The Servant of God, Brother Marcel Van C.Ss.R. (Redemptorist)
-The little spiritual brother of Saint Therese of Lisieux
Brother Marcel Van was born Joachim Nguyên Tan Van on March 15, 1928, in a village in North Vietnam (Tonkin). He lived with his older sister Le and was later joined by a younger sister, Te. His father was a tailor and his mother was a housewife who sometimes worked in the rice paddies. His mother was a very devout Catholic, and was meek, kind and charitable towards everyone. Sadly however, as Van’s childhood years progressed, his father took to gambling and alcohol, causing the family much suffering. As a child, Van was a kind and sensitive boy, full of love and tenderness and did not like to be separated from his mother.
From a tender age, Van showed a remarkable early piety and devotion, and as a child he organized processions in honor of the Blessed Virgin with his younger sister Te, along with his cousins and playmates. From an early age he loved to pray with his mother, and they would often say a rosary together. At age six, he joyfully received First Holy Communion. He would later write of this blessed day:
“The hour has come, the moment so greatly desired has arrived... I gently draw out my tongue to receive the Bread of Love. My heart is overcome by an extraordinary joy... In an instant, I have become like a 'drop of water' lost in the vast ocean. Now there remains only Jesus, and I am Jesus' little nothing.”
From this day on, Van would receive Communion most every day. Shortly thereafter, he received the sacrament of Confirmation. A future prospect took shape in his heart as he later wrote: “I longed to become a priest, so as to bring the Good News to non-Christians.” He discovered later in life that to be a priest was not the will of God for him.
He began school at age seven, however his first teacher was excessively severe with the students, beating them with a cane at every turn. Van's health began to fail: "I became thinner and more pale by the day," he later wrote in his autobiography, “and it is because of the very strict educational system that I have came to such a state of exhaustion.”
Van is called to suffer
Van's mother then entrusted him to Father Joseph Nha, the parish priest in Huu-Bang. This priest ran a “House of God” which was an institution where young boys started more in-depth schooling in religion, while continuing their studies and helping the priest. The most capable among them could be admitted to the Minor Seminary, a goal which Van aspired to since he was hoping to become a priest. For Van, everything started well. He was very fond of his new life, and became a star student. But one of his teachers (called “masters”) named Vinh, would take Van into a private room and beat him repeatedly with a cane, stating that he was training him in what he called “the perfect life”. He threatened him and made him submit to the beatings in secret. After two weeks, the priest's laundrywoman noticed traces of blood on Van's clothes, and Father Nha, made aware of the situation, had the child see a doctor and strictly forbade Vinh from any contact with Van.
At times, Father Nha would present Van as an example to the lukewarm catechist students, which of course drew unfriendly attention to him. The catechists, now jealous of Van, organized a sort of tribunal to “try” him. After several humiliating scenes, they criticized him for receiving Communion every day. This reproach brought about a spiritual crisis: “I was disturbed and I suffered terribly to think that, without being worthy like the saints, I had had the boldness to receive Communion every day... I then saw the faults from my early childhood return.” In this difficult trial, Van turned to Mary and recited his Rosary with a deep devotion.
Each night after evening prayers, the catechists would open the “tribunal” and would question and accuse Van, and for punishment would beat him with a cane, or strip him of his clothing. Along with the “master” (teacher), some of these same student catechists often took to drinking alcohol, and would invite girls of the neighborhood to join them in the Presbytery when Father Nha was absent. Father Nha himself seemed to forget his one time favorite catechist student, and more and more removed Van from his studies and made him his servant.
During this same period tragedy struck at home. Floods had destroyed some of his family's property and possessions, and making matters worse his father squandered what little left that they had on gambling and drinking, leaving his mother, brother and sisters in utter poverty. His mother could no longer send money or clothes, which left him in poverty and under the complete care of Father Nha, who now looked at Van as a servant, instead of a student.
Eventually, Van left the “House of God” with several other catechists, in hopes of entering a seminary and becoming a priest, however unable to find any seminary or work that would accept him, he was obligated to return. The atmosphere at the house did not change much—alcohol, gambling, foul language, the presence of shameless girls. Van had to devote the majority of his time to manual labor. When he reached the age of twelve, he received his certificate of studies” , but he was not allowed to advance to the next level of his schooling, and all his time was spent working.
Eventually, he ran away to return to his parents' home, but because of their poverty they sent him back to Huu-Bang. Two months later, Van ran away again and began living as a beggar on the streets. “My profession,” he wrote, “consisted from then on of holding my hand out to passers-by... After a week of this life, I was unrecognizable. My hands and feet were thin, my skin was tanned by the sun and my cheeks were hollow... And yet I found this life of a poor vagabond not at all difficult. On the contrary, I felt a peaceful joy in suffering for God. I knew that by escaping, I had avoided sin, I had avoided what grieves the Heart of God.”
A terrible temptation
Concerning this period he wrote: “I came to consider myself a despicable creature. The devil made this thought develop in me—if people could no longer endure me, how could God still endure me? I'm going to die soon and I will have to go to Hell.”
As always, Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary remained his hope, and he continually gained comfort and peace through praying the rosary. One day, he opened his heart to a priest who comforted him with these words: “Willingly accept all these trials and offer them to the Lord. If God has sent you the cross, it is a sign that He has chosen you.”
A calling from the Lord
Thanks to a friend, Van was admitted to the Minor Seminary in Lang-Son in 1942. Six months later, for lack of funds, the institution had to close its doors, but Van was able to continue his studies in the parish of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus in Quang-Uyên, under the direction of two Dominican fathers. He strongly desired to become a saint, but was frightened at the austere sacrifices that he thought were necessary: “In spite of my great desire to attain holiness, I was certain that I would never achieve it, because to be a saint, you have to fast, lash yourself with a whip, wear a rock around your neck and little chains covered with spikes, a coarse horsehair shirt, endure the cold, the scabies, etc...My God, if it is like this, I give up... All that is way too much for me.”
The appearance of St Therese of Lisieux –The Story of a Soul
One day, Van spread out on a table books on the lives of many Saints. He said a prayer, asking God to guide him, promising that he would read whatever book his hand fell upon. Then, with his eyes closed, he put his hand down at random. “I opened my eyes. My hand was resting on a book I had never read before—“The Story of a Soul “ by Saint Therese of the Child Jesus.”
Marcel Van quickly looked over the book—one that he had never read before, but dismissed it as containing nothing unusual. But he soon reproached himself saying “Ah, by acting like this, you have broken your promise!” I then took the book again with my head full of muddled questions—‘What is this “Story of a Soul”??? Who is this St. Therese of the Child Jesus??? Where did she come from???’ What is certain is that is that she resembles many thousands of other saints.’
“Then I summarized her life in an amusing manner in these terms---'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. She spent the night in prayer and gave herself to discipline until she bled. After her holy death her body emitted a very pleasant fragrance and many extraordinary things happened at her tomb. Finally she was canonized by the holy Church...etc...’
“Today I see clearly how rash these statements were without knowing anything about St. Therese. I had dared to sketch out her life in such a summary manner. Oh my dear sister, you must necessarily be a Saint of great courage to put up with the erroneous judgments that I have held on your life!”
As promised, Van then began to read the book. He states:
“I had scarcely read a few pages when two floods of tears were flowing down my cheeks...What moved me so deeply was little Therese's reasoning:
'If God only stooped to the level of the most beautiful flowers, the symbol of the Holy Doctors, His love wouldn't be quite absolute, because it is Love's nature to stoop to the farthest limit... Just as the sun shines at the same time on the cedars and on every little flower as if it were the only one on earth, so does Our Lord take care of every soul as if there were no other soul like it'
“I understood then that God is Love... Like St Therese, I can sanctify myself through all my little acts... A smile, a word or a look, provided that everything is done in love. What happiness!....From now on, sanctity will no longer frighten me....my tears were flowing like an inexhaustible spring.”
“I had received therefore, that afternoon, a source of grace and happiness. “The Story of a Soul” had become my dearest friend, and followed me everywhere and I did not cease reading or rereading it, without ever getting weary of it. There was nothing in this volume which did not conform to my thoughts, and what pleased me even more in the course of my reading was to see clearly the spiritual life of Therese was identical to mine. Her thoughts, even her yes or no were in harmony with my own thoughts, and the little events of my life. Truly, never in my life have I met a book which was so well adapted to my thinking and feelings as is “The Story of a Soul”.
The next morning, Van woke up and kneeled before the altar of the Blessed Virgin Mary and prayed: “... Blessed Virgin, my Mother: Today is truly the first day that I have been given to taste such a sweet happiness; the day which introduces me to a new way.... From now on, my Mother, guide me in my new way to teach me to love God perfectly, and to offer myself to Him in total confidence. I dare to express a wish to you: That I may be wrapped in your love, as was formerly Therese, the Little Flower. I even wish you to give me this Saint as my guide in her “Little Way”. Oh what happiness there would then be for me since I feel that my life cannot free itself from the feelings of childhood that God has engraved in my soul as an innate gift”
Then turning to Jesus, he prayed: “Oh Jesus, my only and beloved master, you know that I love you and look only to respond to your wishes. You have aroused in my mind the desire to become a saint. Then, you made me find, in a very simple manner, the “Little Way” by which you guided St. Therese of the Child Jesus. You have used the hand of this little Saint to write for the use of souls, the sweet councils to which you have led her on her little way. Today, I know that you love me, and that in your immense love you behave towards me as with a little child. Oh, how you deserve to be loved in return! From now on I have decided to follow in your footsteps as you wish, and so that each of my steps conforms to your Will, I wish, oh my God, that you grant me this favor: Give me St. Therese of the infant Jesus is my guide, so that she can teach me to love you as I ought, since I am very ignorant. Grant me also the grace to persevere in your love right to the end, so as to love you afterwards eternally, in the homeland of love reserved for those who love you.”
Van becomes the little spiritual brother of St Therese
Soon afterwarsa, Van went on foot to a nearby hill. Suddenly, in the silence, he was startled by a voice that was calling him. “Van, Van, my dear little brother!” But, no one was around him! The voice spoke again: “Van, my dear little brother!” ‘I was stunned into little troubled, but I remained calm and guessed immediately that this voice which called me was a supernatural voice—I then let out or hurried cry of joy—“Oh, it's my sister Therese!”— “Yes, it is indeed your sister, Therese... From now on, you will personally be my little brother, just as you have chosen me to be your big sister... From this day on, our two souls will be just one soul, in God's one love... from this moment I will let you know all my beautiful thoughts on love that which has occurred in my life, and has transformed me in the infinite love of God.... it is God himself, who has arranged this meeting. God wants the lessons of love that He taught me before in the secret of my soul to live on in this world, and He has deigned to choose you as a little secretary to carry out His work, which He wishes to entrust to you.... ”
“...God our Father watches over the slightest details of our lives... God is Father and this Father is Love. His goodness and kindness are infinite... But ever since the day that our first parents sinned, fear has overcome the heart of man and has taken away from him the thought of a God who is our infinitely good Father... So God sent his Son... Jesus came to tell His brothers on earth that the Father's love is an inexhaustible source... We are immensely fortunate to be the children of God. Let us be thankful of this and never give in to excessive fear... Never be afraid of God. He is all loving Father. He knows only how to love, and He wishes to be loved in return.. Do not be afraid to speak familiarly with God as with a friend. Tell Him about everything that comes to your mind—your marble games, a mountain climb, the teasing of your friends, your outbursts, your tears, or the little fleeting pleasures'...”—But little sister, God already knows all these things"...'That's true, little brother... However, to give and to receive love, He must stoop and He does this as if He has forgotten that He knows everything, in the hope of hearing an intimate word burst forth from your heart.'
'When you feel joy, offer him this joy which swells your heart, and by doing so you will transmit your joy to Him. Can there be a greater happiness than a couple loving one another and exchanging all that they possess? To act in this way with God is to say ‘thank you’ to Him, which pleases Him more than thousands of touching canticles. If on the other hand, you are invaded by sadness say to Him again with an honest heart: ‘Oh my God, I am really unhappy’ and ask Him to help you to accept this sadness with patience. Believe this: Nothing gives as much pleasure to the good God than to see on this earth a heart which loves Him, and who is sincere with Him with each step, and with each smile; as well with tears as with as with little momentary pleasures.”
This first appearance of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus went on for quite sometime, and one should read "The Autobiography of Marcel Van"
Before leaving Van on this first occasion, St. Therese says in closing: ‘I love you because you are a soul who is a member of my friends of Love. As for you my little brother, my only wish is to see accomplished the works that the divine Love desires so ardently for you. So, little brother, listen to me: from now in your relations with our heavenly Father, do not fail to follow my advice. Now, it is getting late, so allow me to end our conversation here, since it is already mealtime. Tam and Hien are waiting for you, and Tam is getting impatient..... I am giving you a kiss.....We will have plenty of opportunities to talk together again. And we can do it no matter where, without fear that anyone might know.’
“Therese stopped talking, and I was like someone coming out of a dream; half anxious and half happy, and when she said ‘ I am giving you a kiss’ , I immediately felt as if a gentle breeze was likely touching my face. And I was overcome by such a joy that I momentarily lost consciousness. Some of this sweet joy stays with me today, but I do not know what to compare it with exactly.”
A call to religious life
From then on, St Therese became Van’s close companion and spiritual director, intimately guiding him in his spiritual life and his ascent towards God. As stated earlier, Van had always wanted to become a priest. “For that” he wrote, “I had sacrificed everything by imposing many spiritual and physical labors upon myself.”
But one day Therese told him, “Van, my little brother, I have something important to tell you... But it will make you very sad... God has made it known to me that you will not be a priest.”
“Van”, Therese resumed, “if God wants your apostolate to be carried out in another field, what do you think of that?... What remains most perfect is doing the will of our Father in Heaven... You will be above all an apostle through prayer and sacrifice, as I myself was before.” Therese then guided Van's gaze to this very important passage from the Story of a Soul: “I understood that Love alone put the members of the Church in motion... I understood that Love contains all vocations, that Love was all, that it embraced all time and all places... in a word, that it is Eternal.”
Van was wondering what all this meant-- “Therese, my sister, what does this hidden vocation involve, if I am not to become a priest?”—“You will enter a monastery where you will devote yourself to God.”
One night during the winter of 1942-1943, Van had a mysterious dream. "I saw someone coming towards the head of my bed... This person dressed completely in black was rather tall, and his face reflected great kindness... He asked me the question-- 'My child, do you want to...?' But before he could finish I spontaneously answered, 'Yes.' “ Several days later, Van discovered a statue in the house that bore a strange resemblance to his dream.
It was a statue of Saint Alphonsus of Liguori, founder of the Redemptorists. Soon afterwards, St. Therese confirmed his vocation to be a Redemptorist Brother, then gave him notice of new trials. “Little dear brother, you will encounter thorns on the way, and the sky that is now calm will be covered with dark clouds...You will shed tears, you will lose your joy and you will be like a man reduced to despair... But remind yourself that the world treated Jesus like this and that a Redemptorist resembles his Savior... Nevertheless, do not be afraid. During this storm, Jesus will continue to live in the boat of your soul... Little brother, you will no longer hear me talk so familiarly with you as I do now. Do not think that I am abandoning you. On the contrary, I constantly remain close to you like a big sister should... In this world, suffering is the proof of your love, and suffering gives your love all its meaning and value.”
Thereafter, he asked to be admitted to the Redemptorists in Hanoi. Van was received at the Redemptorists in Hanoi first as a household helper and, on October 17, 1944 he was finally admitted as a postulant and received the name Brother Marcel. The day after his religious profession, Brother Marcel Van had heard Jesus tell him: “My child, for the love of mankind, offer yourself with Me so that they might be saved.”
Thus assured of the value of suffering united to that of Christ, he wrote: “Jesus wanted to use my body to endure suffering, shame, and exhaustion, so that the flame of Love that consumes His divine Heart might spread in the hearts of all men on earth.”
After an initial period of joy, crosses appeared, especially in the form of his confreres' ridicule. Starting in his novitiate, at his spiritual director's request, he wrote his autobiography. For two years, Jesus, Mary, and Therese favored him with intimate conversations. But on September 9, 1946, the day after his first profession, Jesus told him, "My child, your portion now is to sacrifice the moments of sweet intimacy with me, to allow me to go in search of sinners... Then, my little Van, know that you will have to suffer because of your Superiors and Brothers. But these trials will be the sign that you are pleasing to My Heart. I am begging for all these sufferings to unite you to Me in the work of sanctification of priests.”
Like his spiritual sister St. Therese, his vocation, in part, was to suffer for Priests. And soon came the “night of the soul” for Brother Marcel. For the most part, most of the mystical graces and consolations disappeared and only the monotony of sacrifice in pure faith remained. In 1950, the young Brother was sent to Saigon, Vietnam, then to Dalat. In July 1954, North Vietnam was handed over to the Communists. Many Catholics fled for the South. Several Redemptorists remained in the house in Hanoi to take care of the Christians who stayed. Brother Marcel understood that Jesus was asking him to join them. “I am going there,” (to Hanoi) he wrote, “so that there might be someone who loves God in the midst of the Communists.” After several weeks, he wrote to his sister Anne-Marie: “Quite often I am overcome with sadness, and I only think, 'Oh, if only I hadn't come to Hanoi... But there was so much insistence in Jesus' voice!”
On Saturday, May 7, 1955, as he was going to the market, he was arrested and taken to the criminal investigation office, then jailed. Five months later, he was transferred to the central prison in Hanoi, where he met many Catholics and priests. He wrote to his Superior: “If I wanted to live, it would be easy for me. I would only have to accuse you. But don't worry, I will never agree to it.” Then, to his confessor: “In the last months, I have had to struggle as hard as I can and endure all the torture of brain-washing. The enemy has used many tricks to make me capitulate, but I have not allowed any weakness.” And to his sister: “Nothing can take the weapon of love from me. No affliction is capable of removing the kind smile that I let appear on my thin face. And who is the caress of my smile for, if not for Jesus, the Beloved?... I am the victim of Love and Love is all my happiness, an indestructible happiness.”
One year after his arrest, calm and self-controlled, he appeared before the court in Hanoi. Upon his refusal to confess that he had electioneered for the president of South Vietnam, he was condemned to 15 years of imprisonment in a “re-education” camp. He was taken to Camp No. 1, where he came across many Catholics. He wrote: “I am very busy, like a little parish priest. Apart from the hours of forced labor, I must constantly welcome the people who come one after the other looking for comfort from me... God Himself has made known to me I am doing His will here. Many times, I have asked of Him the favor of dying in this camp, but every time, He has answered me: “I am ready to follow your will as you always follow Mine, but there are souls that still need you...” Each time Brother Van would submit to God's will.
In August 1957, Brother Marcel Van was transferred to Camp No. 2. After an escape attempt to go look for consecrated Hosts, he was recaptured, beaten, and locked up in an unhealthy cell. Everything became harder for him—no more visits, no more mail, and, at the beginning of 1958, he spent three months in irons, alone, without support and without light, except for that which shone in his heart. Consumed by tuberculosis and beriberi, he flew to God at midday on July 10, 1959, at the age of 31 years, 4 months.
The Cause for the Beatification of Brother Marcel Van as a confessor of the faith opened on March 26, 1997, in the diocese of Belley-Ars, France. Click here for more info on the proposed Beatification of Marcel Van.
Primary sources for this article:
-“The Autobiography of Brother Marcel Van” Gracewing Publishing, 2006.
For more information on Brother Marcel Van, contact: Les Amis de Van, 15, Rue de l’ Orangerie, 78000 Versailles, France
Les Amis de Van French website: http://www.wix.com/marcel_van/amis-de-van
I can confess that the story of Therese's soul is the story of my soul....” to read it in its entirety. Upon hearing this, Van began to cry and said “I will never be able to live if I am not a priest...”