For PIME missionary, Christ is the source of redemption amid natural disasters and bad role models
by Valerio Sala
Fr Valerio Sala recounts his experiences in northern Thailand, a region that was recently hit by a major earthquake. He describes his pastoral visits to local villages and his work running three hostels, which 70 students, ranging from elementary to high school, call home. Their educational programme is based on a journey of "faith" and positive role models, in the knowledge that Jesus has gone ahead of us on that journey, blessing what is done in his name.

Chiang Rai (AsiaNews) - As I write this, the earth shook again. On 5 May, an earthquake paid us a "visit". It was sudden and unexpected because Thailand ranks low in terms of seismic risks, a visit more like that of a thief who breaks into your house, opens closets, throws things around, turning everything upside down.

Of course, no one likes to be visited by thieves. After a quake hits, you are left stunned, hesitant to go back into your to pick things up. Not do you feel that you have been "violated" by a stranger, but in the back of your mind there is this persistent feeling that it might come back, any time.

The fact that it came just a week before the start of the new school year, a few days before our hostels opened, left us shaken. One of our hostel is located near the epicentre, and is now almost completely unusable. And to think that we had just finished renovations in preparation for the arrival of a group of teenagers that was joining our educational programme.

Fortunately, there was little damage in the central section of the mission, the town of Mae Suay, despite the big quake. And just a few days ago, 34 new boys arrived for the new school year in the great Catholic school which is some 30 kilometres from our mission. And, as they say, life goes on, even if fear should linger for a few more days when we take the stairs to the second floor or try to go to sleep.

Quake aside, this Easter was marked by a visit to the villages which began in Lent, in accordance with our pastoral plan. My mission includes as many as 29 villages, each with its chapel and almost all with its own administrator. As much as I might like to visit them more often, I have to deal with so many other mission tasks. Indeed, even with two priests, the tour of the villages can take up to two months.

I have been in Mae Suay now for almost two and a half years, and I still have not visited all of them, because my main task is to run three hostels, where we lodge 70 children, from elementary to high school.

We do not "select" our pupils like other dormitory-style hostels. Our boys come from Catholic families or families who are taking a journey as catechumen. Since they already have a basic faith, parents and children can understand our teaching method.

Lauds, rosary, Mass, catechism classes three days a week before going to school, weekly choir practice, sharing the Word of God and monthly Eucharistic adoration are but some of the prayer events on our hostels' agenda.

Such a path is long and hard, and aims at helping kids get a solid base for their life as Christians and for their future in a society that all too often encourages doing the opposite of what the Gospel teaches.

Today more than ever, we need to teach positive values, not only those rooted in the Gospel but also and above all those that are found in the rules of good neighbourliness, in the kind of education that seems to have disappeared from school textbooks.

In my small corner, I see many of our boys feel the need for role models. Unfortunately, some of these models are beyond reach, and anyone who tries to reach them soon discovers his limitations.

Celebrities from the world of football, entertainment, and music, but also Thai society, have become role models, especially among tribal people in the mountains of the North, guides for a better future. You would be hard pressed to find a catechist, a priest, a teacher, a nun . . . among them.

How discouraging, right? Well, one is often tempted to say that it is not worth the try! Yet, the Gospel does dispense hope.

On Easter Sunday, we read from the Gospel of Matthew. Although so many people had doubts about Jesus's resurrection, He, by appearing to the Apostles, without saying a word of regret or despair, encouraged those present to bear witness of what they had seen and heard, and He told them He would go before them to the Galilee.

For us Christians, this passage can truly be a paradigm in our lives and for my life as a missionary priest: Weep not for thyself, and let no ordinary situation turn into an unsolvable "catastrophe"; be certain that Jesus goes before us, always. Coming before us is already a blessing and an acknowledgement that what we are doing is in His name.

With these Easter feelings in my heart, I say hello to you and entrust myself to your prayers, as I offer you mine. As always I commend to you the boys of my mission.

* Fr Valerio Sala is a missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME). A native of the province of Milan, he has lived in Thailand for five years.