Christmas among Lahu and Akha tribals of Fang
Dressed in traditional clothing, whole villages in procession carry the statue of baby Jesus to the church where Christmas mass is celebrated. A still immature religion, but one that is growing among younger people. The mission of Fr Massimo Bolgan, PIME, 12 years in Thailand.
Fang (AsiaNews) - In northern Thailand, in the mountains of Chiang Mai province, tribal people celebrate Christmas for a whole week. This is the amount of time it takes the PIME missionaries (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions) who are present there - three in all - to reach all the Catholic villages of the area. "We come with a statue of the Infant Jesus, a large one, 30-40cm - says Fr Massimo Bolgan, in Thailand for 12 years - and the entire village waits for us at the entrance to the village, wearing their traditional dress and with a sort of cradle hand made for the statuette. Then, in procession and singing traditional songs, we move together toward the church, where we celebrate mass. At the end of the function, we distribute gifts to children of the village prepared by us. Each package contains clothes that come from Italy, pens and candy. "
There is a great turn out, because it represents an important moment for the whole village. After Mass, we all eat and celebrate together. "The sense of this - says the missionary - is that the entire village welcomes Jesus and takes him into the house of the Lord. Welcoming not only the statue but also the sacrament of the Eucharist. And finally they come to pay their last respects to the image of baby Jesus, which they embrace".
The Catholic presence in Thailand is very small, only 0.1% of a total population of 66.7 million inhabitants. The tribal people of the north are the densest core of Catholics. Throughout the diocese of Chiang Mai - the second state after Bangkok - there are 80 thousand Catholics, of which 60 thousand already baptized. The parishes of Fang, the location of the PIME mission, has 5,200 Catholics, including 2 thousand baptized and 3 thousand who are still following their path of catechesis.
The tribal people of Fang followed by PIME are from the Lahu and Akha ethnicities. Though they lived close to each other, they have different cultures, languages and customs. Traditionally they are animists, which for them means sacrificing a chicken when you are unwell, going to a witch doctor and being afraid of the spirits. Their encounter with Jesus Christ is also thanks to "word of mouth." They tribals themselves called the priests, "simple people - says the missionary - whose religion is still immature. Many of the elders that we see in the chapel, when we celebrate the Mass, do not speak Thai and maybe do not even know the sign of the cross. But they are still in the church and participate in the function and the prayers. We talk to them about God who is Creator, who loves us and protects us: these people who are poor and abandoned to their fate, find they no longer alone. "
In the north, PIME has two hostels, about 90 km distant from each other: one in Fang, where there are a hundred children from elementary school to middle school, one in Ban Thai Thoet (province of Chiang Rai) which houses 70 other children of the same age. "The children live with us in these centers”, says Fr Bolgan. “In the morning they go off to school in the afternoon and they return together, do their homework, eat, sleep. Although small, we give them some lessons in catechism, because they have already known Christianity in their family, their parents are usually baptized, or are preparing to receive the sacrament. When they come home they find a positive example, which is very important that we teach them things that are found in the family. We try to form Christians, who we hope in the future will spread their faith. "
The new generations are more "modern" and globalized: they know the television, have a motorbike and drive on better built roads. "Once they have finished high school - says the missionary - we help our children to continue their studies. Once they have finished studying, it is difficult for them to return to the village in the mountains to plant corn and live in bamboo huts. Young people look for a place in town to find a job that makes them earn a little more. Maybe they fall in love with a Thai boy or a girl and want to get married. "
Historically, Thai society tends to discriminate against people from the north. In such a society, it is very difficult to be tribal. Being part of a small religious minority, like the Catholics, increases the sense of discrimination. Moreover, very often the churches in the city - when there are churches - are rarely visited places. So, when young people move to large cities, they try to hide their origins, changing their names so people will not discover where they come from, moving away gradually from their traditional cultures. According to Fr. Bolgan, "it is normal for this to happen, because cultures are very simple. However, although we know that is part of their growth process and can not return to as they were before, we must help them to make this step in the best way. "
The future is uncertain. "But - says Fr. Bolgan - we can intervene in this process of assimilation, without erasing their identity. Even for this, occasions like Christmas are important: we invite the children to wear their traditional costumes and dress the same way as the statue of the Infant Jesus when he comes to church. Moments like this are so they do not forget God, or their origins. "
(Taken from the article on Fr. Bolgan from the December issue of the AsiaNews magazine)