Rome (AsiaNews) – Fr Piergiacomo Urbani was one of the first priests the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) sent to Thailand, in 1974. A few days ago, Fr Urbani arrived in Rome along with some confreres to celebrate 50 years of their priesthood. AsiaNews caught up with him to hear the story of his 40 years of experience in the South-east Asian nation.
I arrived in Thailand in January 1974. At that time, the PIME mission in the country was just at its beginning, and included only myself, Fr Angelo Campagnoli, Fr Giovanni Zimbaldi and Fr Silvano Magistrali.
The idea was to engage in dialogue with Buddhism, but upon our arrival, we realised that a mission based only on dialogue could not work. It was neither feasible nor realistic. For certain, missionaries also engage in dialogue, but that is not the mission's main purpose, which is to proclaim the Gospel.
My first years in Thailand were a time of settling in. I had to study and learn the language. Thai is a tonal language. It has five main tones, a bit like Chinese. Then in 1975, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia fell under Communist regimes and the situation became more complicated.
Thailand stopped granting foreigners permits or permanent visas. Only through Fr Campagnoli did I manage to get one of the last permanent visas issued by the Thai government and was thus able to stay.
After a short stint with the confreres of St Gabriel, the bishop of Bangkok (now Cardinal Emeritus) asked me and Fr Magisterial to teach at the major seminary in the capital, which had been established a few years earlier. Before that, local priests were trained at the International Seminar in Penang, Malaysia.
The bishop also asked me to act as coadjutor in Bangkok's St Xavier's Parish. This was my entry into the Thai Church: teaching philosophy to seminarians and doing pastoral work.
For 12 years, I stayed in that parish, totally immersed in the atmosphere and Thai culture. I met with PIME confreres only twice a year.
At St Xavier, I noticed some interest in Christianity, by members of other religions as well. Often I saw Buddhists attend Mass; sometimes they tried to take communion (which I did not give). They were curious, attracted by the liturgy and the singing.
In the parish, I was the first to propose the establishment of the catechumenate. At the beginning, we put an ad for the catechism and 30 people, a good number, joined up right away. Each year, at Easter Vigil, we baptise some 15 people who complete the course.
In my opinion, the catechumenate is necessary because in the past, those who wanted to be baptised were directly taught by the parish priest, for three or four months. Such a short period of time undermines the process; it does not seem serious enough. Catechumens must be brought into a living community of faith, one in which they feel welcome. It is not a solo journey. Psychological and social aspects do matter. One does not only receive the faith in a theoretical way; it must penetrate life, and touch all aspects.
I brought in neo-catechumenal catechists from Italy to help develop a truly Christian community. Through them, I immediately saw a big change in my parishioners. I came to realise that faith is not only based on Bible studies, but also on the celebration of the Word in their lives. Often faith is studied, not lived.
In 1987, I was transferred from St Xavier to another parish, Our Lady of Mercy of Bangkok, which over time has become PIME's reference point in the country.
Over the years, the community has grown a lot, through conversions and baptisms. Now the life of about a thousand people revolves around the church, and we have four Sunday Masses.
There are also two catechumenal communities, the Legio Mariae and a number of social activities. Fr Adriano Pelosin set up the San Martin Foundation, which builds "houses of hope", facilities for up to 70 children – orphans or from dysfunctional families. We also have a home for disabled children aged 6 and 7 run by Xaverian nuns.
I stayed at Our Lady of Mercy for 18 years. At present, I still teach at seminary, and go to the parish only on Saturdays and Sundays, to give a hand to the neo-catechumenal communities.
Thailand's Catholic Church is vibrant, with some 300,000 members. Tribal peoples in the north are more likely to convert than ethnic Thais. For most of the latter, being Buddhist and Thai are one and the same, and they are proud of their identity. This makes conversion for them that much harder.
However, the challenge for the future is being more open to evangelisation. Otherwise, the Thai Church runs the risk of becoming complacent, settling for what it has done so far, thus losing its missionary inspiration. The presence of PIME priests helps because it reminds us that the mandate of Jesus is to proclaim the Gospel to everyone.