04/05/2005, 00.00
THAILAND - VATICAN

When I taught the Pope Thai

by Angelo Campagnoli
A PIME missionary who worked on the Pope's Thai visit remembers and a preview on an article to be published in Mondo e Missione's special May issue dedicated to the Missionary Pope.

Milan (AsiaNews) – How does it feel to work on preparing an apostolic trip? Ask Fr Angelo Campagnoli, a long-serving PIME missionary in Thailand, who collaborated in organising the 1984 papal visit to the Buddhist country.

Father Campagnoli's story is full of juicy anecdotes and interesting thoughts from the point of view of a missionary.

In thinking about the Pontiff's desire to learn a few sentences in the local language—something that had become a tradition—, Campagnoli remembers warning the Pope about pronunciation.

In one of his last pieces of advice Father Campagnoli writes telling the "Holy Father about the danger that instead of saying "Muang thai" (i.e. Thailand) he might let out "Man taai" (which means dead potato)".

"The local press wrote that it was highly unlikely that the Pope would say anything in Thai. But when, from the beautiful platform where he stood, the Pope said in Thai—'Praise the Lord Jesus Christ'—everyone was taken by surprise. The Pop also said: 'The Pope loves Thailand' but as I feared it sounded more like 'The Pope loves dead potato'. Fortunately, the Cardinal of Bangkok slightly touched the Pope's arm and in a second the Pope corrected himself and this time it came out as "The Pope loves Thailand".

When that happened, the stadium exploded in cries of joy as people couldn't believe that he could speak their language. Thai dignitaries, who were sitting on the same platform, were also taken unaware."

Talking about the trip itself, the missionary recalls that "on that May 10, 1984, I, too, was in Bangkok Stadium to welcome the Pope, and with me were tens of thousands of people from around the country." Work had started earlier and months had gone into preparing the trip.

Father Campagnoli remembers talks he held with John Paul II about it. He recalls how the Pope showed keen interest in knowing about his experience as a missionary.

"The Pope asked me: 'In 12 years how many people have you baptised?' As I was trying to remember the number, the Pope said: 'Give me an average!' Six or seven was my answer. 'How many zeros after those numbers?' he said. 'None!' I told him. 'Then what are you doing there?' was his logical and direct question. Unsettled, I answered: 'If you want, I'll tell.' 'I am listening," he said."

"I must have talked for at least half hour, with some pointed questions coming from the Pope on some issues which showed that he already knew the situation."

"I went on describing my life among people who were impossible to convert by official standards because for them Buddhism was one and the same with their culture, traditions, celebrations and every day life."
"For someone to say 'I am non longer Buddhist' would be like saying 'I am no longer Thai, I renege every good I ever received'."

"'Yet,' I told the Pope' 'they trust us with their children in our schools where the Christian vision on life and man are the explicit foundations of the education we provide. And they give us a place of honour at civic functions and consult us on public issues."

"A top provincial official, who was master of ceremony at a celebration in our school, went so far as to say that our presence changed the history of the city."

"More than once people respectfully told me: 'You are like one of us. Too bad, you are not Buddhist.'" 

Father Campagnoli adds:  "A sigh that was half way between the amused and the concerned, made me continue. 'So what is it going to be Your Holiness? Should I stay among these people despite the few conversions, or should I go elsewhere', I told the Pope."

"'No! No!' the Pope said forcefully. 'Continue doing what you are doing and get others to come and help you do it!'"

"Imagine how these words consoled me!"

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