Vientiane (AsiaNews) Missionaries expelled 30 years ago with no chance of returning; one seminary "well controlled" by the government; "very intense" theology courses because they are secret and last only eight days per year... this is the tough reality facing the Church in Communist Laos. But tomorrow this Church will celebrate because on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, it will ordain a priest after 30 long years. The ordination has been given the green light by the government but the ceremony cannot be public. The man about to be ordained in Vientiane's small Cathedral of the Sacred Heart is Somphone Vilavongsy, a 32-year-old Laotian man who is a missionary of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. "Somphone's ordination will be overshadowed by the government's refusal to allow a public and solemn celebration in his birthplace and mine, which is also the first Christian village of Laos," said a visibly moved Mgr J. Khamsé Vithavong, vicar-general of Vientiane, the first and only Laotian oblate who was ordained on 25 January 1975. "I am about to go to try to wrest permission, but it will be difficult. I will perform the ordination discreetly in Vientiane in the poor, small Cathedral. Pray for us
Since 1975, it is impossible for international, religious institutions to enter and function with foreign members. There are houses of formation for the Lovers of the Cross Sisters (Vietnamese) and the Sisters of Charity of St Jean Antide (French): all are young Laotians. There is a major seminary in Paksé, approved but strictly controlled, with Laotian educators and lecturers. One religious goes to Laos once a year as a tourist and holds a very intense eight-day course in theology.
The Oblates have special ties with Laos. More than 100 of them, especially French and Italians, were missionaries there between 1935 and 1975, the year when the Communists of Pathet Lao came to power. A small but lively community developed and some villages were almost entirely Catholic. During the war, seven Oblates were killed and all the rest were expelled after the Communist victory.
One however stayed behind: Mgr Khamsé Vithavong. Throughout these 30 years, he has worked hard in a very difficult situation. Today he is helped only by an elderly priest, Fr Khamphan. Somphone's deaconate and perpetual vows are a "sign of hope for the future" for the bishop. "God has not forgotten the poor, small and active Church of Laos."
Somphone's family suffered in the war. His father, who was anti-communist, was sentenced to forced labour and forced to leave his Catholic village to set up in a non-Christian one, where he was reunited with his family, composed of his wife, six sons and two daughters. They lived there for a long time. To hear Mass, they had to travel 40km to Vientiane. The children were prepared for their First Holy Communion and Confirmation during the holidays by sisters in Vientiane. In 1988, Somphone went to live near the bishop and he completed his higher studies. For six years, he helped Khamsé in several tasks before deciding to become a priest and leaving for Australia, for the Oblate seminary of St Mary in Melbourne.
Somphone took his perpetual vows as an Oblate of Mary Immaculate on 26 June 2005 in the parish of St John Vianney, Springvale North, in Australia, and he was ordained as deacon on 2 July at Our Lady's, Sunshine. When he took his vows, the Laotian communities of Sydney and Canberra sent a delegation. The Melbourne community helped to organize the event, especially the food. The greatest joy was seeing the arrival from Laos of Bishop Khamsé.
Fr Pricha Thamntyom, superior of the Oblates in Thailand, went to receive the perpetual vows and to deliver the Oblate cross which had belonged to Fr Pierre Chevroulet. It is a tradition among the Oblates to receive the cross which belonged to another priest. Fr Chevroulet was a French missionary who spent many years in Laos before being expelled in 1975. He later worked in Thailand where he died in September last year. Fr Thamntyom took the cross to Australia to deliver it to Somphone. Thus the cross which Fr Pierre was forced to take away with him from Laos will now be returned to that country with Somphone.