His courageous choice

May 1, 2016 -- Living City

His courageous choice
The secret life of Fr. Tito Banchong and his mission to give his life
for his people

By Mary V. Cass

When Fr. Tito Banchong finished his studies in philosophy in Rome in 1975, his home country Laos had just concluded a long civil war that ended the monarchy and put the Communist Pathet Lao Movement in power. The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (LPDR), as it is officially known, is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia, bordered by Myanmar, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and to the west Thailand. Since 1975 this multiethnic people have been ruled by a Marxist and communist government.

At that critical time of the communist takeover, Fr. Tito, as he asks to be simply named, was faced with a tough decision: return to his country that had expelled the majority of priests and religious in the course of establishing a one-party, atheistic state, or remain safely in Rome and continue his studies. To return to Laos meant facing a similar fate of expulsion … or worse.

At that time, he had his future well planned: to become a director of a school to help the people of his country. When he learned about the spirituality of the Focolare, which he heard of through the superior of his seminary, it deepened his love for Jesus. Here he also found that there are great ideas and initiatives in politics, but when love is absent, it doesn’t bring about positive change and nothing remains. Mutual love in daily events became an integral part of his life.

In the end he decided to return to Laos. His bishop questioned his plan: “To do what? All the priests and religious have escaped!”

“I want to take their place,” Banchong told him. Seeing him determined to return, the bishop promised to ordain him when he arrived back in Laos.

Banchong never underestimated the cost of returning to his home country. He sought the advice of Chiara Lubich, founder of the Focolare, but when she suggested he remain in Italy where he was secure and could finish his studies, he replied: “I feel Jesus is calling me to return … I can take the place of all those priests who had to leave. Who will care for the community of Christians there and keep the flame of their faith alive? Yes, they may kill me … then I will die as Jesus died for us. I am going to give my life for my people.”

Just one and a half years after becoming a priest, he was taken prisoner and held for four years without any explanation. “I had no contact with my bishop, and wasn’t able to celebrate the Eucharist, so each morning I centered my soul on Jesus on the Cross … it seemed to me the most beautiful Mass.” That was the beginning of Banchong’s story of years of imprisonment, immeasurable physical and spiritual trials, and unconditional love for his people.

I met him during a rare visit outside his country, in Thailand. He spoke of his life following his courageous choice: “Chiara assured me that she would always be ‘with me,’ that the members of the Focolare would be praying for me … I would not be alone. This promise sustained me during my years of imprisonment and solitude.”

He talked about his life with the other prisoners and the guards. “I tried to love them, most of whom were Buddhists. In fact one of the guards was very cruel, and when prisoners did not follow his commands, he shot them. But after two years of giving witness to love with my life, he completely changed and ceased killing. I was only 30 years old at the time, but everyone in prison called me ‘dad.’ Many people arrived hardened, but slowly they changed their behavior completely. I am good friends today with two of the ex-guards. Eventually the authorities asked me to become part of the military: I was so good with the other prisoners that no one had tried to escape. After a night of prayer, I said yes.”

As a soldier on duty, in a regime that had punished him for being a priest, his job was to go out into the remote villages to find vegetables and meat for soldiers and prisoners. This required walking for hours and allowed him to search for Christians hidden in areas where no priest had travelled since 1961.

“I was able to distinguish them from Buddhists or animists by carrying a cigarette and asking for a light,” he said. “Traditionally every dwelling had a fire for cooking in the back, and if a guest were sent to the back of the house to light the cigarette, it was a Christian household. If the family was not Christian, the cigarette was lit on a small fire outside. They believed in spirits and the lit fire served to chase away the unwanted spirits.”

“That’s how I became a smoker,” Banchong added with a hint of apology.

“I began little by little to create small communities in these remote villages,” he continued. “Mass was impossible, and there were no Bibles. We learned phrases of Scripture together and encouraged one another. To bring the Gospel was prohibited, but I felt that building this love among us was a living Gospel.

“One day I saw a Vietnamese woman selling various articles to the villagers, among which was a medal with the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I told the woman that I wanted to buy it. When she questioned my choice, I replied I was a Christian and showed her my small hidden cross. In tears she revealed that she too was a Christian, that the bishop had told her to look for me. Eventually through her I was able to procure hosts and wine and celebrate Mass. I returned often, walking 20 miles a day, to meet with other families that she identified as Christian. They all knew each other and with great courage were living out their faith.”

After three and a half years, Banchong was imprisoned again. The authorities declared they had made an error in letting him go free. In all he was imprisoned four times.

He didn’t give in to resignation or feelings of revenge: “Even while I was free, I had accepted the fact that I would be arrested again, that my hour would come. I felt God had put me there to be a witness with my life; it was impossible to speak, but I could be the living word.”

In 1986 Banchong was freed from prison. He travelled to the capital, Vientiane, where he was reunited with his bishop. In 1999 he was appointed as a bishop and returned to take care of the Christians in the region where he had once been held prisoner. He still visits the most remote villages of his country — walking for hours, sometimes days — serving his people.

In 2000 he was able to travel to Italy and meet with Chiara, who had feared him dead after years of not knowing his whereabouts. When she asked him to describe his experience of the last 25 years, he replied: “Jesus who felt abandoned by the Father, but continued to love, has always been a beacon of light for me. I understood that to love him meant to love those around me, loving especially those who suffer: prisoners and guards, those in authority and those who are not.”

With a group of young people from Laos who accompanied him, Banchong left to board a bus and begin the journey home. His words “to die for my people” were incisive and rang out for the young people of the Focolare in the 1970s. It became their motto and inspired many to commit themselves to live it too. Today these words seem more significant than ever.

With a smile, Banchong revealed his secret: “I am never alone; I feel the unity of everyone. I know I can’t change the world — only love can.”             


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