When Pope Francis announced another five appointments to the College of Cardinals last month, journalists and other observers of the Vatican were quick to assert that his selection showed a preference for those “on the peripheries.” This well-worn expression should be retired. It hides more than it reveals. These appointments are significant and interesting, but not so much because these cardinals-elect are “outsiders” to the traditional ecclesiastical power centers. What is interesting about them is their character.
Take for instance, cardinal-elect Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun of Laos. Talk about “peripheries”—he doesn’t even have a diocese. He is the apostolic vicar of Paske, a territory that includes a million inhabitants and only 14,500 Catholics. His mission is focused on evangelizing animists living in the mountains. As of 2015, when he gave an interview to Asia News, he had a total of six priests in his charge. Six! Yet he cheerfully shepherds along what he calls his “baby diocese.”
The positive thing is that we have married catechists who are true missionaries, who go to live in the villages and become the ‘roots’ of evangelization. They go, live, they begin to build bonds.... We offer this experience to the seminarians. Seminary students must study three years, then they must stop for at least a year, up to three years to mature in their decision, but also for pastoral experience as catechists, carrying medicines, aid, prayers for the people of the mountain. They integrate with the villagers, live as the villagers do in everything.
Pardon me while I pick myself up from the floor. The married catechists put down the roots of evangelization? The seminarians follow them to gain pastoral experience as catechists? They do all this before they are ordained, during a gap year (or three)? They live as the villagers do? This sounds nothing like the hothouse environment seminaries typically strive to create in North America. Our bishops fear the corrupting influence of “non-priests” so much that their tender recruits are sequestered, not even allowed to share a classroom with lay catechists, much less learn from them or strive to integrate themselves with the people they will serve.