Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Thailand from 20 to 23 November, after which he proceeds to Japan, 23 to 26 November, before returning to Rome.
The Thai church
This will be the second visit of a Pontiff to Thailand in over 35 years, after that of Pope Saint John Paul II in 1984. The motto of the Journey, "Christ’s Disciples, Missionary Disciples", recalls the 350th anniversary of the establishment of the Apostolic Vicariate of Siam, created in 1669, that formally marked the beginning of the Church in the country.
Catholics form a tiny minority of some 0.5% of Thailand’s over 68 million population, over 90% of which is Buddhist. Muslims form a little over 4% and Christians together make up only 1 %. Through the past 350 years, the Church has grown into 11 dioceses with about 390,000 Catholics.
Diocese of Chiang Mai
The Diocese of Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, was established in November 1959. A few “fidei donum” priests from Italy have been serving the mission of Chae Hom and Lamphun for years.
The expression “fidei donum”, the Latin for “the Gift of Faith”, takes its name from the 1957 encyclical of Pope Pius XII, who called on all bishops not only to help one another other through prayers and other means but also by making their priests available to other countries.
The Chae Hom mission, which maintains itself with the production and sale of local crafts, is committed to helping the tribal and nomadic population of the forested hilly region with drinking water plants, medical aid and the possibility of education.
Confirming Church’s faith and unity
Father Raffaele Sandonà, a “fidei donum” priest from Italy’s Padua Diocese, has been working in Thailand for 10 years. Speaking to Vatican Radio, the priest who serves the Chae Hom mission said that the Pope’s visit will serve to confirm the faith of the Catholics of the land and will promote interreligious dialogue with the Buddhist world.
Coming after 35 years after Pope John Paul II's visit, Fr. Sandonà said, there is “great expectation and joy” for the visit of Pope Francis who is a “reference point of the Church’s unity”. This is why it is an important event for the country’s tiny Catholic community.
The priest pointed out that there is no formal relationship between Christians and the country’s Buddhist majority. However, interactions with Buddhists take place in daily life and evokes a “serene and peaceful coexistence” between the tiny Christian community and the majority Buddhists. At times, he said, there is also some constructive collaboration on joint projects.
Pope’s gestures of peace and love
Speaking about the papal visit, Fr. Sandonà said, it is important because, besides his meetings and events, Pope Francis will also offer some of his characteristic gestures that have marked his pontificate. In a country where people spoke little about the pope, the Vatican and Catholic Church, there is now more interest in them because of the “gestures” of Pope Francis, such as humility and peace.
Thus the papal visit will be a “good step forward” in terms of inter-religious dialogue and in providing an impetus to the Thai Church in its “witness to peace and love”.
In this regard, Fr. Sondonà pointed out, the anthem composed for the papal visit speaks about love as a bridge to others.