Marcel Van: The Littlest Redemptorist

Today marks the 285th anniversary of the founding of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. On November 9, 1732, St. Alphonsus Liguori and his first companions professed their vows as Redemptorists and began their mission to preach God’s boundless love for all people by taking to heart Isaiah’s words: “to bring glad tidings to the poor . . . to proclaim liberty to captives . . . to free the oppressed.”

However high their hopes, I doubt the small company could have known the gladness, liberty, and freedom of heart they’d bring to the littlest Redemptorist of them all, the Vietnamese (now Servant of God) Marcel Van.

Van’s Winding Little Way

As he tells us in his Autobiography, initially Van set out to be a diocesan priest, beginning the journey when he was merely 7. At 14, after reading Story of a Soul and hearing St. Thérèse speak to him, Van asked God to make him a girl so he could become a Carmelite too. He didn’t know that there were male Carmelites, and Thérèse teasingly encouraged him to make this request, knowing God wouldn’t answer it! It was her job, in fact, to break the news that God didn’t want Van to be a priest, but rather to pray for priests as a religious brother. At 16, Van discovered the religious order that Providence had prepared for him and where he would be given the name Marcel: none other than the Order founded by St. Alphonsus Ligouri 285 years ago today, the Redemptorists.

Marcel Van lived from 1928 to 1959, only 31 years, all of which were spent in Vietnam. He was born in the North, was eventually transferred by his Order to the South, but requested (at Jesus’ request) to be re-transferred to the North when the Communists took over. Marcel wanted to make sure someone would love God amidst the atheistic regime. It wasn’t long before he was arrested on trumped up charges, put through a mock trial, and thrown into a concentration camp where he was a beacon of love and mercy to the other prisoners, and where his earthly life ended on July 10, 1959.

 

Of Postulators and Candidates for Canonization

His heavenly life having begun in earnest, Marcel was ready to become the Apostle of Mary, the Apostle to Children, the Apostle to Priests that Jesus and Our Lady had promised he would be. For those who have met him, friendship is nearly instantaneous. Marcel is charming, funny, direct, sincere, totally simple, and completely on fire with love for Jesus and zeal for the Church. And (it bears repeating) he was the spiritual little brother of St. Thérèse. Oh, and he had Conversations with Jesus and Mary too. What’s not to love?

But despite Thérèse’s world renown and his own appeal, Marcel is still relatively unknown. The first postulator of his cause was Cardinal Francis-Xavier Nguyen van Thuan, born the same year as Marcel, in the same country, yet outliving him by nearly half a century. Since his death in 2002, Cardinal van Thuan has had a process of his own begun and is now Venerable, his heroic virtues having been proven and officially proclaimed by the Church. His sister and Marcel’s current postulator have recently written a book published by Les Amis de Van: Nguyen Van Thuan and Marcel Van: Two Lives, One Mission.

Meanwhile, I do what I can to introduce Marcel to new friends by writing about him at my blog Miss Marcel’s Musings. Thanks to the big Internet and the small world of saint-making, I was recently asked by Marcel’s postulator, a French Benedictine, Father Olivier de Roulhac, to present some of his words on Marcel. Here, then, in this month of All Saints, and on this day we tip our hats to the great Redemptorists, is the inside scoop on the very littlest Redemptorist of them all, from no less than the man charged with presenting Marcel’s sanctity to the Church.

Without further ado, then, here are the words of Father Olivier de Roulhac, O.S.B.

Father Olivier Speaks

Marcel Van’s life is surprising and highly relevant to our times. Many have gone through one or the other of the trials which he faced. For my part, being a religious like him, I was struck by what he had lived in his community, which is very close to what I have known, and also by his way of responding to the challenges. This is how I was first struck by his example, and he is a great teacher for me. His intense spiritual life is radiant, and his example and writings reveal a path that any person who has the desire to follow Jesus can take. He also unveils for us the spiritual combat which is taking place in the world and shows a very simple way of taking part in it. In sum, his life is an example of the Gospel lived out in the modern world.

Which virtues shine out in the life of Marcel Van?

I would first of all say perseverance. Deeply in love with Jesus, his desires can all be summed up in this one: to please Jesus. He persevered through the numerous sufferings which he encountered throughout his life by love for Jesus.

Next, the supernatural realities and the presence of Jesus and Mary in his life are so obvious to him that his faith is complete. His trust in Jesus is absolute and underlies each of his actions. There is no servile fear of God in him, but only the fear of causing pain to Jesus, of letting him down.

Then, he lived hope in the manner of the Virgin Mary. When speaking of His life at Nazareth, Jesus tells Marcel: “If something was lacking, if my mother had any need, no matter how small, she knew she only had to raise her eyes to heaven and ask for it from God the Father in all simplicity and sincerity. And as her confidence and her simplicity were very pleasing to God, Mary obtained all that she asked for” (Conversations, 423).

Marcel’s charity expresses itself in many ways. It is first of all addressed to Jesus. St. Thérèse and the Virgin Mary both asked Marcel to hide his sadness from Jesus, “Otherwise little Jesus would notice it, He would feel sadness and He would be disappointed” (Conversations, 252b).

Marcel also pays close attention to his loved ones. He does not hesitate to admonish with a gentle love his father who had let himself sink into gambling and alcohol abuse: “My dear daddy, in the things that I now wish to say to you, in particular I want you to understand first of all that in no way do I wish to reprimand you, but simply to open to you my child’s heart, since children of the family are allowed to express their feelings to their dear parents. Therefore, being myself your dear child, conscious of being much loved by you, I also love you dearly” (Letter to his father, October 6, 1946).

In a similar manner, he consoles and exhorts his friends to trust Jesus. For example, he reassured his friend Nghi who was a soldier and had not seen a priest for 8 months, and was therefore not able to go to confession. He was very worried and asked Marcel to pray for him. Marcel exhorts him with words of fraternal warmth and strong encouragement:

“If you continue to preoccupy yourself and to worry excessively, you can only harm yourself and sadden God’s heart since you would give the impression of doubting His merciful love in thinking that He is not good enough to forgive your faults. God knows you are weak and miserable, consequently, do not fear being abandoned by Him” (Letter to Nghi, May 3, 1949).

Finally, joy is another of Marcel’s chief virtues. He is “always joyful because of love.” At the age of twelve, during the night of Christmas, he discovered his mission : “To transform suffering into joy.” Marcel will never love suffering: “Although, in a human way, I am afraid of suffering, I accept it with joy for love of Jesus” (Letter to his sister Tê, July 16, 1947). Yet during that Christmas night he discovered its mysterious power: it is the path to more deeply understand the great mystery of Jesus’ Love. He often encourages his correspondents to accept suffering with joy, and asks for their prayers so that he may do the same. Joy in Marcel is the expression of a great power, that of his love for Jesus.

The work of Les Amis de Van

Marcel’s cause was introduced as that of a confessor of the faith (rather than as a martyr), which means that its focus is on the manner in which he lived the gospel throughout his life. The process is currently in the diocesan phase. The Association of Les Amis de Van (the Friends of Van) is a “private association” of the faithful which, through its international vocation, participates in the communion between the churches and in the building of the universal Church. It sponsors Vietnamese seminarians, and has published Van’s life story and his writings in several languages, and works on the preparation of the dossier for his beatification.

Thanks to the diligence of Les Amis de Van and translator Jack Keogan, the best way to get to know Marcel Van is to read his Complete Works, all of which are now available in English:

Marcel’s Autobiography, written at the request of his spiritual director, the Canadian Redemptorist Fr. Antonio Boucher; his Conversations, which are dialogues Marcel had with Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and St. Thérèse; his Correspondence of over 300 letters illustrating Marcel’s spirituality, attentive and obedient to his superiors, comforting and encouraging his friends and family, always with a gentle love. And finally his Other Writingswhich include poems, diverse thoughts, and answers to questions asked by his spiritual director.

Marcel’s message is of great relevance to the modern world. He is an apostle of priests, with a special calling to pray and suffer for them. He is also the apostle of children. In effect, he encountered many of their sufferings: being misunderstood, treated violently, at times even rejected by his parents . . .  more than one child has identified with his struggles and found in his example the strength to move forward and to continue to be “joyful because of love.”

image: Quang nguyen vinh / Shutterstock.com

Suzie Andres

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Suzie Andres, a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the University of Notre Dame, lives and writes in sunny Southern California. She is the editor of Selected Sermons of Thomas Aquinas McGovern, S.J., and author of Homeschooling with Gentleness, A Little Way of Homeschooling, and the Catholic romantic comedy The Paradise Project. You can find her blog, “Miss Marcel’s Musings” at suzieandres.com, where you’ll also find links to her books, online articles, and book lists for all ages.

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