Catholics in Laos have welcomed the appointment of the country’s first ever cardinal, in the wake of the government’s warming relations with the Catholic Church. "We are extremely happy to hear that our Bishop Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun has been named as the first ever cardinal in Laos," Martha Le Thi Thuy Hanh from Sacred Heart Parish, in the southern province of Champasak, told UCAN.
In a surprise announcement on Sunday, 21 May, Pope Francis named five new cardinals from around the world, including the lone Asian, Bishop Ling of the Apostolic Vicariate of Paksé. The 73-year old bishop has been heading the vicariate since 30 October 2000, and on Feb. 2, Pope Francis also appointed him Apostolic Administrator of Vientiane. The other cardinals are from Mali, Spain, Sweden and El Salvador. The consistory is scheduled for June 28, the vigil of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul.
Hanh, a cloth trader at a local market, said the parish priest told the congregation about the "great news" during Sunday Mass on the day of the announcement. "As a cardinal, Bishop Ling will have better prospects for developing the local church and integrating it into the international community," she said. The 62-year-old woman hopes the cardinal-designate, who has good relations with communist government authorities, will be able to improve religious freedoms for Catholic communities in the country. She said the government restricts religious activities in many areas of the country. "Soldiers with guns pretend to guard places of worship. They walk around and even enter Christian churches while people gather for services," she said. Hanh said religious congregations are also restricted in giving pastoral care to Catholics.
Dialogue not confrontation
Father Raphael Tran Xuan Nhan of Vinh Diocese in central Vietnam has worked in Laos since 2005. He said the appointment of Bishop Ling as cardinal shows that the Holy See understands the need to support the development of small and impoverished churches in the communist country. "Bishop Ling is a kind, friendly, wise and open-minded man. He is interested in evangelization work and welcomes all foreign missionaries to his country," Father Nhan told UCAN. "Bishop Ling expertly uses dialogue rather than confrontation when addressing church issues and has helped government officials to understand that the Catholic Church is focused on social development," he said.
Inculturation of Gospel
Father Nhan explained that the cardinal-elect has worked hard to integrate Christian values into Laotian cultures and traditions so that the church can live in harmony with the Buddhist-majority nation. The future cardinal has also worked to improve the conditions for the restoration of Legion of Mary groups across Laos since 2005. "Five hundred Legion of Mary members teach catechism to Catholics and converts in the communities, bring Communion to the sick, and do other pastoral work," Father Nhan said.
Cardinal-designate Ling is an ethnic Khamu, a hill tribe from northern Laos and southern China. He studied at Voluntas Dei Institute in Canada before he was ordained as a priest in 1972. In 2000, he was made Apostolic Vicar of Pakse. From Dec. 2000 to 2014, he served as the president of the Bishops’ Conference of Laos and Cambodia, known by its French acronym CELAC.
Warming Church-state relations
The Beatification ceremony of the 17 martyrs of Laos on Laotian soil, in the capital Vientiane, on 11 December, is an indication of warming relations between the state and the Catholic Church in the communist nation. The group of 17 martyrs known as “Joseph Tien and his 16 companions” died for their faith in the last century at the hands of Communist Pathet Lao forces. In the first rows of the beatification ceremony were representatives of the government and delegates of religions recognized in Laos, including Protestants and Muslims. Papal envoy, Philippine Cardinal Orlando Quevedo, Archbishop of Cotabato and 15 other bishops from Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam and other heads of religious congregations led the ceremony.
The Catholic Church in the south-east Asian nation does not have fully fledged dioceses, only four apostolic vicariates - Luang Prabang, Paksé, Savannakhet and Vientiane. Catholics number some 45,000, about 1 percent of an estimated 7 million population, mostly Buddhist. There are only 4 bishops, 2 of them retired. The faithful are served by 21 Lao priests and deacons and a few dozen nuns.
Foreign missionaries were expelled and Catholics persecuted after Pathet Laos communists took over the country in 1975. (Source. UCAN/…)