Father Gregoire van Giang was with Nguyen Tuong Van during the last minutes before his execution for drug trafficking. "Rejoice with me," he would say "I have found my sheep that was lost." In the same way, I tell you, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety nine virtuous men who have no need of repentance." (Luke 15:4-7)
SINGAPORE - "I don't want you all to be sad [and] there's no need to blame anyone." This was the final message Nguyen Tuong Van had asked Sister Gerard Fernandez, rgs, to share with the congregation that he believed would assemble later that day at his funeral Mass. Sister Gerard, Coordinator for the Roman Catholic Prisons Ministry, was with him that Dec 2 morning, the day of his execution at Changi prison for drug trafficking.
He was aged 25. Nguyen had wanted to thank everyone for all their prayers, caring and love, Sister Gerard told the almost 400 people gathered at the Good Shepherd Convent at Marymount, Thomson Road, for Nguyen's funeral Mass just hours after he was executed. He had requested the congregation to celebrate that he had gone to meet the Lord in a peaceful and happy way, Sister Gerard continued.
This proved too much for some in the congregation to bear and many wept openly. Father Gregoire van Giang, from Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, recalled how Nguyen was smiling and joyful even in the last minutes of his life.
He spoke of how touched he was by Nguyen's readiness and zeal in the faith. "His last words to me were, "This is just a goodbye. I'm going to our Father's house and I expect us to see each other again'," he said. Father Gregoire had visited Nguyen in prison for the last three years and had baptised him on Aug 17, 2004, on his 24th birthday.
He was at the execution. "I am very proud of his strong faith," Father Gregoire added. "He told me, "If I have the opportunity, I will dedicate my life to go all over the world to share my experience with all the youths'".
Father Gregoire addressed Nguyen's Vietnamese family and friends in their native language before finally exhorting all present to "Celebrate! Celebrate his new life!"
The atmosphere was emotionally charged as the congregation attempted to do just that despite their grief. This ability to mourn and rejoice at the same time was nothing short of a "mystery of our faith" said Father Paul Pang, CSsR in his homily. "In the flesh we mourn, but in the spirit we rejoice!" We rejoice for Nguyen, who had come to believe in Jesus as his Lord, he said. Father Pang told the congregation how Nguyen was called to be baptised a year ago, when Sister Gerard Fernandez had held his hand and sang the "Ave Maria" on a visit.
This gesture moved him so profoundly that he started to cry and asked to be baptised as a Catholic. Nguyen took the name Caleb at his baptism, after a biblical figure in the Book of Numbers who had invincible faith in God's promise that he would give the Promised Land to his people, despite obstacles that seemed to loom threateningly. "Even before today, our brother Caleb had through faith reconnoitered the Promised Land, not of Canaan but of heaven. Caleb, by his faith and courage in the face of death, like the biblical Caleb after whom he is named, is urging us not to be afraid to enter into eternal life," Father Pang said.
He remembered Nguyen's mother, Kim, in his homily as he gently comforted her and urged her on to approach Mary, the Mother of Sorrow. "No one can fully feel with you, your sorrow"¦ except another mother, Mother Mary. She understands fully your pain," Father Pang spoke.
Although Kim had suffered much through Nguyen's last days, she appeared collected through the Mass. As the congregation bade farewell to Nguyen, they were reminded not to take too long so that she could spend a little more time with her son. Where the media had carried the much-debated issue of the death penalty before, there was no mention of it at the Mass.
As Father Pang said, the people were gathered simply to celebrate Nguyen's conversion to become a better man in Christ. An observer noted that Nguyen has fulfilled the lyrics to his favourite song that was played - "Better Man" by Robbie Williams. One can almost imagine him singing as the words echoed through the chapel, "As my soul heals the shame, I will grow through this pain. Lord, I'm doing all I can, to be a better man."