On last day in Thailand, Pope Francis tells missionaries to ‘give faith a Thai face and flesh’

Pope Francis meets with the bishops of Thailand and with members of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences at the Shrine of Blessed Nicholas Bunkerd Kitbamrung in Tha Kham, Thailand, Nov. 22, 2019.

Pope Francis’s last day in Thailand was marked by four significant public events: a meeting with bishop-delegates from the Catholic churches in 28 Asian countries, a meeting with Thai priests, religious and seminarians, a meeting with the leaders of the country’s other Christian denominations and other religions, and a Mass with young people. He also took part in a private meeting with Jesuits from Thailand and neighboring countries.

Each of the four public events generated great enthusiasm as crowds turned out to greet Pope Francis, who is clearly popular in this overwhelmingly Buddhist country, where Catholics make up less than one percent of a population of 69 million.

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He was driven 22 miles north of Bangkok to participate in the first two meetings in the Catholic village of Wat Roman a Tha Kham, which has the parish church of St. Peter that dates back to 1840 and the modern shrine of Thailand’s first martyr priest: Blessed Nicholas Bunkerd Kitbamrung, who died in 1944. The church bells pealed as he arrived, the people cheered and many young girls dressed in colorful national costumes waved as the smiling Francis passed by in the popemobile.

Hundreds of priests, sisters and seminarians applauded as he entered St. Peter’s Church, and they sang Thai hymns during their hour-long encounter with him. Bishop Joseph Padhan Sridarunsil, former bishop of the zone where in 2004 a devastating tsunami struck, welcomed the pope, and Benedetta Jongrak Donoran, a postulant in the Congregation of the Missionaries of Mary, shared the story of “how the Lord attracted her to himself by beauty.”

Pope Francis: “I felt gratitude for the lives of all those missionaries, men and women, whose lives of service left their mark.”

Pope Francis spoke to them in Spanish, seated at a table, and his cousin Sister Ana Rosa Sivori translated, and when he chided her playfully as she took time to translate some of his off-the-cuff remarks, everyone laughed. Having listened to Sister Benedetta, he said, “I felt gratitude for the lives of all those missionaries, men and women, whose lives of service left their mark.” He thanked especially “all those consecrated persons who by the silent martyrdom of fidelity and daily commitment have borne great fruit.”

He called on these modern missionaries “to have that same love, that same passion for Jesus” as their predecessors had. He told them, “The Lord did not call us and send us forth into the world to impose obligations on people, or lay heavier burdens than those they already have, which are many, but rather to share joy, a beautiful, new and surprising horizon.” Quoting Benedict XVI, he said, “the church does not grow by proselytizing, but by attraction.”

He told them he was saddened to hear that many Thais consider Christianity “a foreign faith, a religion for foreigners.” He said this should “spur us to find ways to talk about the faith ‘in dialect,’ like a mother sings lullabies to her child.” He encouraged them to “give faith a Thai face and flesh, which involves much more than making translations. It is about letting the Gospel be stripped of fine but foreign garb; to let it ‘sing’ with the native music of this land and inspire the hearts of our brothers and sisters with the same beauty that set our own hearts on fire.”

Quoting Benedict XVI, the pope said, “the church does not grow by proselytizing, but by attraction.”

He recalled that many of them had discovered their vocations as they sought to put the Gospel into practice by going out “to visit the needy, the neglected and even the despised, the orphans and the elderly,” and he reminded them that it is “in the faces of those we encounter on the street” that “we can discover the beauty of being able to treat one another as brothers and sisters.”

“We see them no longer as orphans, derelicts, outcasts or the despised,” Pope Francis said. “Now each of them has the face of a brother or sister redeemed by Jesus Christ.” He told them “to be a Christian” is “to see beauty where others see only contempt, abandonment or an object of sexual gratification.”

He encouraged them to spend much time in prayer because “without prayer, our life and mission loses all its meaning, strength and fervor.” He concluded by reminding them that the fervor of evangelization “is nurtured by a double encounter: with the face of the Lord and with the faces of our brothers and sisters.”

The assembled cheered and sang as he left the church and crossed the road to enter the chapel and shrine of Blessed Nicholas where the Thai bishops and delegates from the bishops 19 bishops’ conferences of Asia and its nine associate members from some 28 Asian countries were gathered. The bishops of the Catholic church in China were not represented because they still do not have a recognized bishops conference. China’s state-recognized conference does not include the bishops of the “underground church community” and so is not recognized by the Holy See. But a bishop from Macau, which along with Hong Kong and Taiwan are not part of the mainland Chinese bishops’ conference, was present.

The fervor of evangelization “is nurtured by a double encounter: with the face of the Lord and with the faces of our brothers and sisters.”

Significantly, however, America learned that 1,000 Chinese Catholics (mostly from mainland China), together with 50 Chinese priests, had come here to greet Pope Francis today. The bishop-delegates present came from conferences that are part of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences. Pope Francis had met delegates from the F.A.B.C. for the first time at the martyrs’ shrine in Seoul, Korea, in 2014. Today he met them for the second them at the shrine of another martyr, where the Thai cardinal, Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovithavanij, and Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Myanmar, the new president of the F.A.B.C. welcomed him.

Francis again spoke in Spanish, seated at a table, the bishops had earphones to listen to the translation. “I am happy to be with you,” he told them, and his joy, one shared by many of the Asian bishops as they told me later, was evident.

Recalling that next year, 2020, the F.A.B.C. would hold its golden jubilee General Assembly, he sought to offer suggestions that might help them prepare. He commented on their situation in this continent where two-thirds of the world’s population lives but where Christians count for a mere 12.5 percent, and Catholics some 137 million.

He said they were called to be missionary pastors in this “multicultural and multi-religious continent” that is “endowed with great beauty and prosperity, but troubled at the same time by poverty and exploitation at various levels.”

The pope encouraged them to draw inspiration from “the memory of the first missionaries who preceded us with courage, joy and extraordinary stamina.”

“Rapid technological advancements can open up immense possibilities that make life easier,” Pope Francis said, “but can also result in the growth of consumerism and materialism, especially among young people.” He commended the bishops for taking upon themselves “the concerns of your people: the scourge of drugs and human trafficking, the care of great numbers of migrants and refugees, poor working conditions and the exploitation experienced by many laborers, as well as economic and social inequality between rich and poor.”

He encouraged them to draw inspiration from “the memory of the first missionaries who preceded us with courage, joy and extraordinary stamina” and said “they can help us take stock of the present situation” from a wider and more transformative perspective that “frees us from the belief that times past were always more favorable or better for the proclamation of the Gospel.”

He reminded them that “the power of the Holy Spirit sustained and motivated the Apostles and countless missionaries not to discount any land, people, culture or situation.” Moved by the Spirit, he said, “they did not look for places of ‘guaranteed success’; on the contrary, their ‘guarantee’ lay in the certainty that no person or culture was a priori incapable of receiving the seed of life, happiness, and above all friendship, that the Lord wants to sow in them.”

Moreover, he said, “they did not expect a foreign culture to receive the Gospel easily; rather, they plunged into these new realities, convinced of the beauty of which they were bearers.” Indeed, “they were bold and courageous because they knew that in the first place the Gospel is a gift to be shared with and for everyone.” He told them, “The mission calls for a paternal and maternal concern because the sheep is only lost when the shepherd gives it up for lost, and not before.”

He said, “A church that goes forth, unafraid to take to the streets and come face to face with the lives of the people entrusted to her care, is a church able to be open in humility to the Lord. With the Lord, she can experience the wonder of the missionary adventure without the need, conscious or unconscious, to be in first place, to seek or occupy any possible place of preeminence.”

In this context, he commended the Asian bishops for their way of being pastors and declared: “How much we can learn from you, who are a minority in many of your countries or regions, sometimes faced with great obstacles, sometimes persecuted, yet you have not let yourselves be carried away or corrupted by an inferiority complex or the complaint that you are not given due recognition!”

Pope Francis encouraged them to act “in union with Jesus…seek what he seeks and love what he loves” and “let us not be afraid to make his priorities our own.” He commended their commitment to proclaiming the Gospel “with deeds and words” and told them “a missionary church knows that its best message is its readiness to be transformed by the word of life, making service its hallmark.”

He called on them to care for the laity, reminding them that “many of your lands were evangelized by the lay faithful” and he appealed to them to stay close to their priests.

Pope Francis concluded with words of encouragement: “Let us look to the future in the certainty that we do not journey alone; the Lord is there, waiting for us, and inviting us to recognize him above all in the breaking of the bread.” He asked them to convey his blessing to their people and to ask them to pray for him. He then greeted each of them one by one.

Before departing from the shrine, however, he spent some time with 37 brother Jesuits from Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and India, and among them the American Thomas Michel, a Vatican expert on Islam and former fellow of Georgetown University who is now working in a school in northern Thailand.

Later that afternoon on his return to Bangkok, Pope Francis visited Chulalongkorn University for a meeting with leaders of Thailand’s other Christian denominations and of the other religions, attended by hundreds of students. Afterwards, he celebrated Mass for young people at the Cathedral of the Assumption, attended by some 10,000 young people. It was his last public event of his successful visit to “The Land of Smiles,” as Thailand is called.

Tomorrow morning, he will take a six-hour plane ride to Tokyo, the capital of Japan, where the highpoint of his three-day sojourn will be his visit to Nagasaki and Hiroshima on Sunday.

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