Last June 14 to July 16, 2017 I visited the Oblate missions in Thailand and Laos together with Bro. Bruno Torres, OMI. It was a mixed scenery and feel of the old and the new; of modern developments, traditional customs, and varied culture; a challenging setting for our brother Oblates in non-Catholic dominated countries.
The late King of Thailand’s projects aimed to improve the lifestyle of people especially in agriculture and infrastructure. The roads are well-paved and a peaceful atmosphere prevails. Tourism serves as the biggest source of revenue. Despite the absence of police officers armed with guns, one can freely move around with no threat to one’s peace of mind or security.
We visited the Oblate missions with the Hmong community who are Buddhists coming from Laos. They are migrants who left Laos due to job opportunities in agriculture. There are few Oblates in Thailand and for the ministry of sacraments like Sunday Masses, they sacrifice their time to spread out for four (4) to five (5) Masses on Sunday in Hmong villages. Travel distance is about one to two hours to visit each community for the holy mass. The Hmongs are simple people dressed in rugged clothing. Fr. Joe showed us his convent, the separate dorms for male and female children who are studying in the public school. Fr. Joe is optimistic that the boys will become future Oblate seminarians.
The Church in Thailand is a permanent structure donated by generous people. They are so appreciative of home visits to the elderly for the dispensation of sacramentals and house blessings. However, you have to be careful of relationships being built because of the over generosity extended by Thais. An owner of a mall for example, casually offered to donate 20,000 baht for the crucifix of the church. The offer was diplomatically turned down by an assurance that a donation was supposedly already tendered.
What I enjoyed most was visiting temples and the 20-minute ride on an elephant for 600 baht. We were invited for the birthday of the Princess on July 4 at the capitol. It was so quiet although there were lots of people. During the ritual ceremony, Buddhist monks first had their monotoned prayer with plenty of bowing to the Princess’ portrait. Then ten Muslims said prayers in front of the big picture of the princess. The last were the Catholics: some Sisters coming from St. Joseph High School, a supporting choir of students, while Bro. Bruno, Fr. Joe and I led the prayers. Every July, all the provinces have to celebrate the birthday in front of the picture. Government officials came and I offered my congratulations to the Governor for the occasion with the following remark, “Your country is a model to me with its beautiful roads, peaceful environment and warm-hearted people.
Government employees wore either clothes in black or black and white as they were still mourning for the deceased King who will be cremated on October 26. Every town has a big picture of the highly respected Thai King and every establishment has a picture of the King with a simple Buddhist shrine called “House of God” (like an altar) with a black or white elephant statue.
Bangkok to Laos is a 10-hour travel in a double-decker, left-hand drive, air-conditioned bus. We spent ten (10) days in Laos. Every five (5) hours, the bus makes a stop for trips to the rest rooms and a hot noodle break. The double-decked tourist bus ride was so comfortable. You can recline your seat to the fullest and take a nap. Free coffee, biscuits and a good movie were on hand.
The whole scenery of Laos is a delightful picture in green – green teeming agriculture, verdant forests and mountains, with shady trees along the 8-lane highway. Impressively, care for the environment is evident for you don’t see any pollution in the Mekong River; it is so clean. Balete trees can be seen along the highway. The big income is derived from the provision of electricity tapped from the Mekong River and sold to Thailand. As a sign of the “old” times, the signboards are still written in French, houses remain unlocked, and the people are hard at work. No idle person could be seen hanging around nor male adults drinking about. Laotians help each other when approached for aid. They are very generous people.
As you cross the border, you have to pay the immigration and we were advised by Fr. Gerry De los Reyes, OMI to indicate a hotel as our address and not a convent because Laos is a Communist country. We thought we would take a “tuktuk” away from the bus terminal but we were told by Fr. Gerry to take a walk with him. To our surprise, we ended up in the bishop’s residence at the cathedral. The diocesans were very hospitable and for the first time, we tasted good, sticky rice with plenty of vegetables, capped with fruits especially dragon fruit which was in abundance like bananas in the Philippines.
Next to the convent is the cathedral wherein Cardinal Quevedo beatified 17 martyrs of whom five (5) were Oblates. From there, we proceeded to the Oblate House for a much needed rest. The following day, we had a nice tour. There were three local Oblates, one from Vietnam and two from Laos. When I asked, “Where is our destination?” The answer given was,”We are going to the land and chapels of Fr. Clabaut and Bishop Khamse.”
Along the road, we visited almost 10 chapels where Fr. Armand Clabaut gave sacraments and engaged in social action work among the Buddhist Hmong people. We were greeted by the lady who was still a child in 1975 and knew Fr. Armand Clabaut very well. We were brought to the convent and the church. The convent was still intact, and so was the case in the former room of Fr. Clabaut. A building was located at the right side and it served as a storeroom for the harvested “sticky rice” stalks of the farmers. Water was also provided for the community. According to the lady the chieftain of their village is a convert from Communism to Catholicism. Thus, the Catholic community have lots of privileges as long as they ask the captain for such. Once the convent or church is not used, it is requisitioned by the Communist government.
We went further out to Kapakading, the famous village of Fr. Clabaut. Down to the south on the right side was the Mekong River. We were informed by our Oblate guide, Fr. Sayani, that the previous week they had 150 baptisms and six (6) marriages in Kapakading’s St. John the Baptist Chapel. The chapel’s structure is permanently built with cement contributed by the people. The land area covered almost one (1) hectare. We took our lunch with Bishop Khamse. Lunch consisted of sticky rice and Mekong River fish which look like “tilapia”. The Bishop’s convent faces the Mekong River and one can see the buildings of Thailand. Folk tale claims that the early Oblates crisscrossed the Mekong River in visiting Thailand and Laos before 1975. After 1975, all the private properties were confiscated when all French missionaries were expelled from Laos. With great pride, the Bishop brought us to the church cemetery because one Oblate martyr was interred there. Catechism is done in the church not in schools as these are owned by the Communist government. When we went back to Vientienne, capital of Laos we stopped by the plaza and were informed that the two big 3-storey buildings were formerly used as the provincial house of the Oblates. Now, the said buildings house the ministry of the department of health. All Church properties were taken over by the government.
As a whole, I gleaned that a missionary’s ministry is limited in Laos because all your movements are being monitored by the communist government. The challenge lies in the pastoral approach employed among the Buddhist community who are very much inclined to the Christian faith and believe that their ancestors are reincarnated in animals. How does one facilitate oneself to be closer to them? One has to consistently cover the geographical distance from the Oblate Center to the communities by riding the tuktuk or public vehicle which is very rare. A source of comfort is the presence of the Catechist in the chapel and the influx of people. How will you continue to encourage them; to extend more of your faith so that other people would be flocking in for whatever good message of Jesus one could impart to the young and elderly.
The “old” ways of Fr. Clabaut remains effective in present-day Laos. His simplicity and house to house visit remain in the minds of the community. Older people pronounced that they miss Fr. Clabaut – a man for all seasons. In retracing the footsteps of Fr. Clabaut, his experience in South Upi holds true:
“I was sitting just in front of the church when an old man came to me and said, ‘Father, I want to become Catholic.’ I asked, ‘Why, what happened?’ The old man said, ‘Because the other day I met you and you smiled at me.’ Father Clabaut concluded, “Maybe it is the best Homily I ever did in my life; at least the most effective – a good heart is always better than any homily.”