Rome (AsiaNews) - Pope Francis has proclaimed the martyrdom of the Servants of God Mario Borzaga, professed priest of the Congregation of the Missionary Oblates of the Blessed Virgin Mary Immaculate (OMI), and catechist Paul Thoj Xyooj, both killed in Laos in the spring of 1960.
For the small Church in the Communist-ruled Asian country, where religious freedom and worship are still restricted, and for the confreres of the missionary who died for his faith, this is a time for celebration.
"Our order had been waiting for this,” said Fr Pasquale Castrilli, an OMI priest and a writer. “We were hoping for a May announcement,” he told AsiaNews, “to coincide with the anniversary of his disappearance."
In April 1960, Fr Borzaga and Paul Thoj Xyooj left on foot to tour parts of northern Laos, a region of mountains and rainforest. Their missionary journey was supposed to last a few weeks.
They were answering a call from Hmong Christians, who were persecuted by the government, in the village of Pha Xoua, near the border with China. The priest was only 28 and Paul was a young catechist, very strong and competent in spite of his 19 years.
According to some reports, the two were intercepted by Communist Pathet Lao guerrillas. Killed without mercy, their bodies were thrown in a mass grave at Muong Met, near Muong Kassy, and never found.
The Brothers chose 1 May as the day of their death, because the murder missionary’s last diary entries end in late April, Fr Castrilli said.
"It is a day of celebration not only for missionaries, but also for everyone who is involved with the Oblate family, especially lay and young people,” he said.
“The missionary youth movement inspired by the Oblate chose Mario Borzaga as their role mode because he died young, because of the ideals he lived by, and because of what he said and wrote in his diary."
Some years ago, a group of "young people sent a series of text messages inspired by his diary” during Lent, Fr Castrilli said.
The recognition of martyrdom is a significant event for the Church of Laos, the OMI missionary added, because religious worship and freedom are still restricted in the country.
“For us, the wound in Laos is still open,” Fr Castrilli said. “The fact that were expelled in 1975 is still a source of pain, 40 years later.”
“It was a very difficult page in missionary life, but the recognition of martyrdom is a source of encouragement for this minority Church, which goes on despite the difficulties."
Father Borzaga was born in Trent (northern Italy) on 27 August 1932. At the age of 11, he entered the minor seminary, first in Drena because of the war, and then in Trent where he pursued his studies until his first theology courses.
At the age of 20, he joined the Congregation of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. On 27 February 1957, he was ordained priest. He received the Obedience for Laos on 2 July 1957, and on 31 October sailed from Naples with a group Italian Oblate missionaries.
After a month, they arrived in Laos. In Paksane, a small town on the Mekong River, the Servant of God spent a year learning Lao to be better able to connect with locals and announce the Good Word.
Towards the end of 1958, he reached the small Christian community in the Hmong village of Kiucatiàm. Here he trained catechists, visited local families, took in and took care of the sick who came in great numbers every day to his door.
On 24 April 1960, after mass, a few Hmong came to ask him again to visit their village of Pha Xoua, which is three days away on foot. The next day, Monday, Father Mario and catechist Thoj Xyooj Paolo left for a trip they would never finish.
Searches carried out after their disappearance yielded nothing. From the beginning witness accounts said the two men were killed by the Pathet Lao. More recent statements confirmed that claim.
Catechist Paul Thoj Xyooj was Lao. Born in Kiukatiàm, northern Laos, in 1941, he was baptised by Fr Yves Bertrais, OMI. In 1955, at the age of 14, he entered the seminary of Paksane, where he was given the Lao name of Khamsé.
He left the seminary for various reasons, including health problems. Back in Kiukatiàm in 1958, he left for Na Vam (northern Laos near the border with China) with Fr Luigi Sion, OMI.
People who knew him remember an open and enthusiastic catechist, a good teacher who was able to convert many.
He left Na Vam for the Catechist School in Louang Prabang, but he did not stay long. Eventually he was back in his village.
He spent his last three months with Father Mario who often wrote about him in his "diary".