Paris Foreign Missions celebrate 350 years serving the Thai people
by Daniele Mazza
From the time the first priest set foot on Thai soil in the mid-1600s to today’s educational and welfare facilities, the Missions’ long history is an invitation for the future, to continue its dialogue with Buddhism and to push the Thai Church to fulfill its universal mission. Today 23 of its members still call Thailand home.
Bangkok (AsiaNews) – The Society of Foreign Missions of Paris (or Missions Étrangères de Paris, MEP for short) celebrated its 350 years in Thailand today in St Joseph Church. Card Michael Michai Kitbunchu, archbishop of Bangkok, led the Eucharist; he was joined by bishops from Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar, as well as many a priest and hundreds of worshippers.

During the ceremony Archbishop Kitbunchu mentioned the first MEP missionaries, whose remains are buried in St Joseph Church, stressing their life and work in favour of evangelisation, whose result is the local Church, now 340,000-strong, albeit a small minority in a mostly Buddhist country of 60 million.

Mgr Pierre Lambert de la Motte was the first MEP missionary to reach Thailand. Appointed apostolic vicar to Tonkin by Pope Alexander VII, he stopped in what was then called Siam for 12 years before moving on to Vietnam. Out of this came the first Christian community and the first seminary to train local priests.

Monsignor de la Motte was followed by Mgr Louis Laneau, Siam’s first apostolic vicar, whose “work of evangelisation even brought the Gospel to areas around the ancient Kingdom of Ayutthaya” where he met some members of the royal family, said Cardinal Kitbunchu.

Today there are 23 MEP missionaries in the country, mostly elderly. Some of them attend to the needs of Burmese refugees languishing along the Thailand-Myanmar border. Others carry out pastoral work in Bangkok.

Because of their presence new schools, colleges, hospitals and shelters have been built in the last few decades as they maintained constant their commitment to spread the Gospel.

In thanking the Lord for the past 350 years, Fr Jean-Baptiste Etcharren, MEP superior general, urged the Thai Church to find inspiration in the three moments that have characterised the mission’s history so that they can focus on the country’s immediate future.

The Foreign Missions superior stressed the 40-day retreat newly arrived MEP missionaries had to undergo in Ayutthaya before striking out on their own. He then talked about the establishment of the first apostolic vicariates which provided a venue for dialogue with Buddhists. And finally he mentioned to the creation of a local seminary to train local priests.

As he referred to these three moments Father Etcharren expressed his best wishes to the Thai Church, hoping that from a focus on contemplation it might extend its mission, opening up to a broader dialogue with Buddhism. Also he said he hoped that the (growing) local clergy might send more priests in new areas where they can further develop the evangelising reach of the Universal Church.