30th June 2017 "Our poverty, suffering and persecution are the three columns that strengthen the Church,” said Card Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun, apostolic vicar of Paksé, citing Pope Francis, to explain the reasons that led the pontiff to appoint the first Laotian prelate in the history of the Church.
The first Laotian cardinal talks about his election and the life of the Catholic Church in Laos. The latter endures persecution and bears witness to its faith amid many adversities. It has 45,000 members, 20 priests, 98 religious and 218 parishes. The cardinal was a prisoner of the government for three years. “I accepted it, as it was true. They were right, I was ‘promoting’ Jesus. It was a correct accusation,” he said. The government exercises tight controls over religions. Relations between Church and State are difficult. “We can change the government's way of thinking that we are not its enemy."
On 21 May, at the end of Regina Caeli, the Holy Father announced the unexpected nomination of five new cardinals, including Mgr Ling, who will be elevated in today's consistory.
On 16 and June 17, about 350 Hmong, Kmhmu, Lao and Karen Catholics gathered in Belleville (Illinois, US) to experience and celebrate the 17 martyrs of Laos, their native country, with gratitude and thanksgiving for their exemplary life of faith.
The cardinal attended the event, where he gave an interview to the National Catholic Reporter on his election and on the life of the Catholic Church in Laos.
During the conversation, the prelate expressed his immediate astonishment and the following wave of congratulations from all over the world following his nomination.
Asked about the motives that led the Holy See to choose him, Cardinal Ling said the ad limina visit of the bishops of Laos and the meeting with Pope Francis on 26 January played a role.
"During the visit, the pope told us that the strength of the Church resides in the local Church, especially the Church that is small, the Church that is weak, and the Church that is persecuted. This is the backbone of the universal Church. I was a little puzzled.”
“The next day we celebrated Mass with the Holy Father, and again he reiterated the same theme in his homily. It made me wonder. I came to a conclusion from what he said that the strength of the Church came from patience, perseverance and the willingness to accept the reality of faith. This made me think that our poverty, suffering and persecution are the three columns that strengthen the Church.”
Laos has about 45,000 Catholics, less than 1 per cent of the population of 6.4 million people, served by 20 priests and 98 religious in 218 parishes. In an interview with AsiaNews in 2015, Ling described the Laotian Church as a "baby" church, still growing from the first proclamation, especially among tribals and animists.
The Laotian Church experiences the persecution and bears witness to her faith amid many adversities. After the Communist Pathet Lao took over in 1975, foreign missionaries were expelled and Catholics were persecuted. Priests and monks were imprisoned or sent to re-education camps, including the cardinal.
“I was detained for three years. The arrest and eventually incarceration frightened me in the beginning. I thought to myself, why would they arrest me? Later, they told me the reason for the arrest. ‘You are promoting Jesus Christ.’ “I accepted it, as it was true. They were right, I was "promoting" Jesus. It was a correct accusation.”
Today, Laos has opened up to the outside world. However, despite economic reforms, the country remains poor and dependent on foreign aid.
The government still tightly controls religions and the mass media. The difficult relationship between Church and State, including the ban on Church education, is particularly true at the local level.
“Each region or city carries out this provision of religious liberty differently. Priests can go around to say Mass. At any village that there is already an existing parish or church, there is no problem.
“However, there is a problem if you are building a new church because that is something new. But such a problem can be discussed with local government officials. We need to establish relationship with them and talk with them. It is easy at one place, but might not be easy at another place.”
For the local Catholic community, the appointment of the first Laotian cardinal is a reason to hope in better relations between the Vatican and the Government of Laos.
“Look at the diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Southeast Asian countries. [. . .] Only Laos does not have diplomatic relations with the Holy See,” the cardinal said.
“We can change the government's way of thinking that we are not its enemy. We are a friend. We need to build up friendship. If both parties are working together, we foresee a better relationship ahead.”
With respect to relations with other religions in the Buddhist majority country, “There is no problem with relations with our Buddhist brothers and sisters. But between Catholics and other Christians, there might be some problems,” the cardinal said.
"Each of us has a different way of evangelization. Our Christian brothers may have a developed program of evangelization and can draw a lot of numbers. Our program, on a contrary, is simple and low-key.
“The problem lies between the understanding of tradition and culture. For example, we think a baci ceremony [tying of wrists and praying over someone] is a traditional event of people gathering to pray upon certain individual on a different occasion. Other Christian groups might see such a ceremony as adhering to animism. Well, each one has a different way of thinking on the matter, so a dialogue just does not solve anything.” (Asianews)