Vatican City (AsiaNews) - The Church of Laos is a “baby” Church, still growing from the first who proclamation, made especially among tribal animists. Msgr. Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun, apostolic vicar of Pakse, in the far south of the country, is in Rome taking part in the ongoing Synod on the mission of the family. His territory, which spans one million inhabitants, has only 14,500 Catholics. Throughout Laos, a nation with about 6 million people, only 45,000 are members of the Catholic Church.
Msgr. Ling says taking part in the synodal assemblies helps him to experience the universality of the Church. He finds it especially important to educate the faithful to understand and live the sacraments, not reducing them to rites and ceremonies. In his pastoral work, he deals with different polygamous families who, moreover, live in love and harmony. Families are supported and evangelized by catechists (married) and seminarians (few: only 8) who are asked to go to the mountain villages and live there, sharing the day to day life with the people, offering the service of charity and faith. Below an interview with the bishop (BC).
Your Grace, what has your experience of the Synod been so far?
This is my third Synod. My first was in 2008, then in 2014 and in 2015. In 2008 the theme was the Word of God. The one last year and this are on the family. This universal atmosphere is very different from the local one. Laos is bordered to the east by Vietnam, a communist country; to the north by China, also Communist ... We must dance between our Big Chinese Brother and Little Vietnamese brother! In any case, for a Catholic, as part of a universal body, it is very easy to integrate.
What are the most important Synod themes to emerge?
Overall, I believe that the biggest difficulty is the difference between people and their understanding of what a sacrament is. We tend to distinguish between liturgy and sacrament, between the apparatus and mystical experience. But how do you distinguish? For example, when a child is born to a family, everyone immediately thinks about the child’s baptism, the rite, but without preparation. We must educate more.
Then, in Laos we also have big issues related to mixed marriages and inconsistency in worship. But what makes me happy in this edition of the Synod is that one fundamental theme has not been overlooked: that is polygamy.
There are two types of polygamy: "contemporary" polygamy, which is having more than one wife at the same time; and "consequential" polygamy, which is having one wife after the other. This is present in many African and Asian cultures. The problem is when one of these polygamous men become Catholic. Usually a pastoral indication is that the man chooses one wife with whom to live, but helps the others economically. Moreover, from a legal perspective, all of the children and wives belong to him. This creates unrest and poverty.
But there is another aspect: usually, the new wife joins the family with the consent of the first wife. If you convert to Catholicism, the problem becomes that the decision to have another wife had been taken by both, by mutual agreement ... And the Church must ask them to break their bond with the second ... It's a question I ask myself: have we the right?
What can the Church in Laos contribute to the synod?
The Laotian Church is a "baby" church, it’s very small. In any case in many parts of the country there are people who are converting, especially among the tribal mountain. What drives them to become Catholic? The fact that they are animists. Their religion is very expensive. They have to offer sacrifices of animals continuously and this impoverishes them in no time. So they try to leave behind these beliefs as soon as they can.
However, I am convinced that we are at the beginning of a change and rebirth. Currently there are no more foreign missionaries and we must lead the Church with our own hands. We try to do what we can. For example for vocations: we cultivate them from scratch.
When I arrived in Pakse I had "a priest and a half", one active, another already retired and very old. Now after so many years of work - 14 to be precise - there are six priests. Now we are beginning to experience life as a basic ecclesial community with these priests.
Sometimes I can go to Vietnam and I am amazed because they have the opposite problem: the difficulty of educating because they have too many vocations!
In the diocese of Vinh, for example, they have 170 seminarians in the seminary, but there are many who would like to enter. Unfortunately, the diocese lacks the energy - economic and personal - to do it. If they could take in everyone there would be 400 seminarians!
The positive thing is that we have married catechists who are true missionaries, who go to live in the villages and become the "roots" of evangelization. They go, live, they begin to build bonds ...
We offer this experience to the seminarians. Seminary students must study three years, then they must stop for at least a year, up to three years to mature in their decision, but also for pastoral experience as catechists, carrying medicines, aid, prayers for the people of the mountain. They integrate with the villagers, live as the villagers do in everything.
We now have 8 major seminarians. They are very dedicated to the people, to the families. Through this sharing we make our most important contribution, that is the faith.