Isolation is alarming. In our culture, attuned to constant, immediate, entertaining distractions, the prospect of enforced self-isolation is even more bewildering. How can we cope?
I found myself thinking about Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan (inset). I used to see him around the turn of the millennium, when I was living in Rome. He had been ordained as the bishop of Nha Trang in Vietnam in 1967 and was appointed coadjutor bishop of Saigon in 1975, just days before it fell to the North Vietnamese Army. In August, on the Feast of the Assumption, he was arrested and spent the next thirteen years in prison. On his release, he was still held under house arrest until his expulsion from Vietnam in 1991. For nine of those thirteen years of imprisonment, he was held in solitary confinement. What might he have to teach us?
When Van Thuan left Vietnam, he came to Rome. In 1998, Pope John Paul II appointed him president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and in 2000 he invited him to direct the Spiritual Exercises that members of the Roman Curia make each year at the beginning of Lent. Pope John Paul asked him to draw on his own experience of solitary confinement. His talks were later published as Testimony of Hope.