Laos, The Catholic Church in
LAOS, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
The Lao People's Democratic Republic is a land-locked country in southeast Asia, bordered on the northwest by Burma and China, on the northeast and east by vietnam, on the south by cambodia and on the west by thailand (formerly Siam). The region's terrain is characterized by rugged mountains, plateaus and the alluvial plains of the Mekong River which serves as Laos' western border. Heavily forested and with a tropical climate, it weathers monsoons, a summer rainy season and a winter dry season. Agricultural products include rice, corn, tobacco and tea, while natural resources consist of timber, gypsum, gold, gemstones and tin.
Formerly part of French Indochina, Laos became a constitutional monarchy in 1947 and gained independence in 1949. For the next decade Laos experienced continual political unrest and sporadic civil war among rightist, neutralist and communist-backed Pathet Lao factions, and by the 1960s communists controlled the government. Laos was bombed by the United States during the Vietnam War between 1965–69, and it was proclaimed a republic in 1975. A majority of Laotians are ethnic Lao, the principal lowland inhabitants who are also the most dominant politically and culturally.
Early History . Originally inhabited by Tai from China, Laos joined Thailand as part of the kingdom of Lan Xang in the 14th century, and by 1550 Buddhism had been established as the predominant religion. Lan Xang went into decline in the 17th century, a result of dynastic conflicts. Italian Jesuit Giovanni Leira entered Vientiane c. 1630. In 1666 Louis Laneau, the first vicar apostolic of Siam (1673–96), successfully evangelized a Laotian village in Siam, near Ayuthia. The receptivity of these people to the Gospel moved Laneau to send missionaries into Laos and to compose Instructions aux missionnaires du Laos, a remarkable missiological document. The Siamese revolution of 1688 prevented the continuation of the Laos mission, and it would not be revived until the late 19th century, although challenging terrain continued to hamper evangelization efforts through the 20th century.
In the late 18th century, Siam established hegemony over much of what is now Laos. The region was divided into principalities centered on Luang Prabang in the north, Vientiane in the center and Champassak in the south. Following its colonization of Vietnam, the French supplanted the Siamese and began integrating all of Laos into the French empire. The Franco-Siamese treaty of 1907 defined the present Lao boundary with Thailand.
In the 19th century the Laotians dwelling in the northern region around Sam Neua, near the border of Vietnam, were evangelized to a certain extent from western Tonkin (Hanoi). Missionary efforts also originated from Cambodia (1852), although they were ultimately unsuccessful. Most of the missionary endeavor in eastern
Laos started from Ubon in 1881. Two Ubon priests of the paris foreign mission society (MEP), Jean Prudhomme and François Guéguo discovered a forbidden traffic in slaves and began to ransom hundreds of them. Between 1881 and 1887 nine Christian communities of former slaves were established, and a strong movement of conversions followed, although it could not be fully exploited for lack of apostolic workers. From the right bank of the Mekong, Prudhomme relocated in 1883 to the left bank, where the French, now installed in Cochin China and Cambodia, extended their protectorate in 1893 over the kingdoms of Luang Prabang and Vientiane, thereby giving rise to modern Laos. Conversions diminished along the right bank of the Mekong, but increased along the left bank. The first chapel opened in Vientiane in 1896 and the first permanent residence in 1910. The Vicariate Apostolic of Laos, embracing Laos and eastern Siam, was created in 1899 when there were 8,000 Catholics and 2,000 catechumens in the entire area. Not until 1929 did a missionary begin to work in the northern section around Luang Prabang.
The 20th Century and Beyond . During World War II Japanese forces occupied French Indochina, including Laos. King Sisavang Vong of Luang Prabang declared independence from France on July 19, 1949, just prior to Japan's surrender, and a nationalist fervor gripped the region. In September of 1945, Vientiane and Champassak united with Luang Prabang to form an independent government under the Lao Issara ("Free Laos") banner. The movement, however, was short-lived. Within six months French troops had reoccupied the country and conferred limited autonomy on Laos following elections for a constituent assembly.
During the first Indochina war between France and the communist movement in Vietnam, Prince Souphanouvong formed the Pathet Lao ("Land of Laos"), a communist resistance group. Laos was not granted full sovereignty until the Geneva Peace conference, held in 1954 following Vietnam's defeat of the French. Following elections held in 1955, the first coalition government was formed, led by Prince Souvanna Phouma. It collapsed
in 1958, amidst increased polarization of the political process, and rightist forces took over the government, which operated in tandem with a constitutional monarch.
In 1960 paratroop captain Kong Le seized Vientiane in a coup and formed a neutralist government in hopes of ending the fighting. The new government, again led by Souvanna Phouma lost power to rightist forces under General Phoumi Nosavan that same year. Subsequently, the neutralists allied themselves with the communist insurgents and won the support of the USSR. General Nosavan began receiving aid from the United States.
A second Geneva conference (1961–62) established the independence and neutrality of Laos. Unfortunately, shortly afterward, both sides accused each other of violating the terms of the agreement, and with superpower support on both sides, civil war resumed and the increasing U.S. and North Vietnamese military presence in the country drew Laos into the second Indochina war (1954–75). For nearly a decade the region was devastated by what some considered the worst bombing of the 20th century, as U.S. troops attempted to destroy the supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Laos.
By 1963 Laos contained three vicariates: Ventiane (created in 1952 from the Prefecture of Ventiane and Luang Prabang, erected in 1938), Luang Prabang (part of the Vicariate of Ventiane until 1963), and Savannaket (1963, called the Prefecture, 1950–58, and then Vicariate of Thakkek, 1958–63). Ventiane and Luang Prabang, in the north, were confided to the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who first came in 1937; Savannaket was entrusted to the MEP. Despite the fact that Buddhism has been named the state religion, Laos's three vicar iates encompassed 28,000 Catholics, 82 religious and 6 secular priests, 48 brothers and 124 sisters. In the country's 45 Catholic schools were enrolled 8,000 students.
The Church under Communism . The war in Laos had drastic consequences for the Church. In 1972 the country's communist party renamed itself the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) and became part of a new coalition government in 1973, shortly after the Vientiane cease-fire agreement. Nonetheless, the political struggle between communists, neutralists and rightists continued. The fall of Saigon, Vietnam and Phnom Penh, Cambodia to communist forces, in April of 1975 hastened the decline of the coalition in Laos. Months after Vietnam's communist victories, the Pathet Lao entered Vientiane. On Dec. 2, 1975 the King of Laos abdicated his throne and the LPDR set about establishing a communist state.
Once in power, the Pathet Lao took control of the media and set about arresting and imprisoning many military leaders and members of the former government. In a centralized society, the Laotian economy began to falter, and ten percent of the country—including many lowland Lao and ethnic Hmong—became refugees. Of these people, most were eventually resettled in other countries, including the United States, China and Thailand, although by 1999 29,000 Hmong and lowland Lao had returned to Laos. Most political prisoners were released by the government during the early 1980s. While a new constitution enacted in 1992 embodied more liberal social policies, including freedom of religion, the communist government continued its policy of control.
Into the 21st Century . By 2000 Laos had 29 parishes and fewer than 20 priests at work among the faithful, and the Church maintained its greatest influence in the central and southern provinces, while northern regions were more resistant to minority faiths. Tending to humanitarian needs were 79 sisters, who were prohibited from any evangelization. While the state did not recognize the
Vatican, a papal nuncio from Bangkok coordinated efforts by Laotian missions to provide aid to the region's lepers and disabled persons. Catholic schools continued to be banned by the government, as party cadres continued their antagonism to "foreign" religions, in 1997 going so far as to demand a list of those believing in Jesus. All religious groups were required to report to the government's Department of Religious Affairs in the Lao Front for National Construction, a group mandated by the constitution to discourage "all acts … creating division of religion or creating division among the people." Buddhism was voted into law as the state religion in 2000, although its practice was inhibited along with that of minority faiths. Despite the government's efforts to reform the nation's economic base, Laos continued to rely on aid from the International Monetary Fund and other sources, Japan being its largest donor nation.
In February of 1999 Vientiane Bishop Jean Khamse made the first ad limina visit to Pope John Paul II in over four decades. Asked about the status of the Laotian Church, Bishop Khamse commented that "the Church in Laos is like an infant, an infant saved from the waters." With little infrastructure and few priests, the Church gained most support from animists, for whom Catholicism was seen as a psychological liberation from the superstitions of tribal faiths. Efforts at evangelization in Laos, Khamse added, required a contemplative dimension and missionaries "must be witnesses of Jesus who love's the people around them."
Bibliography: m. berthÉas, La Mission du Laos (Lyons 1909). e. papinot, "Cinquante ans d'apostolat au Laos (1881–1931)," Revue d'historie des missions, 8 (1931) 337–352. Le missioni cattoliche: Storia, geographia, statistica (Rome 1950) 271–272. Bilan du Monde, 2:553–555. Annuario Pontificio has data on all diocese.