People at the PIME mission are getting ready for Easter. About 102 catechumens are preparing for their baptism. In northern Thailand, people become Christian through dual conversion, social first, individual later. The coronavirus threat hangs over the mission and the rest of the country. The Thai Church has suspended public ceremonies.
Mae Suay (AsiaNews) – Mayer, one of 102 catechumens (80 adults and 22 teenagers) who will be baptised in the coming weeks in Mae Suay, northern Thailand, welcomed the freedom of the faith in Christ to free himself from the enslavement of drug addiction.
Fr Marco Ribolini, the parish priest of the mission of the young Diocese of Chiang Rai, is a member of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME). He has bene in the southeast Asian country for 16 years. Mae Suay, one of the largest missions in the diocese, will celebrate its first 30 years this year.
Fr Ribolini is helped in his work by Fr Raju Kavala Moganati and Fr Massimo Bolgan, both clergymen with PIME, and Nathi Lobip, deacon who grew up in the mission. Together, they cover 29 remote villages, home to about 5,000 ethnic Akha (majority) and Lahu Christians.
“Here in the north, catechumens come mainly from tribal groups.” Fr Ribolini told AsiaNews. “In this area, one becomes Christian through a dual conversion.
“The first one is a social, group conversion, when entire communities, groups of families or villages decide to embrace Christianity. They turn to a priest, to whom they communicate their desire to be part of the ‘Catholics social group’.
“Years later, when they acquire a deeper knowledge of the religion, some tribal people undergo a personal conversion. This is the case of our catechumens. Yet, before accepting them in the catechism, we check that they choose freely and in full cognizance of their action.”
Mayer is one of the catechumens who will be baptised this year. “Last year, when we had a meeting, it was clear that he was a drug addict. Since he was an opium smoker, I was unable to accept him in catechism. I said to him: ‘Baptism makes us free. He who is enslaved cannot receive it.’
“In front of the catechist, Mayer promised me that he would stop. On that pledge, I accepted his registration, reserving the right to check the progress of his detox. A year later, with all the necessary care and thanks to the people around him, we made sure that Mayer was no longer taking drugs. Even his wife asked to be baptised. Preparing to free the heart from sin and death has become an opportunity to eliminate such a scourge.”
Fr Ribolini likes to tell another story “even if it goes back about 20 years ago. In Akha culture, the birth of twins is considered a misfortune, because it is a sign of the intervention of an evil spirit. In the past, this was dealt with by letting the children die in the forest. Over the years, this practice has been abandoned but the superstition has remained. A village chief did not want to believe in this, as he deeply loved the children he had.
“Faced with this, the village shaman told him: ‘If you want to live in peace, you have only one possibility, become a Christian because their God loves everyone and makes no distinctions.’” This person not only got baptised with his family, but also converted the whole village (about thirty families or 100 people) and became a catechist.”
For Fr Ribolini, now it is a busy time. Preparations are underway for Easter but in Mae Suay, as in the rest of Thailand, the threat of coronavirus looms. “The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Thailand (CBCT) has cancelled all public ceremonies. At the Mae Suay mission, we adapted and cancelled several activities.
“Last weekend (7-8 March), catechumens from mission villages attended the pre-baptismal rites for the last time. These usually take place every weekend during Lent and bring to a close a year-long journey of faith. Unfortunately, the health crisis has forced us to stop them. The catechumens will be baptised in their respective villages, which my confreres and I, plus the catechists, will visit after Easter. At that time, we will try to enforce the necessary measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“We plan to bear witness to the people that, even in times of fear, the Lord is there and that he stands by each of us. This is the meaning of the cross: The Lord accepts such a death to be close to humanity. We will do everything possible to ensure that our spiritual care for the community does not make us agents of the virus. At the same time, we cannot deny people the support of faith, especially in the current situation.”
(P.F. contributed to this article).