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Laos: “The Vertebral Column of the Church Is the Suffering of the Small Churches”

By Monsignor Ling Mangkhanekhoun, the Country’s First Cardinal

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“The vertebral column of the Church is the suffering of the small Churches,” said Monsignor Louis Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun, quoting the Pope. Monsignor Ling is Bishop of Pakse and Apostolic Administrator of the diocese of Vientiane, capital of Laos. He will be created Cardinal on June 28, 2017; his name was announced by the Pope, along with that of four others, last May 21, during the Regina Caeli prayer.
The Bishop of Pakse agreed to be interviewed by ZENIT last February, during the Visit ad Limina of the Laotian and Cambodian Bishops to Rome. He described the difficult situation in his country, which lives under a Communist regime, the Church of Laos’ attempt at dialogue with the government, the teaching plans for seminarians and the encouragement that the Asian Bishops received from the Pope at Rome.
“The strength of the Church in the entire world is the suffering of the small Churches,” said Monsignor Ling quoting the Pope’s words, spoken during the homily of January 30, 2017. “He repeated that,” stressed Monsignor Ling. “The strength and power of the Church resides in the small suffering Churches. The Pontiff said this in Saint Martha’s Chapel . . . this was truly an encouragement for us. It’s thanks to the small Churches, to their sufferings, that we live here in tranquillity,” said Francis.
Beatification of Martyrs of Laos
Monsignor Ling believes that “there is a truly theological spirituality” in this message of the Pope, who alluded to the Beatification of 17 martyrs of Laos — of which 11 were French missionaries –, on December 11, 2016, at Vientiane. The Laotian government accepted this Beatification: “For me, it’s still a miracle,” avowed Monsignor Ling. “For that a step was taken, a process to choose the vocabulary, how to present it to the government, so that the government could understand and accept it.”
Filipino Cardinal Orlando Quevedo, OMI, Archbishop of Cotabato, who represented Pope Francis, presided over the Mass of Beatification, in the presence of some 6,000 people, of which 15 were Bishops of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.
“A Cardinal was desired who would represent the Pope, but he should be Asiatic and, above all, as close to us as possible, who understood us. So Cardinal Orlando Quevedo’s name was suggested, because I have known him for some time. I met him at Manila, in Korea and in Vietnam, because in our meetings we are always together . . . He knows our problems, he also has the same problems we have,” explained Monsignor Ling.
“When this was being prepared, a list of guests was drawn up. I presented it to the government to obtain a special visa. The government said: it’s not necessary,” continued Monsignor Ling. Priests came to Laos with a tourist visa, certain Asian Cardinals did not need a visa, “it made it easier for us,” said Monsignor Ling. “From Western Europe there were MEPs (Foreign Missions of Paris), Oblates, because among the martyrs, there were six Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) and five members of the Foreign Mission of Paris, all French. They were murdered, executed or perished from exhaustion during the Communist guerilla between 1954 and 1970.
A representative of the Laos government took part in the celebration. “He was invited. He said something that was very good. Truly, everyone was happy . . . After that, I went with Cardinal Quevedo to thank [the government] for their permission <and> their support,” explained Monsignor Ling. The Bishop of Pakse believes it is “an opening towards dialogue” with the government.
Celebration at Paris: “Pray to Our Martyrs”
There was also a great thanksgiving celebration for this Beatification on February 5, 2017 at Notre Dame of Paris with Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois. Cardinal Vingt-Trois said: ”We must be grateful to those who built the Church with their blood,” added Monsignor Ling.
“It was a thanksgiving, which means: thank you for the depth of the heart. It is said in the Psalms: Let us give thanks to the Lord, because He is good. The word is truly sown in the heart so that it grows and produces,” continued Monsignor Ling.
“Pray to our martyrs, because we need their support now for the Canonization. It is necessary to pray so that there is a miracle, so that one can say: see, that’s a miracle of the martyrs of Laos,” enthused Monsignor Ling. The liturgical feast of the martyrs of Laos  “will be on December 16,” specified the Bishop of Pakse.
Laos, a Different Country
Laos is distinguished from other Asian countries. “Laos is very different. Firstly, the country is under a Communist regime. Hence religious liberty and pastoral activities are restricted,” stressed Monsignor Ling.
There are no media or radio means. “Social activities” are hardly beginning. Catholics of the Vicariate of Thakhek-Savannakhet organized a kindergarten at the Laos Center. “In this Vicariate primary courses are beginning, explained Monsignor LIng, “while elsewhere there is nothing.”
In the four Apostolic Vicariates of Laos (Thakhek-Savannakhet at the Laos Center, Vientiane and Luang Prabang in the North and Pakse in the South) only Catholics of Laotian origin can work; there are no foreign missionaries.
“In Cambodia, there are above all missionaries, especially foreigners. While in Laos they are all Laotians,” he continued. “All the missionaries were thanked and sent back to their countries” in 1975, when Laos became a Socialist State, led by the Popular Revolutionary Party, a unique party of the Marxist-Leninist line.
“We were not prepared” for the departure of some “200 missionaries,” lamented Monsignor Ling. At that time there were “not even twenty Laotian” missionaries “in the whole country.”
Laos has some six million inhabitants, 40-50 thousand of whom are Catholics, more or less, it is said. “One cannot give exact statistics, because there are many problems” in this regard.
In regard to men and women religious, “the most numerous feminine religious Community is that of the Sisters of Charity – more or less fifty, perhaps sixty. After that, there are Sisters Lovers of the Cross; it is the second Community, with about thirty. And then <there are> the others. There are Daughters of Charity, of the Philippines, they are four,” he continued explaining.
“The Laotian government accepts” that the women religious work “in center of re-education of the handicapped. The government accepts it because it is a fact. Another Center is being established in the East, in the province of Sekong, a center of rehabilitation for the handicapped. The Sisters asked to have a chaplain..” The government agreed but said he “must be a Laotian.”
“The same is true for young people. There are at least two Communities openly accepted by the government.” Salesian Sisters of Vietnam were invited to Laos to work with young people. “The Salesians of Vietnam were accepted in Laos. I saw the other day that there are two or three at Thakhek.”
Formation of Future Priests
The formation of future priests is an important problem for Laos. Monsignor Ling sent two seminarians to France, to Ars, but the cultural shock was great for them, it was an “uprooting.” “Yet they are pretty intelligent people; they are very appreciated at the Seminary, to the point that the Superior came to Laos to meet them after their studies,” he revealed.
Monsignor Ling prefers to send the seminarians to Asian countries, such as the Philippines or Vietnam. “The formation in the Philippines is appreciable. There are no language obstacles as everyone speaks English. The teaching is given in English; the preparation of seminarians is done in English.”
In Vietnam, the Catholic Institute opened its doors officially on September 20, 2016. “In 2016 I already began to give courses. However, if you want me to send seminarians or priests . . . it’s necessary to teach them directly in English, because if they are obliged to learn Vietnamese, that takes time . . .  In the beginning, there weren’t priests, but when I said that, Monsignor Ngueng (Monsignor Peter Nguyen Van Nhon, President of the Episcopal Conference of Vietnam, NDLR) was truly enthusiastic.
“The Church of Vietnam has weight, because out of 90-95 million inhabitants, there are at least eight million Catholics. That means that they are 6 to 7%  <of the population> . . . it’s already important,” explained Monsignor Ling.
“If you wish to criticize me, go ahead,” said the Pope
Monsignor Ling also said a few words about the meeting with Pope Francis during the Laotian and Cambodian Bishops’ Visit ad Limina. “This time it was very different compared to the other Visit ad Limina we had on 2007 with Pope Benedict XVI. This time we were all together, we spent all the time together with the Pope. The Pope invited us to speak. He said frankly: “Talk about whatever you wish,  if you want to criticize me also, go ahead. That was a bit strong!” said Monsignor Ling laughing.
Information gathered by Anita Bourdin

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Marina Droujinina

Journalist (Moscow & Brussels). Theology (Brussels, IET).

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