01/05/2016, 00.00
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Good Gospel tidings among Fang animists

by Giovanni Zimbaldi
Jesus Christ intrigues mountain communities. Some 20,000 catechumens are preparing for baptism. Ordinary people bear witness to their stories, like the first nun and the first priest among ethnic Akha. Young Christian families offer love and forgiveness, inducing entire villages to convert.

Fang (AsiaNews) – The first posting of 2016 brings good tidings to readers. As the missio ad gentes continues, more people come to know Jesus Christ, feel the joyous wonder of loving him, join the Church and go out to make him known.

Father Gianni Zimbaldi is one of my recruits. Born in 1929, he went out as a missionary first to Burma (1957-1966), then to northern Thailand (1972 to the present). His story simple and full of facts, and is more convincing than many a discourse.

We often hear people say that the missio ad agentes is over, that the task now belongs to local Churches. That is not yet the case. The missio with foreign missionaries continues (sometimes under some limitations), not only in Africa, but also in several countries in Asia and Oceania; at least, that is so for us at PIME, in Bangladesh, India, Burma, Hong Kong, China, Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, Japan, Papua New Guinea, and elsewhere in Asia.

Enjoy reading this joyful flash of light from today’s Acts of the Apostles, from where the Church is born anew.

Piero Gheddo


Dear Father Piero,

Best wishes for the New Year 2016 give me the opportunity to send you good tidings from the Fang  missionary district in northern Thailand, which I started in 1972 from scratch.

Now we have a new parish priest, Father Marco Milanese Ribolini, 42, who has been Thailand since 2004, and a black assistant pastor from Mato Grosso (Brazil). Father Lorenzo Braz de Oliveira, who has been in Thailand for the past four years is in charge of the children’s hostel in Fang.

I am here to help them. My health is good and, thank God, I can still visit the villages. When I started the missionary ministry among tribal animists in the diocese of Chiang Mai, there were at best 20,000 baptised Christians. Now there are more than 60,000 and 20,000 catechumens in Catholic villages preparing for baptism. Back then, there was a single diocesan priest; now there are about 30.

The bishop is not only pleased with us, but has asked us to care for other areas. The diocese of Chiang Mai covers eight large provinces with a population of 5,685,000. Catholics number 71,694, with only 30 diocesan priests and 67 religious priests (30 Thai-born) in a vast mountainous and forested area the size of Lombardy and Piedmont.*

The bishop has welcomed religious congregations to the diocese. The Fang missionary district is getting ready for a new subdivision when the new district of Ban Thai Theut is created. We are building the necessary facilities, praying to the Lord for benefactors to help us.

Like every year, hundreds of adults in the district are preparing to receive the baptism. They have lived in Catholic villages for several years as catechumens, attended religious services and applied to receive the sacraments. A catechist follows them. When they are ready, they will be baptised.

Thanks to the Lord Jesus, we are gratified by a Catholic community that grows each year. Last year, in the diocese of Chiang Mai, we carried out more than a thousand adult baptisms, almost all of the people were tribal animists.

The mission has two hostels in Fang and Ban Thai Theut (100 km from Fang). This year, we have 170 boys and girls, who are the future of the Christian community.

Fr Lorenzo de Oliveira and three nuns from India and Pakistan run the Fang hostel. The future district centre in Ban Theut Thai does not have any priest or nuns. Various former students from our hostels are village chiefs and so they lead religious services in chapels. They are responsible for the families that have been created.

People understand the importance of education, both civic and Christian. For this, reason, they send their children to the hostel, even though this requires a certain financial effort.

At the Fang mission, children do not get bored. Despite some hiccups, life includes pleasant moments rooted in a love for life and in children’s smiles.

Last April, a new, raised wooden chapel was blessed in an Akha village. Under the main platform, people can gather. In another Akha village in June I blessed and celebrated the first Mass in the new chapel, built in bricks, which can comfortably accommodate more than 130 people.

People wanted these permanent chapels. They raised money among themselves to cover the cost. In 43 years in Fang, the Lord has helped me build permanent chapels (in wood or bricks) in 32 villages.

Experience has taught me that the permanent chapels is faith building in Christians, who are proud to have a decent place to gather for religious services, catechetical education, and other meetings.

Last week, 48 men (catechists responsible for village liturgy) came from various villages for a two-day meeting. They are a missionary’s right arm. They lead festive prayers in chapels, and go to pray in homes when people are sick. They keep the faith alive in villages where priests can only visit every two or three months.

On 9 December, we celebrated solemnly the profession of faith of a young woman in an Akha village. She is the first ethnic Akha nun in Thailand who is giving her life to serve the Lord. For the festival, hundreds of Christians took part in the event to thank God for the gift made to the Akha tribe by calling one of their own to serve.

Last June, the bishop of Chiang Mai consecrated Thailand’s first ethnic Akha priest. This is a source of joy for us missionaries because God’s word is taking root among these people, and, gradually, they will be able to continue the religious ministry on their own, without the help of foreign staff.

The most comforting thing about adult conversions is when newly baptised adults (beginners) join the Church with a great love for Jesus Christ and the fire of the Holy Spirit in the heart.

Spontaneously, they speak about Jesus and pass on their faith in Christ talking about the example and the story of how beautiful it is to love Jesus. If one looks for him, he shall be found, and one will not let go because it is beautiful to be with Him.

Two months ago, a non-Christian village chief came to visit me. He told me, "Father, three Christian families from Burma came to live in our village. They do not partake in our pagan practices, but on Sunday they gather in a home to pray. Their life in the village is an example for us. We too have decided to become Christian. For this reason, I ask you for a catechist, so that we too can learn the teachings of Jesus."

A young orphan whom I had taken in at the mission when he was a boy, one day came and told me that he wanted to go back to his pagan folks with the family he had established. I tried to dissuade him, saying that the village was far away, that his relatives were pagan and that they knew nothing about Jesus. "If you go to live among pagan, you and your loved ones will become pagan."

Yet, he wanted to go back. A year later, three men came to the mission and said, "The young man that you educated at the mission is back among us with his family and his children. That young man is an example to all of us. He is a friend to everyone. He knows how to forgive offenses and when people get sick or get in trouble, he is always helping them.

“In his house he put a holy image and prays with his family in front of it. When we talk, he tells about Jesus and Christians. We have come to realise that Jesus’ teachings can help us be good, so we want to become Christians like him, and we ask you to send us a catechist to live with us."

* Lombardy and Piedmont are two regions in northern Italy, covering respectively about 25,000 and 23,000 square kilometres.

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See also
Fr Ribolini: Breaking the isolation of tribal Christian communities
12/04/2019 19:00
PIME missionary: Akha tribals' embrace of Baby Jesus (photo)
Thai Church seeking greater ties among tribal groups in Thailand’s hill country
PIME priest: Advent, mission "ad gentes" among Thai Buddhists and Muslims
An “ethnic” Christmas for Thai Catholics


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