ROME, Feb. 25--Standing in a church built over the graves of two 4th century Christian martyrs, Edward Cardinal Egan spoke about a modern-day martyr who had received a red hat alongside him earlier in the week--a heroic new cardinal believed by some to be a leading candidate for the next papacy.

Francis Xavier Nguyen Cardinal Van Thuan, now 73, refused to leave his post as the Bishop of Saigon when South Vietnam fell to the communists. They jailed Van Thuan because he was a Catholic, and when someone sent him fish wrapped in pages from a Catholic magazine, the communists threw him in solitary confinement. For nine grueling years.

After enduring a total of 13 years in prison, Van Thuan was set free in 1987, but kept under house arrest. In 1991 he was expelled by the Vietnamese government and moved to the Vatican to work for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which he now heads.

To this day, Van Thuan wears a cross around his neck carved from the wood of his prison cell. Said Egan of his brother cardinal: "He professed the faith, we can safely say, with his blood."

One would never know from meeting Cardinal Van Thuan what this gentle old man suffered. He is sweet, grandfatherly and utterly serene. At a reception in his honor, I asked him how he managed to live through prison camp without losing his faith, his mind or his compassion.

"I received grace from God. For myself alone, I am very weak," he said softly. "And it is thanks to my prayers, and the prayers of the people of the Church."

Despite brutal confinement, Van Thuan managed to say daily Mass in his cell.

"I celebrated the Eucharist every day with three drops of wine and one drop of water from my hand," he said. "People outside once sent me the wine as medicine against stomach disease, so I had to save it."

With the help of a 7-year-old boy, Van Thuan smuggled his first book, "The Road to Hope," out of prison, one page at a time.

"Tell your readers," said the cardinal, "never to forget that so many of their brothers and sisters in other countries are suffering for their faith, even unto death."

People who know him say Van Thuan's shy manner and simple speech belie his intelligence, courag, and understanding--something that the pope, in making him a cardinal, clearly grasps.

"He is not an operator. What has come to him has come to him simply because that authenticity radiates out of him," said Fr. Robert Sirico, a friend and head of Michigan's Acton Institute. "He's just an inspiration to people who see him and hear his story."

Van Thuan has written scores of books, and recently went head-to-head in a public forum with Bill Gates, telling the Microsoft chairman that globalization can be a force for good only if it leaves no one behind.

Van Thuan addressed the growing gap between rich and poor in the Lenten retreat the pontiff asked him to prepare for the Roman Curia last year. The retreat notes have been published as "Testimony of Hope," a book that provides insight into the social concern, personal holiness and plainspoken profundity of the man who could be the next pope.

Is Cardinal Van Thuan "popeable"? Insiders say yes, and here's why:

He speaks several languages, a must in the contemporary world. He comes from a Third World country, where Catholicism is rapidly growing. He has proven his faith through suffering. He teaches in a way that ordinary people can understand. And he is not young--an advantage if cardinal electors feel the Church is not ready for another long papacy.

And, said Sirico, the cardinals may wish to complement John Paul's extraordinary teaching pontificate by choosing a successor whose emphasis would be more purely pastoral, one whose life exudes sanctity.

"This man does that," says Sirico. "He is a saint. He is a wise man. He has the prudence and capability to be a pope."

"He would be a very great pope," said Phong Dam, who traveled from Atlanta to be with Van Thuan for his elevation. "But only God knows if it will happen."

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