Rome (AsiaNews) – “We must live closer to the people” to be true missionaries, said Mgr Francis Xavier Vira Arpondratana (pictured), bishop of Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, one of the most promising dioceses in the country in terms of conversions, especially among tribal peoples.
In 1987, the diocese was home to 17,533 Catholics; at present, they exceed 51,000 out of a population of more than five million. Muslims and Buddhists too are now sending missionaries to the north to convert, but locals tend to prefer the Catholic Church.
Ordained as a priest on 7 June 1981, Mgr Vira was general secretary of the Episcopal Commission for Catechesis for 21 years. In 2009, he was consecrated bishop. In a recent visit to Rome, Mgr Vira met with AsiaNews, to whom he described the life of the diocese and how missionary activity occurs.
What is the situation in the Diocese of Chiang Mai?
Thailand is divided into ten dioceses. Chiang Mai is one of the largest, covering eight provinces. There are more than 50,000 Catholics in the diocese, plus more than 30,000 catechumens about one-sixth of the population. Most local Catholics are tribal (about 90 per cent), and not ethnically Thai. Karen are 60 per cent, Akha are 20 per cent, plus smaller tribes. Only 10 per cent is ethnically Thai. A strong wave of evangelisation is sweeping the diocese, which has been going on for many years and has given good results. About 10 per cent of Karen has now converted to Catholicism.
Why are tribals so eager to convert?
Education and a desire to integrate are the reasons for joining the Catholic Church. Locals are poor but open-minded, looking for new development opportunities. Somehow, their tribal animist faith drives them to look for something else; it tends to be rigid, cruel, and very wasteful. Everything they do requires efforts, including economic sacrifices.
They see something different in Catholicism, unlike Protestantism (which came before us in the north, now one hundred years ago) whose rules they dislike, like paying the tithe, the ban on alcohol, etc. In view of this desire for conversion, Muslims and Buddhists (who are 95 per cent of the Thai population) have also tried to convert people in the North, but with limited results.
What is the relationship between Thailand’s various religions?
Generally, harmony and tolerance prevail. Some misunderstandings have developed between Buddhists and Muslims. Buddhists are a bit Islamophobic and do not like what they see in the predominantly Muslim provinces of the south.
Violent incidents have occurred in the past. Muslims want to build mosques in the provinces where they are very few in numbers, to boost their visibility. Buddhists refuse to allow that.
What is your style of evangelisation?
We are very much involved in education. The diocese runs seven Catholic schools and eight more are run by religious in four other provinces. However, we cannot do more or expand our schools, because we lack funds and personnel.
Evangelisation among tribals is sometimes difficult. There are at least six major languages to learn, which I personally do not speak. For this reason, we must train local catechists, who know the language.
Pope Francis said that Asia is the driving force of world evangelisation. Do you agree?
Yes, absolutely. Indeed, John Paul II had said that Asia is "our common task for the third millennium." In my diocese for example, there are many young people and 30,000 catechumens. We can baptise about a thousand people a year. In Bangkok, I train catechists. I am also secretary general of the National Commission of catechists.
You recently met with the pope. What did you give him?
I gave him a copy of the Bible in Thai. This is the first ever Catholic edition, the full version of the Old and New Testaments. It took more than 20 years, starting in 1992, but it is now available. We printed it with the help of the Thai Bible Society and the Korean Bible Society (KBS).
We printed it in Korea because it was cheaper. We are very proud of this publication, which will considerably help the local Church. Now it is up to us to teach the faithful to use the sacred text, to read it and pray with it.
What do you do for young people in your diocese?
We work hard for and with young people, especially in education. We have 40 youth centres for children, where they can study. The latter can also attend state schools, but they live with us, and we educate them.
We also have 20 female and 10 male religious communities who are directly involved in educating the young, as well as priests. Centres also teach catechism and prayer.
Nuns are involved in more activities, helping about 700 girls in two schools. They do a nice job because they make them study, and help them find work afterwards. If the girls are academically inclined, the nuns provide them with financial aid so that they can continue their studies.
What problems do you encounter in evangelising young people?
Young people are drawn to the big cities, where they look for a different life from that of their parents. They do not want to work in the fields. They want an easy life and sometimes even leave our facilities. For example, some time ago, I visited one centre that used to have 30 girls. Now there are only seven.
Often young people move to state schools, where they are freer to do whatever they want since no one controls them. They can use a mobile phone when they want. Bu contrast, in our facilities, mobiles are allowed only on Sunday (to avoid distractions). In general, young people do not want to work as hard as their parents did, and that is sad.
What problems do people face in your diocese?
In Chiang Mai, drugs are one of the worst problems. At the end of the year, the government plans to set up a tax-free zone to facilitate the free movement of people and trade as part of the ASEAN’s economic community. However, this will lead to greater social evils, like drug addiction and human trafficking. Consumerism will become the prevailing model of behaviour.
The Karen used to grow poppies for opium, thankfully, less so now. Every day someone is arrested for drug dealing. Unfortunately, we do not have sufficient resources to protect people from this.
What can improve in your missionary work?
Often our priests celebrate the liturgy but do not live in contact with the people, and that is a shame. We must do what the first missionaries did and create small basic communities, and live among them. We have been trying to do this but it is slow go. It is hard in the cities because people think they already have it all. Still, we are present in the north, as the pope said, on the edge. Adults unwilling to act responsibly is another problem.
Sometimes when we perform confirmations, we have a single godfather for 50 confirmands. In addition, in the north, large segments of the population is illiterate, only catechists have the book. And even those who can read, religious included, are not interested in studying, preferring a simpler life.
In general, what we need are more people, even lay people, to work in schools. Teachers should have a missionary inspiration, and also morally educate.
(Pictured: Mgr Vira in the middle, Fr Bernardo Cervellera on the left and Fr Claudio Corti, a PIME missionary in northern Thailand, on the right)