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Newest Cardinal Is Part of Oblate Family

 Alejandro Calderon
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Technically, Cardinal Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun of Laos is not a Missionary Oblate. In reality, he has been part of the Oblate family since birth.

“Since my Baptism there has always been an Oblate in my life,” said Cardinal Ling. “I have been formed by them. My inheritance of spirituality and the spirit of service comes from them.”

On May 21, 2017 Pope Francis named the little known bishop from Laos as a cardinal. At the time Cardinal Ling was serving as the Apostolic Vicar of Pakse and Apostolic Administrator of Vientiane. He became the first cardinal ever from Laos, a Communist country where Catholics have been persecuted for generations. There are only about 45,000 Catholics in the entire country, and there are no dioceses. To have the Pope name a Laotian cardinal surprised everyone, especially the recipient of the honor.

“Somebody called me to the phone and said ‘congratulations Bishop, you have been chosen a cardinal by the Pope!’ I said, ‘I don’t believe you.’ I thought he was teasing me. However, immediately after that first call there were many other calls and then I thought maybe it is true. Then I checked the internet to see if that was really me and there I found my name.”

Cardinal Ling was born in Bonha-Louang, Laos in 1944. He was baptized and educated by Oblate priests from France. His mother was a convert to Catholicism and the family was very poor.

“I remember that I was never able to pay my school fees,” said Cardinal Ling. “Therefore the Oblates who were my parish priests took care of that. I learned from them that spreading of the Gospel is not just by words. It is the testimony of your own life. These Oblate missionaries were very good examples of that. I asked myself always ‘why did they do all these things?’ But after some time I told myself something else, ‘You do the same.’ What the Oblate missionaries did for me was to put into my head the conviction that I must be at the service of the people.”

Cardinal Ling studied for the priesthood at a seminary founded by the Oblates in the city of Parksane. As the war in Vietnam escalated and spilled into Laos, Catholics became targets of the Communists. Six Oblates would be killed by the Communists, including the parish priest who inspired Cardinal Ling as a boy. The young seminarian was sent to Canada to study at the Voluntas Dei, an institute founded by another Oblate, Father Louis-Marie Parent, O.M.I. Eventually, he would be ordained a priest in the Voluntas Dei community.

In 1970, Cardinal Ling was back in Laos as a Deacon and was asked to preach a retreat in a village called Ban Na Phong. He was joined by two catechists, Luc Sy and Misam Pho Inpeng. After the retreat was completed, Cardinal Ling experienced the most horrific and important moment of his life.

“The three of us went together and accomplished our mission. We spent one night there and the next day we wanted to go back to Vang Vieng. There was no transport so we got into a military truck. It was not far from the village where we stayed, maybe just two kilometers away when we were ambushed. There were about 14 people in the truck, and seven or eight got killed. Luc Sy and Misan died on the spot.”

“I somehow escaped to the village and then came back looking for my friends. They were then buried beside the road without even a coffin, under the instructions of the military, although we wanted to bury them in the village. Then I had another challenge – to tell this sad news to their families. It was really a difficult task, I will never forget that incident.”

“It was actually that incident that changed me. At that moment when I was alone with myself in hiding, but still surrounded by the gunmen, something clicked inside my heart. Why had I survived? I started to reflect. God made me realize that He wanted me to serve His people in a special manner. I said to myself, ‘From now on, I will be a priest.’ I was so sure that God called me to be a priest. How interesting that the decision came as a result of the most terrifying moment of my life.”

Two years later, Cardinal Ling was ordained in a hurried ceremony at a refugee camp. He then ministered as a priest always under the careful watch, and many times being harassed by the Communists. In 1984, the Communists had enough of the priest of the poor and sent him to a re-education camp. For more than three years Cardinal Ling was forced to do hard labor.

After his release, Cardinal Ling continued his priestly ministry. In 2001 he was appointed to lead the Vicariate of Pakse. He would continue to be given more leadership roles among the Catholic Church in Laos. Today, even as a Cardinal, he is still part of the Oblate family as he helps to oversee a small team of Oblates who work in a dozen parishes or mission stations among the poor.

“I tell the Oblates to be an Oblate. Go to the peripheries. That is your identity. That is why I say an Oblate should be an Oblate,” said Cardinal Ling. “Why did the Pope chose me? Maybe because he insists on the missionary dimension of the Church. Pope Francis and I want to see the Church in the peripheries, a Church of the poor, a Church that is missionary.”

A Church that is Oblate.

Story by Mike Viola