The PIME superior delegate in Thailand speaks about Pope Francis’s apostolic visit. Nearly 70,000 people are expected at the Mass in the Supachalasai National Stadium in Bangkok. For Fr Arioldi, the pontiff’s presence will shake up the Catholic community. For him, “An exclusively devotional faith won’t withstand the impact of secularism, consumerism and globalisation.”
Bangkok (AsiaNews) – During Pope Francis’s apostolic visit (20-23 November), Thai Catholics "will have the opportunity to be Church, live the faith they received and reconfirm it grouped around the pontiff,” said Fr Maurizio Arioldi, superior delegate of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) for Thailand and Myanmar, speaking to AsiaNews.
The clergyman is parish priest at Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Blessed Chiara Luce Badano in Ngao, in the northern province of Lampang (Diocese of Chiang Rai). The mission serves about 15 tribal villages (eight Akha, two Yao, four Karen and one Thai) with almost 3,500 people, including adults and children.
Defined by the motto "Disciples of Christ, missionary disciples", Pope Francis' long-awaited visit will take place in the year in which the Church of Thailand celebrates the 350th anniversary of the Apostolic Vicariate of Siam, established in 1669.
Francis is the second pontiff to visit the country after Saint John Paul II in 1984. His trip is set to be very busy, culminating in a solemn Mass on 21 November at the Supachalasai National Stadium in Bangkok before an expected 70,000 people.
At a press conference on 28 October, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Thailand (CBCT) stated that "a large number of people, both Thai and foreign, have registered to attend Mass". Given the limited capacity of the site, quotas were imposed on each parish in terms of the number of members who could attend.
"Some 40 will come from the small community in Ngao,” said Fr Arioldi. “In selecting participants, the Diocese of Chiang Rai decided to give priority to ‘prayer leaders’ and catechists, i.e. people who support and announce the Gospel every day among their people, despite difficulties and hardships.”
“In addition to these two groups, in Ngao we decided to invite members experiencing special circumstances, such as a widowed mother who has an amphetamines-dependent son, and a young man whose young mother recently died of cancer. We want to express support to these people, offering them a chance they might never have had otherwise. We believe it will do them good to attend Mass, see and hear Pope Francis, the faith of the Church.”
Catholics’ expectations about the Pope's visit are high. "At present, it is difficult to predict how this apostolic visit will change the Thai Church,” the priest said. “I hope and believe that it will give a boost to bearing witness. The Pope’s presence will move many situations.”
“The Thai Church is self-sufficient, nationalist and sometimes too self-centred. It will depend on us and the Bishops' Conference how the Holy Father’s messages will be received and how they will be translated in everyday choices. I imagine the pontiff will push us to leave our comfort zone.”
“As a tiny minority (0.46 per cent), it is understandable that there is a tendency to 'feel good about each other' in the Thai Catholic community.” However, many believe the papal trip can bridge the gap between the two souls of Thailand’s Catholic community: the northern 'catechumenal' Church, led by the conversions of tribal communities, and the Church in Bangkok and the big cities, where Catholicism is more “institutional" and deeply immersed in the Thai context.
In light of this, “I hope that Pope Francis’s arrival will bridge the gap between the two. We in PIME also experience this situation. Card Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovithavanij, Archbishop of Bangkok, is already stressing the need for the missionary spirit in the urban environment, noting that schools cannot be the only place for evangelisation. The bishop wants ‘points of evangelisation’ in the city, where the proclamation of the Gospel is conducted with charity in mind and in support of the marginalised, not only in education.”
Hence, the cardinal set up three "experimental" missionary parishes, one entrusted to PIME (with Fr Adriano Pelosin), one to the Xaverians and one to Society of Foreign Missions of Paris (MEP).
At the same time, “the Northern Church too must not sit on its hands. Although it is missionary in orientation, it must go further. Tribal people are sensitive, attentive, and respond positively to the proclamation, but it is necessary to avoid the risk of stopping only at the sacramentalisation of the faith.”
In fact, “There are dangers for both Churches, including us in the North. An exclusively devotional faith won’t withstand the impact of secularism, consumerism and globalisation.” (PF)