On 25 April, Pope Francis created the new diocese of Chiang Rai, which has more than 16,000 members, mostly from poor ethnic minorities that are socially and geographically marginalised. Economics and a shortage of priests are some of the challenges that await the new diocese.
Vatican City (AsiaNews) – Mgr Joseph Vuthilert Haelom (picture 1), the newly elected bishop and first prelate of Chiang Rai, in northern Thailand, wants “to strengthen the faith and the hearts of people, so that they won’t be attracted by the temptation of wealth but rely on Christ”.
AsiaNews spoke to the prelate, who was received today by Pope Francis along with other Thai bishops, during their ad limina visit to the Vatican.
On 25 April, the pontiff created the new Diocese of Chiang Rai by splitting it from the Diocese of Chiang Mai, and made it suffragan of the Bangkok metropolitan see. Some 16,500 Catholics live in the new diocese, which is in northern Thailand and is home to 2.6 million people.
Most Catholics belong to several tribal ethnic minorities (Akka, Lana, Lahu, Isan, Thaiyai and Kachin), who live in mountainous and rural areas, amid poverty and social and geographical marginalisation.
The Church has therefore organised the division of the vast and impervious territory of the old Diocese of Chiang Mai so as to better serve the pastoral needs of these groups.
"This decision will bring about an improvement in the life of the Church in the region,” said Mgr Joseph Vuthilert Haelom. “Dictated by convenience, it is also a sign of continuity.”
"In the past I was Vicar General of Chiang Mai and I know the reality of the diocese, which covers the whole of northern Thailand. The division will certainly favour greater closeness to the needs of the various parishes and missions."
Despite widespread poverty, Chiang Rai is a border region and the future is expected to bring greater economic openness towards the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
For the bishop, this represents a challenge for the future of evangelisation and Catholics. "One task that must be carried out at a pastoral level will be to strengthen their faith so that they won’t lose themselves in the economic aspect of improving their life."
"One of the areas in which the local Church has been engaged for some time is that of education,” said the 67-year-old prelate. “For example, we have several hostels that host children and young students. We try to help people, both in professional training and in finding a job.”
"The image that locals, Catholic or others, have of the Church is partly that of the missionaries of the past, who came and helped. Therefore, one of the expectations that they have is to receive help, not only at a spiritual level, but above all at a material level.”
For the prelate, “These expectations must remind us of our commitment, not only in terms of charity, but also towards helping people to believe."
However, the rapid and dangerous transition from a rural reality to the possibilities created by economic development are not the only difficulties in Chiang Rai.
"The small number of priests is a problem,” he noted. “There are only two local diocesan priests. In this context, the work done by the catechists will be very important because, unlike priests and religious, they are many of them. Their contribution will be fundamental for the work of evangelisation."
In addition to the contribution of the laity, the Diocese of Chiang Rai can count on the services of the various missionary and religious institutes operating in the area.
"There are ten religious institutes, among which the PIME (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions) is a major player, and ten female religious congregations. One major task that I will have to undertake will be to coordinate their work,” said the prelate.
The experience that he has accumulated over the years will help the new bishop. Between 2005 and 2012, he was as vicar general of Chiang Mai. Then he became vicar general of Bangkok.
"The Thai Church is very small (picture 2), so it can be said that I know everybody, priests and nuns", said Mgr Joseph Vuthilert Haelom.
"Becoming a priest, many years ago, was in itself a great grace. Now the Lord has chosen me to become a bishop. I am at a peace. I sleep at night. I know it is a great responsibility but I am also aware that the Lord will give me the grace to be a capable bishop.”
The prelate welcomed his appointment by Pope Francis and is conscious of "the weight of being the first bishop of Chiang Rai".
"When I pray, I usually say, 'Sir, you have chosen me, so you will have to work harder because I am only an instrument'. Everything will depend on Him."