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Oblate Martyrs of Laos Beatified

 Abril Villarreal-Medina
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When she was in first grade, Lucia Borzaga would attend Mass presided by her older brother, Mario.  Mario was in the fifth grade at the time, and Mass was held under the kitchen table.  Mario would use a stool as an altar, and kitchen utensils were his props.  Lucia would attend Mass under the kitchen table wearing her mother’s veil and with a prayerbook she couldn’t read.

At these childhood Masses, Mario would share with his little sister that he wanted to be a priest, and to become a missionary in a far-off land.  That dream became a reality when he joined the Missionary Oblates and became a missionary in Laos.

The dream ended tragically in 1960 when Fr. Borzaga was killed for his faith.  He was 28 years old.  Father Borzaga would be the first of six Oblate martyrs in Laos during the 1960s.

In December, Lucia celebrated the life of her brother as he was beatified by the Church.  Father Borzaga, the five other Oblate Laotian martyrs and 11 more Catholic martyrs in Laos were declared Blessed, a major step on the path to sainthood.

“His dream was to be a missionary and that is why he chose the Oblates,” said Lucia.  “They are specialists in difficult missions and that’s what he wanted to be.”

There may have been no more difficult mission in the world for a Catholic priest than Laos in the 1950s and 1960s.  Most people lived in extreme poverty, and Communist guerillas were determined to rid the country of religion.

The Oblates ministered to a small group of Catholics who chose to practice their faith despite violent persecution.  Facing numerous difficulties, the Oblates put their trust in God.  Father Borzaga wrote in his diary that ministering in Laos would require him to identify with the Crucified Christ.

“I know exactly what death means, and I know that if life flowers from death, I will die every day from dawn to dusk, drawing strength from the Bread who is Victim, that is the Sacrament of Love, of Suffering and from that I will draw the strength to love, to suffer, to do the will of the Father.”

In 1960 Fr. Borzaga was murdered along with a young Hmong catechist, Thoj Xyooj, as they were returning from an apostolic trip to rural villages.  A year later, Oblates Fathers Louis Leroy, Michael Coquelet and Vincent L’Henoret were snatched from their missions in the Province of Xieng Khouang and savagely killed.  Father John Wauthier, a tireless worker among war refugees, was killed in 1967.  In 1969 Fr. Joseph Boissel was ambushed and killed on his way to an isolated Christian community.

The heroic sacrifice of the Oblates in Laos was brought to the attention of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.  After an extensive review of each case, the Vatican announced their beatification last year.

The beatification ceremony took place at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Vientiane, the only Catholic Mass celebrated that day in Laos.  The Oblates’ Cardinal Orlando Quevedo, O.M.I. of the Philippines, was Pope Francis’ representative at the ceremony.

“Today is first of all a celebration of God’s enduring love, God’s love for the people of Laos, God’s love especially for our martyrs,” said Cardinal Quevedo.  “They gave up their lives in service of the Lord and in the service of their brothers and sisters of the faith.  They believed and so they spoke of Jesus not only in words but with their lives.”

Lucia Borzaga had waited 56 years to hear officially what she had already known, that her brother had lived a saintly life.  She was present when Pope Francis recognized the martyrdom of her brother.

Today Lucia carries on the legacy of her beatified brother.  She is a professed member of the secular institute of the Oblate Missionaries of Mary Immaculate.  She never tires of giving witness about the experiences of Fr. Mario, including the suffering and hopes of his family.

“How can I forget the martyrdom of my family, of my brother whose body was never found, of my mother’s tears and the silent grief of my father, hoping against hope for his return, and without hatred or resentment,” said Lucia.  “Today, I remain ever and always attentive to the needs of the Church, as if Mario was still in the mission.”

Original story & images provided by Mike Viola at Missionary Associates of Mary Immaculate.