PAKSE, Laos (UCAN) – With Father Andrew Souksaveth's ordination on Dec. 30, the number of priests in Laos had increased 30 percent in one year.
Father Souksaveth, 35, was ordained in Khampeng village in Pakse, one of the four vicariates that cover the country. He is the first native Pakse priest in half a century.
Father Souksaveth's ordination followed those of two other priests on Dec. 9 for Savannakhet vicariate and a Laotian Oblate priest a few months earlier in Vientiane. A senior priest, citing the ordinations, described 2006 as a "blessed year for the Laotian church."
The local church now has 15 priests and three bishops. Luang Prabang vicariate is headed by its lone priest, who is based in Vientiane. It has had no bishop since its apostolic vicar at the time, a foreigner, was expelled from the country in 1975, when the current communist regime came to power.
Bishop Louis Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun, apostolic vicar of Pakse in southern Laos, presided at the Dec. 30 ordination, which 1,500 Catholics attended from across the country. Guests came from Canada, France and Thailand.
Also present was Bangkok-based Archbishop Salvatore Pennacchio, who serves as nuncio to Cambodia, Singapore and Thailand, and as apostolic delegate to Brunei, Laos, Malaysia and Myanmar.
Bishop Ling, during the ordination Mass, highlighted that Pakse had not had an ordination from within the vicariate in about 50 years. The priests working there have all hailed from other vicariates, he explained.
Stressing the importance of church growth in Laos, where religious activities virtually ceased after 1975, Bishop Ling said priests and Religious were nurtured in their vocation by parents and families. "So the family is the base of faith for the young," he said.
The bishop added: "The first superiors of a seminarian or Religious are the parents. If you want to have more priests or religious in our church, you should be good 'superiors' to your children and set good examples for them."
After the 1975 communist takeover, many local priests were imprisoned or sent to labor camps. Only in 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, did Laos launch a series of socioeconomic reforms and allow limited freedom of religion, with some churches being reopened or built.
According to a local priest, relatives and villagers were happy that they could offer Father Souksaveth, whom they consider a fellow Khampeng villager, to serve God in the church. The village is about 30 kilometers from Pakse town, which is 465 kilometers (about 290 miles) southeast of Vientiane.
The ordination was held in the village because it has a large Catholic population and Father Souksaveth has relatives there, the priest told UCA News. He said Father Souksaveth was born in Pakse but lived as a child in Khampeng village.
The new priest, who will be based in Pakse town, told UCA News he will be in charge of eight villages, but these do not include Khampeng. He will travel to the villages to visit parishioners and offer Mass.
Pakse vicariate borders Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, and covers four provinces. It has 49 Catholic villages, 120 catechists and, now, four priests and a bishop. Villages are remote and not easily accessible, which hampers pastoral work, as does the small number of priests. It is not uncommon for special feasts such as Easter and Christmas to be celebrated in remote Catholic villages weeks late.
According to church data, Laos has about 35,000 Catholics, less than 1 percent of the country's 5.6 million people, most of whom are Buddhists.
Republished by Catholic Online with permission of the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News), the world's largest Asian church news agency (www.ucanews.com).