"Our area is large and hard-to-get-to,” says the clergyman. “For many Catholics it is hard to reach the city from where they live. So, after Easter, I visit each of the 20 villages of the mission to celebrate the solemnity”.
Fang (AsiaNews) - Fr Massimo Bolgan (pictured), 50, is a missionary priest with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) in Thailand. Last 6 January, he became parish priest in Fang, a town in Thailand’s far north, on the border with Myanmar.
Here he ministers to various tribes and ethnic minorities, mostly poor and living in remote areas. The local PIME mission has two hostels, one in Fang and one in Ban Thoet Thai, home to more than a hundred children from poor families. Here, they can get an education.
Fr Bolgan’s life as a priest requires a lot of energy because of the area’s remoteness and inaccessibility. He spoke to AsiaNews, describing the days leading up to Easter in a frontier church, enlivened by the conversion of tribal peoples.
How does Thailand’s small Catholic community experience the time before Easter?
“The school year has already ended in Thailand, so we are on a holiday break. Usually, Easter occurs at Songkran, the Buddhist lunisolar New Year. This is a great time for Thais, who celebrate for five days in the streets, in mock fights with water balloons to purify all the bad things from the previous year. This can make it hard for Christians to concentrate during Holy Week. But this year Easter comes a few days before the New Year, so there won’t be any problem.
What initiatives has PIME undertaken at its mission in Fang?
"With the schools closed, the children who stay in our residential facility during the year go home. Therefore, for Holy Week we have decided to organise a camp for the kids from the villages covered by our mission. As of yesterday, we have about a hundred students from middle school and through activities we have prepared for them, like meetings and catechesis, we shall prepare them to live and understand the deep meaning of the Easter Triduum. This is a unique opportunity for them to experience the Easter together.
When I carry out pastoral visits to their communities, it is rare to see them in church for Mass, attended mostly by adults and seniors. For young people, a camp offers an opportunity to deepen their faith. Several of the children who come have not yet been baptised. If the parents have not received the sacrament and their children are not adults, we priests do not baptise them."
How does mission life change at this time?
"Thanks to the kids in the camp, Fang parish is always full. Usually, some 40 or 50 people attend it. It is because we are in a town, where it is harder for Christianity to breach the strong Buddhist tradition of Thai culture. Still, since we are a border town, the small community has been strengthened by people from Myanmar settling in the area. Plus, the young people who have been at our centre in the past are always very prepared and steadfast in the faith.”
How do local Catholics celebrate Easter?
"As to how villagers celebrate Easter, it must be said that Fang is different from other missions, where settlements are closer to each other and priests can bring together the faithful more easily. Our area is large and hard-to-get-to. For many Catholics it is difficult to reach the town from where they live. So, after Easter, I visit each of the mission’s 20 villages to celebrate the solemnity, even if it is after the holy day. Since that will be during working days, I asked the faithful to meet me in the morning or in the evening.”
Easter is a time of baptisms. How many tribal people will become Christians and what kind of journey of conversion have they undertaken?
"In the first week, I’ll visit ten villages. In three of these, I will administer the baptism to scores of adults and children: 15 in the first, 20 in the second and six in the third. The ceremony represents an important moment for the whole community because it will involve the first groups of adults becoming Christians. It is customary here to celebrate baptisms, especially for adults, on Holy Saturday, at the end of a period of preparation of at least two years, which begins with the renunciation of previous beliefs. During this period, our catechists visit the villages almost every month to educate future Christians. It is important for us to verify that the participation of the catechumens in the meetings is constant. At the end of the journey, the catechist will determine whether or not the person is ready to receive the baptism.”
What Easter tradition is felt the most among the faithful?
"Traditionally, at Easter, ethnic Akha tribal people give away red-painted hard-boiled eggs. At this time, when I visit their villages, I see many children and women with their hands stained with dye, but when I ask how the custom developed, nobody is able to answer me and they are all amazed by my curiosity. My guess is that these people, originally from Myanmar, came into contact with the first Western missionaries who introduced this Easter symbol. So, I usually use this opportunity to explain to them what the egg represents to me: the image of a life born out of something that seems inanimate.”
What battles and challenges do PIME missionaries face in Fang?
"Right now, we PIME missionaries have completed the new edition of a prayer book in the Akha language and we are trying to find money to get it printed. We believe it is important that tribal people have a text that can help them pray. Despite many difficulties, such as the high rate of illiteracy, we are investing a lot of our energy in this project, supported also by the work of catechists, who master the language. We must believe in it.”
"Another area in which we are working hard is the training of catechists and tribal leaders, people who can help to teach the faithful how to pray in places where we priests cannot go. In this case too, the difficulties we must overcome are different. First of all, there is the lack of lay people willing to take on the task and dedicate time to it. Secondly, there is the difficulty of raising funds to pay people and counter the same economic pressures that drive people to the big cities.
“Still, despite everything, this is our dream and we shall do everything we can to make it come true.”