Bangkok (AsiaNews) - "I try to understand the farm labourers and at the same time to promote the social teaching of the Catholic Church, because [these workers] can contribute to the full development of the human family and the common good of the entire nation", says Msgr. Francis Xavier Vira Arpondratana, bishop of Chiang Mai, in an interview with Catholic News Agency (CNA) about his first hand experience of working in the fields alongside day laborers.
The bishop of the diocese of northern Thailand, an area predominantly agricultural and inhabited by hill tribes, wanted to be next to his "flock" to confirm the importance of agriculture in the area.
The economy of the diocese is based largely on agriculture; Moreover, in the mountainous regions even basic resources such as water and electricity are lacking, as well as modern means of communication, roads and infrastructure. Speaking of his own experience in the fields, Msgr. Arpondratana emphasizes that at first "I wanted to help" the farmers, then "a sister encouraged me, asking 'why not work with us?'".
Seeing the bishop at work in the fields was a source of inspiration for both the farmers and catechists of Chiang Mai Diocese and has helped to develop a deep sense of solidarity and collaboration between local and ethnic groups. "I know the economic situation in Europe - he says -so we cannot ask help from there. We have to make the local people understand they must help each other locally, and not only receive help from afar".
Arpondratana,58, was ordained a priest of the Bangkok archdiocese, 430 miles
south of Chiang Mai, in 1981, and served there until his appointment as bishop
in 2009."I like to be with my people to understand them, even though it took
time to learn the language; but understanding their current situations and just
to be with them" is important, he emphasized. "I have committed to doing my
best with the more than six tribal ethnicities." The six largest hill
tribes, all of whom live within the Chiang Mai diocese, are the Akha, Lahu,
Mien, Karen, Hmong, and Lisu; each have their own language, customs, and
At present there are about a thousand catechumens, who accompany catechumens awaiting baptism, even if the language and the lack of priests who speak the local language is always an underlying problem. In fact these catechists represent a "bridge" to overcome difficulties, distances and misunderstandings due to communication difficulties. And in this "the role of the laity is indispensable."
Finally, the prelate is planning trips within the diocese to visit as many people as possible. "I feel that we have yet to reach the full meaning of our mission - Msgr. Arpondratana - because we have not yet reached a level that would be able to walk alone".
The largest ethnic group in the country is the Thai (75%), followed by Chinese (14%) and others (11%). The official language is Thai, but English is considered the idiom of the elite. Theravada Buddhism is the main religion, practiced by 83% of the population; the next largest group is the Muslim minority (9%) and Christians (0.7%). According to the Department of Religious Affairs (Rad, which answers to the Ministry of Culture), the Catholic community has a population of about 300 thousand faithful, equal to 0.46%.