Mgr Joseph Vuthilert Haelom is the bishop. The new diocese created by the division of Chiang Mai covers an area of 37,839 km² in northwestern Thailand. It is home to about 18,000 Catholics, almost all from tribal groups. Fr Maurizio Arioldi, superior PIME delegate in Thailand and Myanmar, shares the joy of the Institute and of the local Church.
Bangkok (AsiaNews) – Pope Francis has erected the new diocese of Chiang Rai, by dividing the existing diocese of Chiang Mai, making it suffragan to the metropolitan see of Bangkok.
The Holy See made the announcement yesterday, noting that the pontiff appointed Mgr Joseph Vuthilert Haelom (pictured), hitherto vicar general of the archdiocese of the capital, as the first bishop of Chiang Rai.
The newly-established diocese covers 37,839 km² in northwestern Thailand, including four provinces (Chiang Rai, Nan, Phayao, Phrae), as well as Ngao district, Lampang province.
The episcopal see is in Chiang Rai, whose parish church – The Nativity of Our Lady – becomes the cathedral of the new territory.
About 18,000 Catholics live in the new diocese, almost all members of tribal groups, out of a population of more than 2.6 million people, divided into 16 parishes with six diocesan priests, 41 religious and missionaries, plus 51 nuns.
Chiang Rai has only one major seminarian, plus 113 catechists and six Catholic schools.
Mgr Joseph Vuthilert Haelom was born on 17 December 1951 in Lamsai, in the central province of Pathumthani (diocese of Bangkok).
Following his studies at the minor diocesan seminary in the capital, he completed his philosophical and theological studies at the Lux Mundi National Seminary in Sampran before his ordination as a priest on 3 August 1980. He was incardinated in the archdiocese of Bangkok.
After a stint as parochial vicar at the Assumption Cathedral in Bangkok for a year, he served as pastor in two churches between 1981 and 1989: St Teresa in Nongjok and Our Lady of Fatima in Bangkok. In the latter, he was the head master at St Joseph Upatham School and was deputy rector of the St Joseph minor seminary.
From 1995 to 2000, he was director of the Diocesan Commission for Social Works and pastor at the Holy Rosary Church, after which he returned to Sampran to act as rector of the pastoral centre until 2004.
Between 2004 and 2012, the prelate was parish priest at Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral in Chiang Mai, where he became vicar general in 2005, a position he also held in Bangkok starting in 2012 until his appointment as bishop of Chiang Rai.
Fr Maurizio Arioldi, superior delegate of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) in Thailand and Myanmar, spoke to AsiaNews about the joy felt by the institute and the local Church for the creation of the new diocese Chiang Rai and the appointment of Mgr Joseph Vuthilert Haelom as its bishop.
"He is someone we know. For many years, he was the vicar of the bishop of Chiang Mai, Mgr Francis Xavier Vira Arpondratana, who knows well the reality of local tribal populations. We are happy, because his appointment is a sign of continuity. Mgr Joseph Vuthilert Haelom is someone who keeps issues within boundaries. It is a pleasure to work with him."
"I think that the creation of this new diocese can give a new impetus to evangelisation in the country,” Fr Arioldi noted. “The diocese of Chiang Mai, before the division, was too big to cover.”
"This has led to greater development around Chiang Mai, where most people are ethnic Karen, whilst in Chiang Rai, where other tribal groups live, people find it harder to accept the Gospel and evangelisation is a bit slow.”
"For this reason, the idea of dividing the area will make it possible to better follow people and give impetus to the work of the Church. Chang Rai is a diocese that borders Laos and Myanmar and is full of challenges for the future."