Bits & Pieces: A trip to Thailand
Posted date: October 20, 2015
In 2013 Bishop Silvio Siripong of the Diocese of Chantaburi (Thailand) led a group of 22 of his priests to visit the Archdiocese of Kuching. We were of course thrilled and worked out a programme of praying and reflecting together, sharing our pastoral experiences and challenges and enjoying one another’s company.
In September 2015 11 priests from the Archdiocese of Kuching went with me on a return visit to the Chantaburi clergy. We also took opportunity of our visit there to meet the Archbishop of Bangkok, Cardinal Francis Xavier Kriengsak, and the Archbishop Emeritus, Cardinal Michael Michai, and the priests of the Archdiocese of Bangkok.
The visit was most fruitful in many ways. Needless to say, the experience of fraternal unity in the priesthood as well as the universality of the Church was concrete and edifying. While we had met the 22 Chantaburi priests who had come to Kuching, we did not know the others. The hospitality we received from the Thai clergy could only have come from a heart that felt we all belonged to the family of God – the Church, and we were all exercising the same ministry of serving the members of this family, but in different dioceses and countries. This experience had a value beyond dollars and cents.
The Catholic Church in Thailand makes up no more than 1% of the country’s entire population. Yet her contribution to the nation especially through her schools is enormous. With more than 400 schools throughout the country, the Church has educated millions of Thais, regardless of religion. A good many national leaders as well as those in different businesses and organisations were students of Catholic schools before.
The education Catholic schools in Thailand are giving is so good that many parents, including Buddhist parents, strive to enrol their children in them. True to form, these schools do not seek to convert their Buddhist students. They seek to provide high quality education coupled with good character formation to make their students good persons and good citizens – a point much appreciated in the country.
Among the social works engaged by the Diocese of Chantaburi we had the opportunity to see two. The first is the good work done by the Good Shepherd Sisters. They have set up the Fountain of Life Centre in Pattaya. The town is a tourist hotspot well known for its sex industry. There many women have been lured into the sex trade. Many of these have migrated from rural areas to earn a living.
In order to equip those of these women wishing to seek a decent and dignified livelihood, the Fountain of Life Centre provides training in different skills (like hairdressing, dressmaking, cooking, foot massaging, and even learning to read and write). Some graduates of this training Centre have started their own businesses while many others have found employment in different companies.
Every person wants a decent livelihood. Deprived of that, some are forced into the sex trade because they lack proper skills for employment. The Fountain of Life Centre is providing an opportunity for those women caught in the situation. In reality, many of them want decent employment. With this employment, their lifestyle also changes and they are rewarded with a sense of satisfaction and self-fulfilment. They also recover their dignity as persons.
The second social project is the Diocesan Orphanage. Abandoned or unwanted babies are taken in, taken care of and brought up by very dedicated “mothers”. Some of these children have been adopted by couples after very stringent screening. Those not adopted continue to be looked after in the orphanage with love. Those who have reached school going age are sent to schools. A good number have even gone to university and graduated. Their photographs are proudly displayed on a wall in the conference hall.
Two stories narrated by Fr. Michael Weera, Director of the orphanage, were particularly telling. The first was the response by a child of a visiting family. Everyday families line up to bring food to the orphans. The child remarked that the orphans were having good life. He was then jokingly asked: “Would you like to live here?” He spontaneously answered, “No.” It was a serious answer because the orphans had no parents. Indeed, no matter how much they try to look after the orphans, the dedicated “mothers” can never replace their biological parents. Deep in their hearts, every child in the orphanage, though well taken care of, must be yearning for parental love.
The second story concerned an orphan who had graduated with a degree. His biological mother came to look for him. Both of them met in the presence of Fr. Weera. While the graduate knelt before Fr. Weera to express his gratitude to him for the care and education given him, he kept his distance from his mother. When she asked him if he would take her as mother, he said, “Give me time.” This, of course, was an understandable response since relationship requires time to build up. I pray that the time will come when the mother and son could build up a family relationship.
The graduate could, however, have given an opposite response. To say the least, he could have expressed his utter disappointment with his biological mother and grilled her with uncomfortable questions. Or, he could have become angry with her and thrown nasty remarks on her. I guess the good upbringing received at the orphanage and the maturity of mind acquired through good education have made of the graduate a real gentleman.
After four days in the Diocese of Chantaburi we left for Sampran where the Archdiocese of Bangkok has a Pastoral Training Centre called “Baan Phu Wan” (House of the Sower). It is a magnificent building with 180 guest rooms and a whole lot of facilities spread over acres of land with a huge lake and countless trees of different species. There we were accommodated and treated to a sumptuous lunch by the Archbishop of Bangkok with his priests – the only opportunity we had for fellowship.
In the Archdiocese of Bangkok we visited two main places of interest. The first was the Shrine of Blessed Nicolas Bunkerd Kitbamrung. He was martyred in 1944 when the Church was persecuted. The other place was Ayuthaya, the ancient capital of Siam. There College General was born in 1666 as a result of a synod convened in 1665 by French Foreign Missionaries. Blessed Nicolas received his priestly training at the College.
College General, also known as College of the Holy Angels, was started as the Major Seminary to train priests for East Asia. It has a long and difficult history, moving from Ayuthaya to Chantaburi, later to Hondat in Cambodia, then to Pondicherry in India and finally in 1808 to Penang where it still is. The College had trained many priests for dioceses in countries like China, Indochina, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, North Borneo and Sarawak before these dioceses formed their own diocesan or regional seminaries. Thailand started its own national seminary, Lux Mundi, in the mid-seventies, Kuching in 1980 and Singapore in 1983. These seminaries could truly be said to have been born of College General.
As one trained in College General, I felt a very strong bond with Ayuthaya its birthplace. We visited St. Joseph’s Church, the place where the synod took place. The birthplace of College General could not be precisely identified, but it was in the vicinity of St. Joseph’s Church – somewhere on the opposite bank of the river that flows past the Church. Thinking of the so many Thai priests and some Bishops who were trained with me as well as before me at College General, I felt a deep sense of “coming back” to a common ancestry with the Church in Thailand. The presence of the Kuching presbyterium with me during the visit intensified the feeling of communion with the Thai Church.
While the first Mill Hill Missionaries landed in Sarawak in 1881, my visit to Ayuthaya led me to a period well before that. I was carried way back to 1666 when College General was born. Yes that was history. But it had everything to do with the Church in Sarawak so that I could say that the history of the Church in Sarawak forms a part of that history which eventually is a branch of the history of the universal Church!
All this history could only be the work of God through His Holy Spirit. The history of salvation planned by God and carried out by Jesus Christ has reached our day through the Holy Spirit. All thanks, praise and glory be to Almighty God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Archbishop John Ha