The many conversions among northern people nurture Thailand’s young Church. Compared to ethnic Thais, tribal people are more open to the proclamation of the Gospel. The many languages and vast territory make pastoral outreach by the missionaries a difficult endeavour.
Fang (AsiaNews) - Fr Massimo Bolgan (pictured), 50, is a priest with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) in Thailand. On 6 January, he became the parish priest of Fang, a town located in the far north of the country, on the border with Myanmar.
Fr Bolgan performs his service among tribal people and ethnic minorities, who live in poverty and isolation, both social and geographical. The local PIME mission runs two hostels, one in Fang and the other in Ban Thoet Thai, which can host up to a hundred children from poor families and provide them with an education.
Because of the size of the territory (the two centres are separated by more than 100 km), two distinct parishes were established at the request of Fr Bolgan and his confrere Fr Marco Ribolini, who is the new parish priest in Ban Thoet Thai. During the solemnity of the Epiphany, the feast day in Fang parish, the bishop of Chiang Mai celebrated the service that officially divided the mission into two.
Fr Bolgan spoke to AsiaNews about his experience in a frontier Church, animated by the conversions of tribal people.
The tribal minorities of northern Thailand, the so-called mountain tribes, are more open to the proclamation of the Gospel because they have been won over by the idea of God as 'Creator and Father'. For Fr Massimo Bolgan, this explains their path towards conversion.
"Thai culture is deeply rooted in Buddhist tradition,” he says, “which is why it is difficult for a foreign missionary to breach the hearts of the local population, even though priests are warmly welcomed. Most students at Catholic schools may be Buddhist, but conversions to Christianity among Thais are few.”
“In the north of the country, however, there is another reality. Local minorities, the so-called mountain tribes, are more open to the proclamation of the Gospel. They moved into this region from neighbouring countries: Myanmar, China and Laos.
“These people do not have a strong national identity, they do not have any Thai papers or citizenship and speak only their own dialects. The political and economic situation of their respective countries of origin drove them to Thailand, where they found greater peace of mind but also face greater obstacles in a more developed socio-economic context.
“The north is a mountainous region, a different environment and far from the plains where most Thais live and where they grow rice. From a religious point of view, these people are connected to spirit worship, which does not require sacred texts.
“The first Christian missionaries wrote down their languages, using the Latin alphabet. The first one to start working with these people was, for us at PIME, Fr Giovanni Zimbaldi. The 88-year-old is the oldest PIME missionary in Thailand. He has been in Asia since 1958. He lived in the mountains and forests of eastern Burma, until 1966, when the military imposed a dictatorship and expelled all younger missionaries. In 1972 he and two confreres moved to northern Thailand, in Chiang Mai, where they set up the PIME mission.
“The following year Fr Zimbaldi moved to Fang, 150 kilometres north of Chiang Mai, on the border with Burma (now Myanmar), on the site of a French mission that had been abandoned for years. Here he began working with members of the Lahu and Akha tribes who had fled Burma, people with whom he had worked in the past and whose language he knew well. Fr Zimbaldi translated into Lahu the catechism of the Catholic Church, religious texts, prayers and sacred songs.
"Some of the tribal people who arrived in Thailand had already heard about Fr Giovanni. For this reason, they called him to their villages and welcomed him with joy. He built the mission and now some 22 villages can be found within a 25-km radius around Fang. Further north, at Ban Thoet Thai, where Fr Giovanni opened another centre, there are another 25. Mae Suay, another PIME mission, has also grown over the years."
“The pastoral life of a priest in the north of the country requires a great deal of energy. This is partly due to the fact that these regions are remote and barely accessible. Moreover, the people who live there speak languages and dialects that missionaries often do not speak, making communication with the faithful difficult.
"The territory of the parish is very large and impassable. Nonetheless, I try to reach all 1,600 believers, visiting each village once every two months. Our outreach is made difficult by the fact that we missionaries do not speak tribal languages, but we are accompanied in our daily work by Catholics and catechists who act as interpreters.
“Every community is self-governing, even if sometimes they need our support, especially economic. Still, compared to a few years ago, the situation in the villages has improved. Although young, the faith of tribal people is closely linked to the sacraments, prayers and religious services. For this reason, Catholics feel the need of our presence as priests and slowly get rid of the fear that the previous religious belief infused into them.”
At the same time, “It is hard for us to guarantee the presence of catechists in each village because of the widespread economic difficulties that push people to move to the big cities. Even the children who stay in our hostels after school often go elsewhere and do not return to their original communities. This said, it is essential that these children get a Christian education, so that they can be future catholic leaders.
“The many conversions among the peoples in the North nurture the young Thai Church and constitute a radical change in the life of the tribal people. There are several reasons that push the tribes to seek contact with the missionaries. One of them is children education, which the villages alone cannot guarantee due to lack of facilities. The only way the tribal people can get young people to study was to entrust them to the hostels run by Fr Giovanni in Fang and Mae Suay. Another reason is the desire of these people to free themselves from the influence and fear of the spirits.
“The comparison with neighbouring villages that have already met the missionaries and benefitted from their presence, including economic benefits, and given up traditional beliefs, pushes tribal people to make contact with priests. Once the latter are welcomed into their huts, they remove the [old] idols and sacred objects, before beginning a journey of conversion that starts with the teaching of the prayers and the sacraments."
"Since they have a strong bond with nature, tribal people are attracted to the idea of God as the Creator, which is inherent in Christianity. The image of a God who is also a Father, who loves humans is another aspect that draws them a lot, that wins over their heart.
“Conversion to the new faith also infuses them with the joy of belonging to a larger family: the universal Church, something especially important since they suffer from the prejudices of many Thais.” Indeed, “With respect to the Church, in Catholic villages we missionaries refer to something that goes beyond the boundaries of communities and nations. Looking at the images of the pope and Christians all over the world, tribal people feel proud to be part of the Catholic family.”
Lastly, Fr Bolgan notes that “In this area there are many Protestants, missionaries from the United States and South Korea, but the difference is felt because they are a bit turned inward in their own communities, whereas Catholics embrace the world.”