05/04/2009, 00.00
THAILAND
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Chiang Mai celebrates ordination of Mgr Arphonrat

by Weena Kowitwanij
The new bishop replaces 74-year-old Mgr Surasarang who resigned for health reasons. The ceremony was presided by the archbishop of Bangkok with 5,000 participants from across the country, including some in traditional dress from the northern highlands. A Buddhist leader sends his best wishes to the new bishop, hoping for joint efforts at promoting harmony among the faithful.
Bangkok (AsiaNews) – The diocese of Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, celebrated the consecration of its new bishop, Fr Francis Xavier Vira Arphonrat (pictured). Ordained priest on 7 June 1981, he was the secretary general of the Episcopal Commission for the Catechesis for 21 years and is now replacing Mgr Joseph Sangval Surasarang DD, 74, who resigned for health reason after leading the diocese for 22 years. Thanks to the pastoral activity of his predecessor the number of Catholics in the diocese has increased three fold, from 17,533 in 1987 to more than 51,000 at present out of a population of just over 5,000,000.

Mgr Francis Xavier Vira Arphonrat’s consecration ceremony was held last Friday in the Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral in Chiang Mai. It was presided by Card Michael Michai Kitbunchu, archbishop of Bangkok, and involved about 5,000 faithful from around the country, including one group in the traditional dress of the northern tribes, who were very much represented in the diocese of Chiang Mai.

During the homily Cardinal Kitbunchu thanked Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej for the “country’s religious freedom” and for his work “in favour of education and the social development of the population.”

Mgr Salvatore Pennacchio, apostolic nuncio in Thailand, said that “true cooperation leads to fruitful evangelisation”, stressing the work of the laity in “announcing the Good News to each family.”

In his greetings to all those who took part in the ceremony, Mgr Francis Xavier Vira Arphonrat thanked “Card Michael Michai Kitbunchu for his teachings” and the “trust” he has shown him by “keeping him for the past 21 years in charge of the catechesis.”

The new bishop said that he “plans to use the acquired experienced to announce the Word of God,” fulfilling thus the motto he chose for his episcopate: “Omnia facio propter evangelium, All this I do for the sake of the gospel,” which is taken from the Letter of Saint Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians.  

Most Catholics in Chiang Mai come from the highlands. Out of respect for local traditions, the Eucharistic celebration ended with chants in the local language.

Building “unity in God” starting from typical local “differences” is the greatest challenge for evangelisation in the diocese,” something that has characterised the work of missionaries in the past, including that of the Mission Étrangères of Paris, the MEP and the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, which is present in the diocese with a missionary centre, and something Mgr Arphonrat plans to continue.

The new bishop of Chiang Mai received the best wishes of Phura Thepkosol, the abbot of the Buddhist temple of Phrathat Doi Suthep, a symbol in the region, and host of relics of the “enlightened one”.

The abbot gave Mgr Arphonrat a book with the teachings of the Buddha, stressing the need for joint action based on harmony promoted by religious leaders.

“We are not in competition,” said Phura Thepkosol. “We must coordinate our efforts to promote happiness among the faithful and peace in society.”

Peace and harmony are values rooted in Thai society which is currently affected by a phase of political and social unrest that has led to deaths, violence and factional clashes.

Created on 17 November 1959, the diocese of Chiang Mai is at the heart of the evangelisation effort in northern Thailand, covering eight different provinces with a population of 5.4 million people, including more than 51,000 Catholics, 24 diocesan priests, 62 religious, 12 brothers of the Order of Saint Gabriel and 137 nuns who work with the pastoral action promoted by the diocese. There are also 24 major and 98 minor seminaries. The first diocesan priest was Fr Cyril Niphot Tienvihan, who was ordained on 5 January 1975.

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