Fr Ribolini: Breaking the isolation of tribal Christian communities

According to the PIME priest, isolation is main challenge that awaits the missions in northern Thailand. PIME runs four centres in Fang, Ban Thoet Thai, Mae Suay and Ngao. Fr Ribolini will leave Ban Thoet Thai for Mae Suay after Easter. "As soldiers of the Kingdom of God, we missionaries must be ready to go where the Lord and his Church send us,” he said.


Ban Thoet Thai (AsiaNews) – The main challenge for missions in northern Thailand is breaking the isolation that often characterises recently evangelised tribal communities, this according to Fr Marco Ribolini, a Milan-born member of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) and pastor in Ban Thoet Thai, a remote village in the Diocese of Chiang Rai on the border with Myanmar.

After Easter, he told AsiaNews, he will leave his parish for Mae Suay, another PIME mission to which the bishop and his superiors have assigned him.

Local Catholics belong to different tribal ethnic minorities (Akha, Lanna, Lahu, Isan, Thai Yai and Kachin), who live in the mountains and the plains, amid poverty and social and geographical marginalisation.

The four PIME missions in the north of the country (Fang, Ban Thoet Thai, Mae Suay and Ngao) have hostels to house and educate young people from poor families.

For the past four years, Fr Ribolini has ministered to local Catholics before he became pastor in Ban Thoet Thai, which was set up as a parish just a year ago, separate from Fang.

Fr Ribolini led the parish in its first activities, starting with the building of the church, followed by the pastoral centre and even a bridge, thanks to which cars can now cross the river and reach the mission.

"I am feeling two main emotions right now as I get ready to leave,” said the clergyman. “On the one hand, I feel sad for people and places so dear to me; on the other, there is a strong sense of freedom, because the heart recognises that what has been done here is not mine, but the Lord’s: mission, people, places and projects. We are only his servants, and as Jesus says: ‘We are unprofitable servants’ (Lk 17:10) at that."

"Mae Suey is northern Thailand’s largest mission. It covers 29 villages, two more than Ban Thoet Thai. It serves more or less the same tribes, but the difference is that it already has 27 years of history.

"Catechetical projects are already very developed, since the mission is more complex and requires a less 'pioneering' approach than Ban Thoet Thai."

Running hostels is one of the main activities of the PIME mission in Mae Suay. About 90 kids live there. There are three sites, some 20 kilometres apart from each other.

Two main facilities stand in the middle of the mission: one of the hostels and a centre for up to ten disabled children.

In recent years, PIME has been training missionaries in order to go beyond simple pastoral outreach in order to promote religious and cultural dialogue. Hence, Fr Ribolini has been deputed to study the main local language, Akha.

For the missionary, "This will allow us to be independent of catechist-translators, who follow us in our visits to the villages. This way we can overcome the problems related to the translation and the inculturation of Christianity.

"This is the first Akha generation to be Christian and there is only one Akha priest in the whole country. For this reason, PIME wants to put a new missionary at the disposal of the Diocese of Chiang Rai, where most Christians belong to that ethnic group.

"By doing so, we will be able to do better in terms of pastoral outreach. Speaking the language, we can bring Christ further in the hearts of the Akha people.”

In Mae Suey, Fr Ribolini will find "the same challenges that generally await all the missions in northern Thailand".

"The great local response to the proclamation of the Gospel has led to the creation of many centres,” the clergyman explained. “At the same time though, this has created a sense of isolation within the communities. In fact, local tribal groups live inside a Thai environment, but contacts between the two are rare."

"Mae Suay is trying to break this isolation, thanks to a project carried out with courage by Camillian nuns. All the nuns are Thai but live and work at the mission. They help about 160 Buddhist patients: poor, elderly with disabilities or abandoned. In addition to the nuns’ work, we are socially present with a facility for disabled children."

Holy Week is coming soon. For Fr Ribolini, it will be a time of intense activities: pastoral work, summer camps for children, handing over his parish, and planning to move.

"This comes at the end of the (lunar) year in Thailand: schools close and children go home. For this reason, in the northern missions we organise summer camps for young people of different age groups.

"We have already held three of them at Ban Thoet Thai and, ahead of Holy Week. one camp will be devoted to catechesis with more than 100 middle school kids. On Easter night we will celebrate about 40 adult baptisms.

"In the meantime, we are holding premarital courses for tribals who have already been married in accordance with traditional customs. Now they want to do it by the book in order to have access to sacramental life. Because my move is coming up, I will marry three couples on Easter Sunday."

Fr Ribolini has not organised any farewell party in Ban Thoet Thai. "As soldiers of the Kingdom of God, we missionaries must be ready to go where the Lord and his Church send us, with little room for too many recriminations and wistfulness.

“Such is the life of an evangeliser. The Lord calls upon us not to put down too deep a root, nor to cling to things and people as if they were ours."

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