The problem with Christians, Charles Péguy (reportedly) once said, is that they don’t believe what they believe. It’s a clever line. Whether he actually said it, I have no idea. But it doesn’t matter. Because either way, the words are true. Until we suffer for what we believe, or have our hearts changed by the witness of others who suffer, our faith is untested and aspirational; a matter of good intentions. Which brings me to my best friend Joe.
The father of eight and a former Marine, Joe is a classic command personality: rational, organized, and driven to perform. He spent the closing decades of his career as the president/CEO of two successive multibillion-dollar companies, and the skills it took to get and stay there, he learned in the Corps. For 13 months in 1967-68, Joe led a Marine infantry company in the Dong Ha area, just south of the DMZ and hard against the North Vietnamese border. Enemy activity was high. Thus, along with normal patrolling, Joe had civil affairs duties, befriending and securing the local population. As it turned out, many of the local Vietnamese were Catholic, like Joe. And that’s how he met Father Paul.
Father Paul, along with much of his parish, had come from the North. They’d fled to the South when French colonial rule ended, and the communists took power in Hanoi. Father Paul, a slight, unimposing man, had been assistant pastor until very recently. His promotion had come in a typical warzone way: The Viet Cong had murdered the pastor while he was taking the sacraments to families in the countryside. As Father Paul saddled up his motorbike to continue the dead pastor’s work, Joe suggested that, given recent events, that might not be the best survival strategy. The priest just shrugged. People needed the sacraments, he said, and then he drove off into the bush. For whatever reason, Father Paul wasn’t ambushed that day or any other day. What did happen took place later.
The parish lay within the artillery umbrella of North Vietnamese 130 mm guns in the DMZ. And so, midway through a 10 a.m. Mass one Sunday morning, the guns targeted the parish, registered their fire on the church, and leveled much of the building, killing or wounding dozens of worshipers. That, Joe assumed, was the end of the parish.
But a day or two later, Father Paul showed up at Joe’s bunker. As a civil-affairs officer, Joe had access to construction materials. Father Paul asked for his help in rebuilding the church. Joe pointed out that, since the church site had been accurately registered by enemy artillery, the same guns could do exactly the same damage any time the enemy pleased. Again, the priest just shrugged. People needed the Mass, he said. So some weeks later, as the parish guest of honor, Joe knelt piously in the front pew of the rebuilt church for a Liturgy of celebration. The music and singing were beautiful and loud — just loud enough, Joe now admits thinking, to drown out the whistle of incoming artillery if the enemy had chosen that precise moment to fire.
Father Paul and Joe became good friends, helping each other as they could. But combat tours end. After his 13 months in-country, Joe rotated home to his wife Gail. They started a family and began building a new life. From time to time over the years, Joe thought of the priest and other friends he had known in Vietnam. Some had survived; some hadn’t. Some came home with permanent scars; some never came home at all. What Joe did hear about priests like Father Paul was that most had ended up in unmarked graves in the reprisals that followed the fall of Saigon.
Time passed. Life moved on. Memories faded. And then one day, nearly four decades after he left Vietnam, Joe got an email from a Marine friend who had served with him. Surfing the net with his broken Vietnamese, the friend had found a story about the recent funeral of a “Father Paul” in Bình Thuận Province of what was once South Vietnam. It sounded like the priest Joe had known. Only it wasn’t. It was the funeral of another priest, celebrated by Father – now Bishop – Paul Nguyễn Thanh Hoan, shepherd of the Diocese of Phan Thiết. [See the photo below.]
Father Paul, the unimposing young priest who loved his people, who refused to be intimidated, who didn’t care about his own life, and who knew how to wheedle blood out of a stone, had managed to survive the war and its aftermath, and resume his ministry. In the years since, he had founded a community of women religious, an orphanage, a home for lepers, and a popular Marian shrine — all despite constant bullying and interference from the regime. Joe reconnected with “Father Paul,” visited him in Vietnam, and until Bishop Paul died in 2014, Joe and Gail provided support and American connections to help him with his work.
All of which is a heartwarming story. But that and five dollars will buy a cup of coffee, and anyway, it’s not the point of telling it. The point of telling it is this: Father Paul believed what he believed. He proved it by living it. And in living it, he touched others.
My friend Joe is in his late 70s today, a man of character, deep Christian faith, and now also emotion, intense and unexpected, that eludes words. Age brings memories. Some men are haunted by memory. For others, it carries them forward on a river of gratitude, widening and deepening every day as they remember the witness of love and courage and faith given to them by others. That gratitude is life’s final gift, a taste of eternity. In a time not too unlike our own, it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who (reportedly) said that gratitude is the beginning of joy. It too is a clever line. Whether he actually said it, I have no idea. But it doesn’t matter. Either way, the words are true.
*Photo (above): Battle weary U.S. Marines rest at the altar of a Roman Catholic church (South Vietnam, May 1967 [AP])