Q: Could you give a rough idea of the terrain and the people in your diocese.
A: Chiangmai is the most northerly of the ten dioceses of Thailand. It is bordered by Myanmar and Laos and a drive of less than an hour will take you into China. About 90% of the people belong to six big ethnic groups. In the past many of them migrated from Yunnan in China. It is a mountainous area and in the years gone by one of the main activities was growing poppies for the opium trade. In more recent times, big efforts were made to change this and a lot of the people now grow conventional crops like rice, tea, coffee, fruit and flowers.
Q: You mentioned six large groups; what are they?
A: The largest group, the Karens (or Kariens) make up about 60% of the population. These are close ‘relatives’ of the Karens across the border in Myanmar (Burma). The Akha, with 20% of the population are the next biggest group. The others are the Lahu, Lisu, Yao and Hmong. All the groups are quite different in language, culture and character. For example, the Karen people tend to be reserved, even shy, whereas the Hmong who make up 5% of the population are the opposite; they are extrovert and very successful business people.
Q: What about the religion of the people?
A: About 92% of Thailand’s 68 million people are Buddhist and around 4% are Muslim. The Christian population of the country is less than 1%. In the north of Thailand the people who live in the mountains are generally animists. They are close to nature, they have a strong belief in spirits and in many ways this leaves them more open to Christianity.
Q: When did Christianity come to Thailand?
A: The first Catholic missionaries came with the Portuguese in the 1500s. The Protestants were the first to go to Chiangmai and, in fact, Catholics were unable to work there for a long time because of hostility from them. The Paris Foreign Missionaries came to Chiangmai in the 1930s and later, the Bettaram Congregation. Today there is a good ecumenical spirit among the Christians.
Q: In many parts of the world the number participating in the Catholic Church is declining – how about Chiangmai?
A: Quite the contrary; each year we have had around 1,700 adult baptisms and in fact at the moment we have around 16,000 catechumens; that is adults who are preparing for Baptism in the Catholic Church.
Q: What attracts people to the Church?
A: The first thing you have to take into account is the action of the Holy Spirit. But there are other factors. For example, our diocese does a lot for the promotion of education for both Catholics and non- Catholics. For people who live in isolated villages this is important. Many parishes have boarding facilities for children and youth from the mountains who want to attend schools. Often the Catholic communities are seen as more tolerant and forgiving than the traditional religions.
Q: What is the state of personnel in the diocese?
A: We have 95 priests, 160 Sisters and 11 religious brothers and a team of lay catechists. We have 48 parishes but some of those parishes have up to 50 of what we call stations. These are chapels or places where the local community meet for Mass and they can be 70km or more from the parish centre. Many of these stations are in mountainous areas and involve a lot of walking. In all, we have 850 stations and 550 of these are chapels. Obviously, with so many small communities the priest can’t visit very often. Lay leadership is important. We have 180 catechists but 70% don’t have much preparation.
Q: How about youth participation?
A: We have a lot of youth involvement. For example at the last event in Chiangmai we had around 1,000 young people present. Big annual events can bring as many as 6,000 together. One reason of course is that in the rural villages the families still have 4-5 children and there isn’t much competition for the attention of youth; in big cities like Bangkok the situation is very different.
Q: If someone appeared with a magic wand to grant you three wishes what would they be?
A: I’ll mention two. The first one would be to give better continuing religious formation to newly-baptised people. Priests are so stretched that they have little possibility of doing much more than attend to the basic services. A second wish would be to get sponsorship to finance the education and formation of a lot more lay leaders. Outsiders are often willing to offer money for buildings but less interested in the formation of people. We urgently need more lay leaders. Sometimes we get offers of help from outside but of course the ability to speak Thai language is absolutely necessary.
Fr Alo Connaughton is a former editor of the Far East magazine. Ordained in 1969, he is now involved in the formation of seminarians in Thailand and China.
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