Wednesday, 24 September 2003

Vatican City (Fides Service) – “Our community welcomes as signs of hope its young vocations which will enrich and strengthen the Church in Laos. These young people who want to become priests trace their calling back to World Youth Days in Toronto 2002 and in Rome 2000: during those unforgettable days God called them, through the words of the Pope” said Bishop Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun, Vicar Apostolic of Pakse in southern Laos.
The Bishop says that despite difficulties of all kinds, trusting in Divine Providence, the local Church goes ahead in its pastoral ministry.
“We are a small community, only a few Catholic about 14,000 in my Vicariate assisted by “one and a half priests” as I often say, because I am one of them and the other is a retired elderly priest who cannot move around. We would need at least ten priests but we cannot have the help of missionaries (the government does not allow foreign missionaries to enter the country). It is impossible to care properly for all the faithful: I move around and celebrate Mass in a different parish every Sunday, but most of them take part in Mass only once a month..”
The Church is poor in means and structures: “We have no schools or social centres. But we do have two communities of women religious with 76 sisters who help in parish ministry, holding Liturgies of the Word on the Sundays that I don’t come and also, most important, visiting the sick.”
The Catholic Bishops of Laos, some of whom lived through persecution and prison, come together only a few times in the year. Bishop Ling Mangkhanekhoun says: “We hope for more religious freedom and a better conditions in which to minister. At the moment we feel isolated and in need of everything, especially trained catechists of which we have only 300 for the whole country”.
“However, despite all the difficulties we have a good number of vocations. At present we have 11 seminarians preparing for the priesthood. And they are hope for the future our small community. All of them say their calling was a fruit of their participation, in person or in spirit, at World Youth Days which were experiences of the universal Church. Two of our seminarians Kadam aged 25 and Boualy, aged 22 actually took part in the World Youth Day events in Rome in 2000 and in Toronto in 2002. The Lord spoke to their hearts through the voice of the Holy Father. We hope some of them will be able to go to Germany for the 25th World Youth Day in Germany in 2005.”
A group of 21 young people aged 18 to 39, mostly of Catholic families of Vietnamese origin, accompanied by a priest and two nuns took part in World Youth Day in Rome during the great Jubilee of 2000. They shared their experience with Fides Service: “It was a grace from God. We saw how other young people from different countries live their faith. Here is Laos we live in a Buddhist country but the Christian faith gives us hope of life after death and it teaches is to serve others”.
Independent since 1953 and governed by a communist regime from 1975, only in 1992 Laos started a process of modernisation and opening to a market economy and the rest of the world. The 1991 constitution grants religious freedom but, according to restricted official interpretation it refers to “traditional religions in Laos”, Buddhist and Animist. Many still call Christianity a foreign religion. A 1997 Bill regulates religious freedom: Buddhism is the most widespread and most accepted by the government.
Laos is still considered a mission territory by the Church and it has four Apostolic Vicariates: Pakse, Savannakhet and Thakhet, Vientiane, Luang Prabang.
In the history of evangelisation in Laos it is necessary to distinguish between the north east, traditionally linked with north Vietnam, and the southern Mekong valley. Here in 1895 the first missionaries (French) came from Thailand Paris Foreign Missions priests and they opened a mission in the area which is today the Apostolic Vicariate of Savannakhet and Thakhet. They were followed by Oblates of Mary Immaculate who settled in the Prabang area. In 1975 missionaries were expelled. It is still difficult to have an exact number of Catholics, the last census was taken in 1975. According to the Laotian Bishops there are about 40,000 Catholics among a population of 5.5 million. PA (Fides Service 24/9/2003 EM lines 53 Words 763 )