For Thai Buddhists, Francis, the "missionary" pope, embodies the spirit of Assisi, Fr Sala says
by Dario Salvi
Fr Valerio Sala has been a PIME priest in the Asian country for the past five years. He describes how he came to his vocation and how he developed his missionary zeal after a brief stint in Africa. He explains how globalisation and relativism have deeply penetrated Thai culture, as well as the challenges they represent. For him, Christ is the basis for a true "social and moral change."

Milan (AsiaNews) - Pope Francis "is followed with great interest" by Buddhists. What he says and the way he says or does things "has generated a lot of attention in Thailand, where people still follow and respect the proper dress code and manners," said Fr Valerio Sala, a priest with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME).

A missionary in the Asian country for the past five years, he describes how the Argentine Pope appeals to the people of Thailand and resonates in the country's culture. For both Catholics and non-Catholics, "he really embodies the spirit of Assisi". He also "helps understand that the Church is not just the Vatican, but that it is a person who challenges himself in order to return to the core values ​​of the Gospel".

Currently in Italy, Fr Sala was born in Carugate (near Milan, Italy) in 1973. In Thailand, he is deputy parish priest at the Holy Spirit Catholic Centre in Mae Suaj ("Beautiful Mother" in the local language), a village in Chiang Rai province. He joined PIME in 2002, where he completed his priestly studies and training (two years in Rome, four in Monza).

He was ordained on 7 June 2008 in Milan, by the then archbishop, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi. In November, he will return to Thailand; however, before leaving, he shared his thoughts about the mission with AsiaNews.  

Fr Valerio, how did your calling for the mission come about?

The desire to leave was born after a three-month experience of mission in Africa in 1999, in the Republic of Congo. I had already spent five years with the Friars Minor of Umbria, in the convent of Assisi. The vocation was already there, but the time spent in Africa made me realise that I was not destined for a convent life, that what I wanted was to go to new lands.

I was already in a moment of reflection on the nature of my vocation. That experience showed me the way, letting me know that what I wanted was the mission. From an early age, I was fascinated by the figure of the priest. I would look at the priests in my home parish and I see very committed and happy people.

To be honest, when I was 10 years old, I had already started thinking about becoming a priest. Although during my teenage years, the idea lost some of its appeal, a crucial relationship with a spiritual father and going regularly to the oratory helped me understand that this was the right path. I can say that I made my choice with serenity because the right people helped me.

From your first experiences in Africa to Thailand, what effect did knowing your country of destination have?

First, I want to point out that the three months spent in Congo helped me understand that I had to go where people needed and still need to know and meet Christ. It was a different experience from what I had experienced until then, the time in the convent. It enabled me to understand truly that the Church is not limited to the Parish of Carugate, which for me was always the model.

The mission, which at first I saw largely with detachment and lack of interest through the eyes a young man, opened my eyes and showed me a wider dimension, namely the universal vision of the Catholic Church.

As for Thailand, I had already been there in 2004 and I liked it very much even though I did not know much about its situation, which is so different from ours. The time spent with PIME Fathers was a good experience, a further step in my path.

When the superior general told me that I was Thailand-bound, I was happy. It was almost "validation" for my choice to be a missionary. Despite the fact that I still had to study the language and had to cope with the impact of a very different culture, I was confident.

Asia, a "young" continent in terms of mission, which John Paul II called "our shared task for the Third Millennium" . . .

One must admit that John Paul II was right in relation to Thailand and Asia as a whole. Both the Land of the Elephants and the continent as a whole need to know Christ, for the sake of true social and moral change.

Looking at today's Thailand, one can see how people are not only caught up in a culture and belief, but also in a way of experiencing reincarnation that goes beyond Buddhism. The Gospel could free them by showing a new path.

John Paul II's intuition still applies, especially if we think about the devastating effects of globalisation. This is an objective fact, which I saw in my five years of mission. It is ruining even the first generations of Christians.

Economic growth drives people to turn to the way of life they see in American films. Thus, the struggle is not just for the mission here. As Benedict XVI repeatedly pointed out, it is necessary to challenge the culture of relativism, which has already penetrated Thai society.

How do relativism and globalisation manifest themselves?

Let us be clear: even in my parish kids feel the need for mobile phones - smartphone actually - which are almost more important than actual relationships or personal help. This is happening in the tribes of northern Thailand, in the mountains, among people living in huts.

The missionary challenge is also to show that the phone is not everything in society, that there are "other" values ​​that can be discovered and experienced. I think the Gospel is embodied in reality. Even today, some of my tribal people kill for futile, trivial reasons, because they follow a mob mentality. Recently, a recently 17-year-old kid was killed, beaten to death in a trivial dispute between different football factions.

It is necessary to restore human dignity and equality, the values ​​that Jesus and Saint Paul tried to teach and pass on. As Saint Paul said, "For freedom, Christ set us free" and the Gospel is just that, liberation from human conditioning.

What impact has the pontificate of Pope Francis and his many appeals in favour of mission had on Thailand so far?

Even non-Christians follow Pope Francis with great interest. For example, my doctor in Bangkok is Buddhist but he likes to cite the Pope. Bergoglio has generated a lot of attention in Thailand, where people still follow and respect the proper dress code and manners.

Many Thais read his statements with great interest despite the paucity of translations. They think that he really embodies the spirit of Assisi, because Saint Francis and his story are known and appreciated in Thailand. The pope helps us understand that the Church is not just the Vatican, but that it is a person who challenges himself in order to return to the core values ​​of the Gospel.

In the path of the mission, he shows the way. He goes beyond a certain obsequiousness that hampers relations; instead, he reduces the distance between clergy and people. His direct and sometimes uncomfortable remarks revive the desire for mission and conversion.

Fr Sala, what challenges will you encounter when you return to Thailand?

With the missionary Fathers in the north, we started a community project that includes educational activities whereby our missions can reflect shared experiences, rather that the doings of a single individual or personal projects. We need a shared approach to understand what Thai society wants now, and meet in particular the educational challenge that young people face.

Certainly, there is a great need to show affection and closeness, in a culture that still favours detachment and formality. As the pope does, we need to express love to people, showing a side that helps in relationships and personal involvement.