Bangkok thanks Card Kitbunchu for 50 years of service as bishop

Asia's oldest cardinal yesterday celebrated the anniversary of his episcopal ordination at the Baan Phu Wan pastoral centre on 3 June 1973. At the age of 94, he looks back at his life and service to the Church in the Thai capital in a long interview. He is hopeful about  the country’s future. “While we may profess different religions, let us recognise ourselves as brothers and sisters in the same society.”

Bangkok (AsiaNews) – The Catholic Church in Thailand yesterday celebrated the 50th anniversary of the episcopate of Cardinal Michael Michai Kitbunchu, 94, archbishop emeritus of the capital, with a solemn celebration held at the Baan Phu Waan, the great pastoral centre of the archdiocese of Bangkok, which he had built and where he still lives.

Card Kitbunchu was ordained on 3 June 1973 after Pope Paul VI called him to replace Archbishop Joseph Kiamsun Nittayo. Ten years later, on 2 February 1983, Pope John Paul II made him Thailand’s first cardinal. He remains the most senior Asian cardinal in the College of Cardinals.

After leading the Archdiocese of Bangkok for 36 years, accompanying the growth of the local Church along with that of the great metropolis, Card Kitbunchu became archbishop emeritus in 2009 when he was replaced by Archbishop Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovithavanij, a priest who grew up with Kitbunchu in the archdiocese and whom he ordained as bishop of Nakhon Sawan before being called to lead the Church in the Thai capital and become cardinal himself in 2015.

Despite his advanced age, the elderly Thai cardinal remains a vital presence much loved by the local Catholic community, as yesterday's celebration testified.

All his liveliness clearly emerged during the long interview Card Kitbunchu gave about his life to a Thai internet site on the occasion of this fiftieth anniversary. In it, the cardinal mentions, first of all, his origins, in an ethnic Chinese family.

"Michai is the name I was baptised in,” he explained, “but I also had a Chinese name, Hua Xiang. My grandfather arrived from China about a hundred years ago and settled in Samphran, where he married a Thai woman. They were farmers."

In the interview he talks about his vocation, his entry into the seminary at the age of 11, his theological studies in the Rome of Pius XII and John XXIIII where he was ordained a priest in 1959, the first years of his ministry, visiting very small Christian communities scattered in some villages outside the city.

Talking about his long episcopal ministry, he says that he wanted to be simply an instrument in God's hands to preach the Good News of the Gospel to everyone.

He notes his commitment to building schools and quality health services open to everyone, without religious distinctions.

He also cites his great surprise at his appointment as cardinal in 1983. “It was a shock, I would never have imagined it. I asked the nuncio for time to think about it. But he replied: ‘It is an order from the pope, you must accept it.’”

It was during a private meeting with John Paul II that, when asked by the pope to tell him about Thailand, Kitbunchu replied almost instinctively: "Why don't you come visit my home?” And In May 1984 the pontiff made his first visit to Thailand.

With respect to today's Bangkok he mentions the great changes that have taken place in these 50 years. “Everything has changed: roads, cars, televisions, telephones ... I wonder, however, if we have not focused too much on material aspects and too little on the spirit and moral life."

Yet, looking to the future, he expresses above all two great wishes for Thailand. “May everyone be free to practise their faith. While we may profess different religions, let us recognise ourselves as brothers and sisters in the same society. Unity is the basis for living together. Because as we Christians say: ‘Where there is love, there is God’.”