Laotian bishop surprised to be named cardinal

Cardinal-elect Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun (Peter Tran)

Belleville, Ill. — Cardinal-elect Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun, apostolic vicar of Pakse and apostolic administrator of Vientiane, Laos, has been caught in a whirlwind since the "surprise" announcement by Pope Francis on May 21 to make the Laotian bishop a new cardinal.

The last official engagement on Ling's list was the thanksgiving celebration of the 17 martyrs of Laos on June 16-17 at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Illinois. The 17 martyrs, known as "Joseph Thao Tien and his 16 companions," were beatified Dec. 11, 2016, at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Vientiane, Laos' capital.

There are about 45,000 Catholics in Laos, less than 1 percent of about 7 million people. Foreign missionaries were expelled and Catholics persecuted after Pathet Laos communists took over the country in 1975. Priests and monks were jailed or sent to re-education camp.

Today, Laos has opened to the outside world. However, regardless of economic reforms, the country still remains poor and dependent on foreign aid. The government also exercises strict control over mass media.

The cardinal-elect had a few stops in the United States before flying to Rome for the consistory on June 28. He is then scheduled to go to France, before heading back to Laos in July.

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It took him a few days before the reality of the announcement from Rome started to sink in, said Ling, an ethnic Kmhmu. Besides Kmhmu, he can also speak Lao, French and English. This interview, which was conducted in Lao, covers the surprise news, his first reactions and thoughts on why Francis elected him, the relationship between the church and government, and the martyrs of Laos. It has been edited for length and clarity.

NCR: Cardinal-elect Ling, when did you hear about the appointment?

Ling: I really had no idea. All of a sudden, I got a phone call from a former student. He said congratulations on your election to be a cardinal. I told him not to tease your elder [grandfather]. It is not right. I didn't believe him at that time, which was after dinner on Sunday [May 21]. I was in Pakse at that time.

Afterward, I received another phone call from a religious sister, who also said congratulations to my appointment. I said, "Are you crazy?"

"No," she replied.

Then I asked who else were elected. She said there were five people and you were the fourth one. I started to believe her just a little.

The phone calls never stopped for two or three days. Emails started pouring in. Then I went to check the internet to see if that was really me and my name. Maybe they may have misread my name. As you know, my last name, Mangkanekhoum [MANG-KHA-NE-KHUN], is difficult to say.

A day later, the nuncio [Archbishop Paul Tschang In-Nam, apostolic delegate to Laos] and the official of Propaganda Fide also called to congratulate me. With their calls, I started to feel a little positive about the news. Later, I came up to Vientiane for business. Msgr. Banchong [Tito Banchong Thopanhong, apostolic administrator of Luang Prabang] and I had to apply for a visa.

By then, everyone, including church people from Thailand, Italian missioners and sisters, wanted to see me in Vientiane. Everyone now knows about the news. What can you do when the news is public? I guess I can't refuse this appointment.

What was your reaction? How did you feel?

Like I said earlier, I felt it was not real, as I didn't think it was serious. I thought they were teasing me. I was not frightened. I didn't really feel anything, as I didn't think it was true. I thought with such an appointment some officials might have called me first.

When I went to Bangkok to have dinner with the two cardinals of Bangkok [retired archbishop Cardinal Michai Kitbunchu and current archbishop Cardinal Kriengsak Kovithavanij], they told me of the same experience, that when the pope selected somebody — he just selected them and made the announcement later. It was the pope's own decision. After hearing from the "cardinals from the upper class," I then felt at peace.

It was such a hectic time with people from Canada, France and all over calling and emailing, expressing their best wishes. It took me weeks to answer all of them. In return, I asked them to pray for me.

Why do you think Pope Francis named you a cardinal?

When we went for an ad limina visit [on Jan. 26], nobody would have thought about this. However, during the visit, the pope told us that the strength of the church resides in the local church, especially the church that is small, the church that is weak, and the church that is persecuted. This is the backbone of the universal church. I was a little puzzled.

The next day we celebrated Mass with the Holy Father, and again he reiterated the same theme in his homily. It made me wonder. I came to a conclusion from what he said that the strength of the church came from patience, perseverance and the willingness to accept the reality of faith. This made me think that our poverty, suffering and persecution are the three columns that strengthen the church.

So, you think that was the reason the pope chose you from this poor, suffering and persecuted church?

Those were his remarks.

How did the government react to your appointment?

At this time, there has been no reaction from the government. There is no official and direct statement. I don't know if the government understands the significance of the cardinalate, what it means to them, its duty and its responsibility within the church. ...

However, there is a request for an appointment. There are Catholics who hold higher positions in the government. They sent me an invitation to talk to them. ... I would be happy to accept the invitation. I would like to find ways to cooperate and have better relations with the government directly.

After the communist takeover in 1975, Msgr. Banchong was detained or "re-educated" for more than nine years. How many years were you detained and how was your reaction?

I was detained for three years. The arrest and eventually incarceration frightened me in the beginning. I thought to myself, why they would arrest me? Later, they told me the reason for the arrest. "You are promoting Jesus Christ."

I accepted it, as it was true. They were right, I was "promoting" Jesus. It was a correct accusation.

How is the church-government relationship now? How difficult is it to provide pastoral care to parishioners? How difficult is it to evangelize? Are there restrictions in church activities?

At the central and department level, there is no problem. However, the problem lies with the regional and city governments. It is like that throughout the country, because the working relations between central and regional governments do not run smoothly. ...

[Regarding the pastoral work of evangelization and pastoral care], yes, it was forbidden to teach about Jesus. There are provisions that forbid the work of spreading the teaching of Jesus.

But in reality, sometimes they are not carried out. It depends on each region. In some regions, there is no problem in carrying out the work of evangelization by catechists and pastoral care. In another region, there might be some difficulties. Then at another region, it is outright dangerous.

Basically, each region or city carries out this provision of religious liberty differently. Priests can go around to say Mass. At any village that there is already an existing parish or church, there is no problem.

However, there is a problem if you are building a new church because that is something new. But such a problem can be discussed with local government officials. We need to establish relationship with them and talk with them. It is easy at one place, but might not be easy at another place. Most importantly now, when we want to build a new foundation, we must know the language and the system. We must talk with local government officials and make it acceptable to both parties.

You are here in the United States for the thanksgiving celebration of the 17 martyrs. How does the Pathet Laos government give permission for the celebration when the martyrs have died by the hands of the communists? Don't they feel offended?

We do not focus on the fact that our martyrs perished by the hands of the communists. In fact, not all of them were killed by the communists. There were other reasons.

In any case, we asked the Lao government to have a beatification ceremony in our own country. They gave us permission to mark this event. What does this approval mean? It means that at least the government saw that we have a need to build a basic foundation for church-government relations.

That is the reason why we do not use the term martyrs. We used a better and right word to describe these martyrs. We call them the "ancestors of the faith." Truly, this is the most appropriate term. If we don't have the ancestors of faith, then there are no martyrs. Everyone can accept this term. ...

I believe not only the government but everyone would accept this as normal — a celebration of gratitude for our ancestors of faith. This is our logic, which is acceptable by the government. We are not opposing the government at all.

With you joining as a member of the College of Cardinals, Laos is now, in a way, on the map. What do you wish to see develop regarding church-government relations in Laos?

Our country has now moved forward. It has widely opened up. Truly, at times the government would come up with laws and orders that are narrow in scope. But nonetheless, it can be said that it is flexible.

Look at the diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Southeast Asian countries. Myanmar now has diplomatic relations with the Holy See, as a result of the meeting of Aung San Suu Kyi and Pope Francis recently. Vietnam, which already established its relationship with the Holy See, is in the process of having a nuncio living in Hanoi. Thailand and Cambodia also have diplomatic relations. Only Laos does not have diplomatic relations with the Holy See. There is a question mark on this relationship and I have been working on the matter. ...

We can change the government's way of thinking that we are not its enemy. We are a friend. We need to build up friendship. If both parties are working together, we foresee a better relationship ahead.

In a country of 45,131 Catholics among 6.4 million people, who are served by 20 priests, 98 male and female religious in 218 parishes — is there an effort to work on pastoral priorities? What about the work of catechists?

The one important collaboration is in Thakhek, because that's where we have the major seminary. We are helping each other to build it up. In the beginning, it was not well-developed. The curriculum and courses are not well-organized because the seminary professors cannot fully give their time to the program. The Thai teachers were not as committed. They were asked to teach seven days, but they taught only three days. We then decided to use personnel from the [Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate] and [the Paris Foreign Mission Society]. They teach in Lao. We have about 15 major seminarians this year.

On the catechists, I have always been involved with them. I was the director of a catechist training school prior to my incarceration. After my release, I continued the work in Paksan and later in Pakse when I was appointed as apostolic vicar there.

Although I do not directly run the program now, I still give orientation to them. I have never abandoned this ministry. Now, as Vientiane administrator, there are more catechists there, both old and young people. We don't have a school anymore because it is hard to have a program with a director running it and setting up the formation. We have implemented a new system with a series of sessions. We've got them to come in for each session, making easy on us financially.

Catholics make up a small percentage of the total population. The majority of people are Buddhists. The Asian bishops once set interreligious dialogue as one of their priorities. Could you talk about the interreligious situation in your vicariate?

There is no problem with relations with our Buddhist brothers and sisters. But between Catholics and other Christians, there might be some problems. Each of us has a different way of evangelization. Our Christian brothers may have a developed program of evangelization and can draw a lot of numbers. Our program, on a contrary, is simple and low-key.

The problem lies between the understanding of tradition and culture. For example, we think a baci ceremony [tying of wrists and praying over someone] is a traditional event of people gathering to pray upon certain individual on a different occasion. Other Christian groups might see such a ceremony as adhering to animism. Well, each one has a different way of thinking on the matter, so a dialogue just does not solve anything.

[Peter Tran is a former editor of the Union of Catholic Asian News in Bangkok. He was involved for some 20 years with the refugee ministry in the United States and the Vatican. He is now assistant director of the Redemptorist Renewal Center in Tucson, Arizona.]

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