed him really the Virgin Mary? Suddenly and very sweetly, St. Therese said to him: “You need doubt no longer, little brother. Rest assured that the person who appeared to you on that night […] [that] you took for Our Lady of Sorrows, was your benevolent Father, St. Alphonsus himself.”19 This confirmed his choice and the authenticity of his calling for once and for all.
Mystic, apostle and confessor of the Faith
His spiritual director in the congregation, the Canadian priest Fr. Antonio Boucher, CSsR, impressed by the young religious in whom grace had worked wonders, suggested that he commit his spiritual itinerary to writing, resulting in a voluminous Vietnamese text, divided into almost nine hundred pages of student notebooks. Convinced that Van had a message for the Church and the world, Fr. Boucher worked painstakingly for many years to translate these writings into French. Thanks to this, today we have at our disposal his teachings of deep theological and mystical insight.
For the next almost ten years, Marcel carried out a fruitful apostolate. Having returned to Hanoi – now under communist rule – in order to help his brothers, he was imprisoned in 1955. On July 10 of 1959, he died, exhausted by the maltreatment received, but, in keeping with his most ardent desire, consumed by love. ◊
1 MARCEL VAN. The Autobiography of Brother Marcel Van. Leominster: Gracewing, 2006, p.224.
2 Idem, p.225.
3 Idem, ibidem.
4 Idem, ibidem.
5 Idem, p.227.
6 Idem, p.228.
7 Idem, p.234.
8 Idem, ibidem.
9 Idem, ibidem.
10 Idem, ibidem.
11 Idem, ibidem.
12 Idem, p.67.
13 Idem, p.236.
14 MARCEL VAN. Conversations with Jesus, Mary and Thérèse of the Child Jesus. Leominster: Gracewing, 2008, p.109.
15 MARCEL VAN, The Autobiography of Brother Marcel Van, op. cit., p.259.
16 Idem, p.264.
17 Idem, p.266.
18 Idem, ibidem.
19 Cf. Idem, p.265.