Rome (AsiaNews) - A desire born in early childhood: to bring Christ to those who do not know him. A vocation and the choice of the missions "to go there, where the need is greatest", the destination of little importance. Thus Fr. Raffaele Manenti's "dream" becomes reality, when in 1982 at the age of 30 he arrives in Chiang Mai, Thailand a Pime missionary. Now, after 6 years of formation at Pune seminary in India, he is preparing his return to Thailand.
He spoke to AsiaNews of his pastoral experience during his early years as a missionary in Asia: the unexpected surprise to learn that "often you receive more than you give", the difficulties encountered in trying to enter into Thai culture. And after in India, the satisfaction of being part of "the coming of age of a Church that in itself stimulates vocations to evangelization". But in both countries the Church still faces great challenges: modernization, nationalistic Hindu ideologies and social prejudice are the most evident.
Fr Manenti, let's start at the very beginning: how was your vocation born?
I think my mission goes back to my early childhood, to my desire to bring Christ to all those who knew nothing about Him. During my schooling, this wish grew and matured through the many difficulties and tests I faced in my studies. Then in 1987, this dream became reality with my departure.
Why Thailand? What do you remember about your first impact with missionary life?
I asked for Thailand, not because I was particularly familiar with it, but because I knew there was a great need there and so I had a better chance of leaving sooner. My missionary experience in this country was very impressive. In short: It was a case of receiving more than giving. In my mind's eye, my mission was to bring what I had in my heart to others, but in the end it was the exact opposite. It is by witnessing that we truly announce the gospel, not with words. This mission forced me to examine if I put my faith into practice on a daily basis, it forced me to a greater coherency. At the beginning, above all in Asia where it takes a long time to break down language barriers, patience is a vital element of the mission. This, shall we call it "obstacle", however, gives you the opportunity to get a greater glimpse of the inside reality, because it allows us time to get to know the culture of the local populations with whom we are dealing. This phase of familiarization and study is providential, it's importance cannot be underestimated, it is also a never ending process.
What did your work consist of in Thailand?
I worked with the mountain tribes, there are about ten in all, making up a small minority in their own right: out of a total population of 60 million, they count for 500-600 thousand. They live on the border with Myanmar from where they recently emigrated. The majority were already evangelised in former Burma, maybe through parents or friends. In that kind of situation it's wrong to think of the missionary as protagonist in the mission : he is just one of many elements, while it is the people themselves and the catechists who fill the most important role, they announce the gospel. When we arrive the foundations have already been laid. Often it is the community themselves who invite us.
What are the needs or expectations of these people when they approach the church? What kind of help do you offer them?
The initial motivation can spring from material or human needs, for example their search for a cultural identity or economic necessity. They are a semi nomadic population and as a result are disorientated by the country's increasing modernization. The government have laid roads and brought electricity to the outer reaches of the country as part of their attempt to combat opium cultivation. For example, I worked with mountain farmers whose economy and traditions could no longer satisfy the contemporary needs, this caused them great discomfort. The first way to really help these people is to offer them the possibility of an education. Thirty years ago we missionaries had to plead with parents to send their children to school, now the parents plead with us to take their children on in the mission's college.
Does the country's rapid modernization affect evangelization?
Thailand's modernization has brought about great changes in the country but also great risks. Young people leave the countryside for the city, but they do so often without proper planning and as a result many become victims, exploited in the drug or sex industries. The departure of the young people from the villages, moreover uproots the process started in the local catholic communities. Before the catechumen involved the whole family; today however it's an incomplete process: many begin it while their children are away in the city, these children return and no longer recognise themselves in the new family values.
The problem persists even when the young people who leave are already Christian. On their arrival in the city they loose their faith : they have no reference point and for this reason they tend to align themselves with Buddhists or Thais. Their faith becomes wholly personal, they don't look for a community, because the Christian presence large cities like Bangkok, is very small. Add to this the difficulties in practising your religion : the parishes are sparse and Sunday is not a holiday, therefore simply going to mass is a problem.
This is why the principal challenge in Thailand is to give a deep enough formation to these Christians so they will not loose themselves, instead they themselves in turn become missionaries, witnesses to the Gospel.
Soon you will return to Thailand what differences do you note with India, where you have just spent the last six years?
The first most notable difference is that in India is more numerous and more visible. There is a tangible Christian presence which dates back over the centuries. Even India is experiencing the phenomenon of rapid growth, particularly in the cities, which are attracting the young people away from the rural areas. Being as it is, however, a traditionally multiethnic society, integration is easier. Life in the city still means reference points are lost, but here there is are greater possibilities to find spiritual reference points. Coming from Thailand, seeing the communities and parishes in the suburbs of Mumbai for example amaze me, they are full of life, and active a true point of reference for many.
This year Pime is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its' presence in India. Can you give us an overview of work carried out there?
I worked in seminarian formation in India and had the pleasure of being able to experience in first person the joy of participating in the reality of a Church coming of age, expressed in vocations to evangelization. It is truly beautiful to see communities founded over a hundred years ago, communities that took 50 even 60 years to make their first steps, now realize vocations to the missions. Young people who say : "We want to be like that priest who came to our village, who we saw as children and of whom our grandparents spoke". In this way the community discovers itself to be part of the universal church and I think the vocations to be Pime missionaries in a way express this concept. As in 1850 il Pime, was an expression of the maturity of the Church in Italy. Today these vocations to the missions ad gentes are an expression of the maturity of the Church in India, itself missionary by nature. You only have to look at the fact that the majority of diocesan personnel which is always a mix of clergy from north to south.
What is the secret of the Indian Church's success and what does it perceive to be its greatest challenge at the moment?
The Church in India has contributed, over the years to the social elevation of the countries poor. The missionaries turned to India's pariahs, helping them both economically and in their fight for equality Frequently, however, that for which the Church fights is often that for which the Church suffers. There is still a need to break down social prejudices both within society and the Church itself. For example the idea of a society rigidly dividing according to caste which culturally impedes some priests in their relationship with some social groups.
But today the greatest challenge remains l'hindutva, Hindu nationalistic ideology. It's diffusion invites the church to be ever more authentically Christian. The reports o numerous episodes of religious intolerance, which recently arrived from India, make headlines today because they are a relatively new phenomenon. Before, the different faiths lived in harmony with each other. But since the former ruling Bharatiya Janata Party politicised religion, this phenomenon has taken root. In the moment of need, in every day life however, peaceful cohabitation and harmony between the different communities is still real and possible.