by Paolo Affatato
Paksè (Agenzia Fides) - "The missionary spirit, the missionary practice of going to the villages and visiting Catholic families, or talking about Jesus to those who do not know him, with joy in the heart - and with a lot of tiredness because you on foot or by motorbike in forest or mountain areas - I can say with sincerity that this is a peculiar characteristic of being Christian in Laos, in this small country in Southeast Asia. When I think about my life as a baptized person, then as a priest and now as a bishop, well it has always been missionary, always dynamic, never still. Always on the move to bring the Gospel to every creature. In Laos, we do not know how to do otherwise. Our life is missionary every day and in every circumstance. Simple, with few means, but with the great joy of being like that. In this sense I can say that we are in deep harmony and we put into practice, in our being Church, the words that Pope Francis gave us in Evangelii Gaudium".
The Vicar Apostolic of Paksé, Bishop Andrew Souksavath Nouane Asa (50), speaks to Fides at the end of October, the month of World Mission, about his special missionary experience.
He identifies some of the essential aspects and special features of the religious life of the "little flock" of Lao believers, which is truly one of the most remote and mysterious peripheries of the Catholic Church in the world. One is confronted with the persistent isolation, which has only recently been changed by a new policy of opening to the outside world, and with communication difficulties that still exist in the country ruled by a communist party. In a country that counts 51,000 Catholics out of 7.3 million inhabitants and is divided into four Apostolic Vicariates (Vientiane, Paksè, Luang Prabang, Savannakhet), this experience, in its simplicity and immediacy, has a universal and paradigmatic value for all Catholic communities.
The Apostolic Vicar tells the story of his vocation: "I was born in 1972 in the town of Paksè, near the bishop's house, into a Catholic family. My mother and father had met missionaries in the past and were baptized. My grandfather took care of the French fathers of the Paris Foreign Missions (MEP), prepared food for them and helped them with their pastoral service. My parents were very religious. We attended mass every Sunday and then talked about the Word of God. My mother would always ask me: What did the priest say in the homily? What word from the Gospel remained in your heart? We then prayed at home. The seed of faith grew in me. I began to serve at the altar. And I accompanied the priest, who went to the villages to administer the sacraments, speak and visit the families in the vicariate. This missionary work really inspired me. My priestly vocation was imbued with the missionary spirit of going out, meeting the poorest people far away, to comfort them and do them good".
The Vicar continues: "The priest sometimes asked: Who will continue this work? I asked myself that too. The call of God to the priesthood was already looming in my heart, but without much clarity. Certainly, this missionary impulse of giving oneself to others attracted me. One fine day he asked me: What do you want to be? How do you want to help the church? Do you want to be a catechist, teacher or priest? I said: 'Here I am' and chose to begin a study experience in the minor seminary. When I was about 16 years old, I first lived in the bishop's house. I studied, followed the priest, saw his life, and that gave me joy and peace. These were signs of God's work in my heart. "After two years, when I graduated from high school, I got a government scholarship to continue my university studies in Laos and teach English. My education continued".
"In the meantime", he says, "I saw the work of priests and religious sisters, who were few for a large area. After graduating from high school, the French bishop and missionary Pierre-Antonio-Jean Bach (MEP), former Vicar Apostolic of Savannakhet, who often visited us in Paksè, suggested that he help me go to Canada to study, to complete my studies towards priesthood. After receiving government approval, I studied philosophy and theology in Vancouver and then at St. Joseph Seminary in Edmonton. Thanks to financial support from the Edmonton community, I was able to complete my studies. I will forever be grateful to them for that. During my studies I met good priests who inspired my path".
After studying, he returned to his home country: "I returned to my country with joy. I wanted to contribute as much as possible. In 2006 I was ordained a priest in Kamphaeng, the village where my family was born, in the parish of St. Joseph, near Paksè, where 300 Catholic families live. Missionaries, nuns and believers were present at the celebration: "It was a great celebration, a great gift from God".
"And so", he continues, "I began my life as a parish priest. In 2006 there were only three priests in the Vicariate, one of whom was very old. We were entrusted with the care of the Catholics scattered throughout the area, which at that time numbered about 17,000 people. I was assigned about 10 mission stations. I came and went from the villages where the Catholics met, even in some hard-to-reach places in the mountains or in the forests. In some places there were 20 Catholic families, in others 50. I was always on the move! Today the work has not changed: there are 64 mission stations in the Vicariate of Paksè, sometimes with small wooden chapels for worship. There, indigenous families gather to pray and hear the Word of God, often led by a catechist. The work I carry out, then as now, is to celebrate baptisms, confirmations and masses and to conduct catechesis in collaboration with the catechists, of whom there are one or two per mission station. The catechists are still very important today because they regularly follow the religious life of the people in the villages. They are the constant reference point," he explains.
"My task yesterday and today is to stop, listen and be with people," emphasizes Bishop Andrew Souksavath Nouane Asa, "I have always lived the joy of service. I experienced affection, human warmth, welcome, I felt at home in every village. Who am I, why do they treat me with such kindness and care, I asked myself. They are natives, farmers, uneducated people but with light in their eyes. People who resist in the face of difficulties and trust in God. People who live their faith as a treasure that they keep in their hearts, and this is what they have done in the difficulties and persecutions of the past".
"Life as a parish priest was always in motion: worship, prayer, sacraments," he reports, and from year to year the freedom of action granted by the government also grew: "Today we can move freely and only ask for permission for large gatherings of people, there are no difficulties or obstacles in daily service".
After he became bishop, "I still had a lot to learn," he says. The episcopal ordination also took place on the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, August 15, 2022, in the church of “St. Joseph” in the village of Kamphaeng, about 30 kilometers north of the city of Paksé. "It is the parish where I grew up. The bishops of Laos and Cambodia came, and the Apostolic Delegate of the Holy See, Archbishop Paul Tschang In-Nam, was also there. I am under the protection of Mary. I felt "I was accompanied and supported by the community."
Today the parish has expanded to include the entire vicariate, which extends across four civil administrative provinces in southern Laos. "We now have 22,000 believers and 10 priests, all from the region. From time to time, missionaries from abroad or from Vientiane come to visit us. They help us, and female religious communities such as the Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent and
and of the Lovers of the Holy Cross are represented in the Vicariate. We have over 100 catechists: what a great strength and what a great gift! Many are young. They are our hope and they live in different places in the region. Fourr parishes were created, one in the city, three in the rregion. And then, as already mentioned, more than 64 missionary stations".
Bishop Andew invited the priests of the Vicariate to live with him in Paksè: "We live together to be a priestly brotherhood and also because the priests in the more distant places have difficulty in daily living and do not have the right support. We see that, as priests, we all benefit from sharing and living in community," he states.
As for vocations to the priesthood, the future looks bright in the Paksè region: "There are already two deacons preparing for the priesthood and 12 young seminarians in Savannakhet. There is hope, the Lord warms hearts. Also younger boys ask to come and stay with us. We try to welcome them and accompany them on their journey of faith. We are a small church that lives a synodal experience in its everyday life. We listen to everyone and thus strengthen the community and the sense of community. The Holy Spirit manifests himself and the Lord never ceases to amaze us. It is good to meet him and entrust yourself to Him". (Agenzia Fides, 28/10/2023)