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St. Thérèse’s Spiritual Little Brother

Interview With Author of Book on Marcel Van

By Marine Soreau
PARIS, FEB. 1, 2010 ( St. Thérèse’s message that sanctity is for everyone resounded in a special way in the life of a Vietnamese Redemptorist who died in a Communist forced labor camp at age 31.

Marcel Van is considered a “spiritual little brother” to St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Like her, he strove to be an apostle of love, approaching God with the trust of a little child.

Van was born in 1928 and died at age 31. From St. Thérèse, he learned that he would not reach priestly ordination and that instead, his life would be dedicated to making God present precisely where He seemed most absent.

ZENIT spoke with French Dominican Father Gilles Berceville, author of the French-language book “Marcel Van ou l’infini pauvreté de l’Amour” (Marcel Van or the Infinite Poverty of Love), to learn more about this Servant of God.

Father Berceville says Van’s life is a symbol of the interchange between East and West.

ZENIT: Can Marcel Van be separated from the figure of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, considered to a degree today as his great spiritual sister?
Father Berceville: Van was a child of great faith who always had a profound relationship with Christ, constant Eucharistic devotion, the conviction that God is love and a great bond with the Most Blessed Virgin.
At age 14, he discovered St. Thérèse’s “Story of a Soul” and, shortly after, he heard Thérèse speak to him. This mysterious exchange lasted until the end of his novitiate.
ZENIT: What did he discover with her?
Father Berceville: With Thérèse he discovered that his desire of sanctity could be fulfilled because it is also God’s desire.
God is “condescending”: He is not a God that one would think punishes us with rigor, demanding what we cannot do, but a God who thinks how to help us, and in a certain way adapts himself to what we are so that we will adapt ourselves to what he is.
When Van read the “Story of a Soul,” he felt united to what he had already experienced. He was freed from his fear of God.
In Thérèse’s school, he also learned a new way of praying: as a son speaks to his father. All that a child experiences is of interest to a father like God.
Thérèse also revealed his vocation to him: He would not be a priest. Hence, he had to give up the plan of life he had had up to that point.
He sees the ideal of being an apostle of love in a life hidden from the eyes of the world: a life of prayer, of intercession for priests and sinners, for children and for the Church.
According to his expression, he then shared with God “the infinite poverty of Love.”
ZENIT: Marcel Van was a Redemptorist. What does he say to us about the mystery of redemption?
Father Berceville: Marcel Van had the great desire to make God present where he was absent. This was a strong intuition.
During his novitiate, his brothers asked him jokingly if he would like to live with the Communists. He assented. His friends made fun of him.
But he was not joking: He really wanted to love God with the Communists so that at least there would be one person who loved God with those who were “without God.”
He united himself in faith to Christ’s redemptive work, often experiencing great loneliness.
During his years as a postulant and novice, he experienced great intimacy with Christ; later he was to experience temptations, aridity and the [dark] night.
Van also united himself to sinners wherever they were. He lived the night but this night was lived in love.
He felt that this would enable him to transmit the love of Jesus to others. It was his entry into the heart of Christ the Redeemer.
He united himself to Christ in the work of salvation that is still carried out today and he participated in the communion of saints.
ZENIT: During his life, Van received the mission to pray for France. His native Vietnam was going through a turbulent phase (the end of French Indochina). What was his relationship, then, with France and the French?
Father Berceville: Van had a complex relationship with France. In solidarity with his fellow countrymen humiliated by colonization, he was spontaneously anti-French.
However, he did not forget that his Church was born and developed thanks to French missionaries (the action of the Spanish is also present in the North). France was Thérèse’s country. And he received the mission — found in his writings — to pray so that France would be at the service of the love of Jesus.
But I believe that this went beyond the destiny of France alone. It is the destiny of all nations: Every nation has value in God’s eyes.
There is something symbolic in what Van said about relations between Vietnam and France. It is really about the relation between all peoples, nations and cultures. It is a message of peace.
ZENIT: And a universal message?
Father Berceville: Universality isn’t an abstract ideal. In love, there is concrete enrichment of all for all. This is to an extent what Van enables us to experience. He makes us discover, thanks to the Gospel, what should be the meeting between East and West.
His message is very timely. For the first time, we discover a Christian of the Far East who lived his faith intensely, whose message is original and of such magnitude that a French theologian like me begins to study Vietnamese to learn something more of the Gospel.
In the 17th century, Pope Innocent XI, beatified by Pius XII, said: “The East has given us the Gospel. Today, the West must give it back.”
With Van, the East again says something of the Gospel to the West. It is a magnificent example of exchange between two Churches.

[Translation by ZENIT]

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“Marcel Van ou l’infini pauvreté de l’Amour” is available only in French from Emmanuel Publications:

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