Bangkok's new cardinal calls on Thai Church to be more missionary
Mgr Kovithavanij is one of 20 new cardinals who will receive their biretta at next Saturday's consistory. In an interview, he calls for greater work to proclaim the Gospel and "study in depth the Scriptures" to boost interfaith dialogue. Although Catholics are a small minority, they make a valuable contribution to the country's civic life in areas like health care and education.

Bangkok (AsiaNews/EdA) - In a long interview with Eglises d'Asie (EdA) before leaving for Rome, Mgr François-Xavier Kriengsak Kovithavanij said that "To evangelise, we all have to start by bearing witness. In 350 years, the number of [Thai] Christians has not increased much. Maybe we have not been active enough in bearing witness, in saying that God is not only for us, but is also for all our brothers and sisters. No doubt, we have to work a lot more" to proclaim the Gospel.

Mgr Kovithavanij is one of 20 new cardinals Pope Francis appointed in January, three of them from Asia (including Mgr Charles Bo, archbishop of Yangon, and Mgr Pierre Nguyen Van Nhon, archbishop of Hanoi). This Saturday, he will be in the Vatican, to receive his cardinal's biretta.

Born in 1949 into a Catholic family in Bangkok, he studied theology and philosophy at the Urbaniana University in Rome. After that, he was ordained in the priesthood in 1976 by then Archbishop (and future Cardinal) Mgr Michael Michai Kitbunchu. In 1982, he was back in Rome to further his studies at the Gregorian University. In 2007, he was appointed archbishop of Nakhon Sawan, and was transferred to the Thai capital in 2009.

In renewing the focus on the missionary work of the Thai Church through "dialogue between Catholics, among Christians of different denominations and with the faithful of other religions," the new cardinal explained that "for those who want to convert," we "are open" to welcome them. "We announce the Good News and the Holy Spirit works in their hearts so they can respond".

On the subject of interfaith dialogue, "it is important to study in depth the Scriptures", the archbishop of Bangkok said, because by studying "the sacred texts of all religions, one can find similar ideas like 'Do to others whatever you would have them do to you'."

Similarly, the principle of "unity in diversity" is a foundation "of the Christian Church," he explained. "It is an invitation to "walk and work together for the welfare of society and the advancement of religion," because interfaith dialogue is not only "collaboration" but also "a kind of exchange of different experiences."

For the newly appointed cardinal, the Church's involvement in education is something "very important for society's welfare". Although "much remains to be done, and the Catholic Church is a small actor in Thai society, by working together with others we can promote this sector".

For him, "We have to start anew from the teaching of ethics." Such an approach "is important for all the students in our schools", regardless of their faith. Conversely, religious education and catechism "are reserved for Christian students."

For the archbishop of Bangkok, fighting corruption, an unacceptable evil in a "civilised society," is a duty, especially at a time when the country is experiencing instability and a deep political crisis, whose highlight was last May's military coup.

For the prelate, "What has happened [in recent months] in Thailand could be a turning point to improve Thai society". It is now time to "fix the problem".

In view of this, "all the texts that make up the Church's social doctrine "acquire greater value. They are heritage, not only for Catholics, but also for non-Catholics. In fact, many non-Christian universities use them.

In general, the Christian presence has strongly developed in those areas of social life, like business, health care and education, where the proclamation of the Gospel can be made "to change, even in small way, society itself."

In a predominantly Buddhist (95 per cent) country of some 70 million people, Catholics are a tiny minority - about 300,000 or 0.5 per cent. Yet, they make a valuable contribution in many areas of life, from education and health care to social work and interfaith dialogue.

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