The pontiff will be in Thailand from 20 to 23 November. For the apostolic nuncio, “He is coming to spur us on to build a society capable of true human values.” The local population is looking forward to his message of peace, mercy and harmony. The Pope is seen as a spiritual leader for all humanity, no more only as the head of the Catholic Church.
Bangkok (AsiaNews) – The upcoming apostolic visit of Pope Francis to Thailand (20-23 November) will provide “the local Church with a favourable opportunity to thank the Lord for the early works of evangelisation,” said Mgr Paul Tschang In-nam, apostolic nuncio to Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, as well as apostolic delegate to Laos. This visit “will also encourage Catholics to follow the example of the missionaries and reawaken the vocation to proclaim” the Word.
“For several years, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Thailand wanted to invite the Holy Father for an apostolic visit to the country. This year, our wish has become reality. At the beginning of 2019, I received the first instructions from my superiors about the pontiff’s visit to Thailand. Now we are all excited about his coming.”
In Thailand the atmosphere is currently "very positive” and ordinary Thais are “enthusiastic about the Pope’s arrival,” said the nuncio. "In 1984, John Paul II’s apostolic visit was met with opposition from radical Buddhist groups. King Rama IX had to intervene to calm the waters. The sovereign called the pope ‘his personal guest’, ending the protests.”
This time, "The announcement of Pope Francis’s trip has not sparked any negative reaction. Now the Holy Father is no longer seen as just the head of the Catholic Church, but is viewed as a spiritual leader for all humanity.” As result, “Among Thais, expectations are high. Many hope the Pope will also bring his message of peace, mercy and harmony to the Kingdom of Thailand.”
For the country’s 390,000 Catholics (0.46 per cent of the population), 2019 will be a memorable year. "This year, the local Church celebrated the 350th anniversary of the canonical institution of the apostolic vicariate of Siam in 1669.” Thai Catholics marked this great historical event by “choosing the motto ‘Disciples of Christ, missionary disciples’, which will also be used for Pope Francis’s apostolic journey.”
Despite its small size, local Catholics experience evangelisation differently depending on location. In northern Thailand, the Church is still 'catechumenal', through conversions of members of tribal communities. In Bangkok and the big cities, the Church is different.
In the latter, Catholicism is more "institutional" and deeply embedded in a Thai context. Here the dominant Buddhist tradition, mixed marriages and nationalism threaten the relevance of being Catholic in society.
Many are convinced that the Pope’s trip can bridge the gap between these two parts of the Thai Church. "We hope and pray for this to happen," says the nuncio.
“The North is home to people originally from China, Vietnam or Myanmar. Ethnic Thais, who are the majority in the country, identify themselves as Buddhists from birth. Baptisms and conversions among them are rare.”
“The northern dioceses – Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai – are the main focus of the Thai Church's missionary work. Catholics are very much aware of the importance of missionary works.”
In light of this, "I would like to mention the Thai Missionary Society (TMS) under Fr Adriano Pelosin, of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME). TMS also operates in Cambodia and Laos.”
In a country where about 90 per cent of the population is Buddhist, religious dialogue is one of the main missionary activities Catholics engage in. “The local Church is always busy with it. Relations between Catholicism and Buddhism are based on mutual respect,” Nuncio Tschang adds.
What happened on 16 May 2018 is a case in point. On that day a delegation of 50 Buddhist monks arrived at the Vatican, including the Ven Phra Rajaratanasunthon, on behalf of the Buddhist patriarch, and some scholars from the royal Temple of Chetupon (Wat Pho).
During a private audience, they gave Pope Francis the Thai and Pali translations of the Phra Malai, an ancient sacred Buddhist text that King Rama VII gave to Pius XI in 1934. For some, the meeting laid the foundation for the pontiff's trip to Thailand later this month.
A delegation from the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue followed with a visit to Bangkok to mark the 230th anniversary of the royal temple.
"The Holy Father’s visit will surely boost religious dialogue, in which the local Church is already well engaged. He is coming to spur us on to build a society capable of true human values. His presence will strengthen the faith of Thai Catholics and encourage the proclamation of the Gospel in Thailand. What we are waiting from him is paternal encouragement.” (PF)