My Thailand: Looking for a Future
Young people gather to pray at Fr. Maurizio’s church, Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Lampang, Thailand.
By Giorgio Bernardelli
The life of a missionary among the tribes of the mountains; where the forest today is less isolated even than a few years ago, but where there are also new meaningful questions: the story of Fr. Maurizio Arioldi.
In Northern Thailand from one village to another, forests are becoming a little less isolated than they used to be. Yet, for many reasons, they are still frontier places for a missionary. Hailing from Prezzate, not far from Sotto il Monte, Fr. Maurizio Arioldi is the superior of the PIME Missionaries working in Thailand, on the great continent of Asia. He lives in the North, amidst the great mosaic that is the tribes of the mountains. Since 1994, he spent the first years in Mae Suay where the majority of the communities are Akha, but where there are also groups of Lahu and Lisu. For some years now, he has been in Ngao, where the mosaic has become even richer with the presence of groups of Carians, and even some Thai people coming to seek their fortune in the Northeast.
“Since I arrived in this part of Thailand,” he says, “my first impression was the wonder of discovering these different ethnic groups. Their culture, customs, even psychology: one can touch the beauty of these differences. But one also experiences the effort of announcing the Gospel; one wonders how to really reach into their lives.” Yes, because even in these areas where the numbers would seem to justify the need for evangelization, with so many new baptisms every year, there is still a way to go and it may not prove as easy as it appears at first. “The movement of the conversions in these tribal populations is still underway. They are contacting the Church themselves. In the Ban Thoet Thai area, for example, it is a very significant phenomenon: Catholics attract others who are not yet members of the Church. We missionaries do not proselytize: they come to us.”
And what’s behind this phenomenon? “The first motivation is cultural,” the missionary replies. “They understand that their traditions – linked to the forest, to the cycle of nature, to the seasons – by themselves are no longer enough to give them the answers on the meaning of life. With the arrival of technology they sense that there is a void. Their life itself has changed for example: the Akha have used the slash and burn method to cultivate their rice fields, and then moved elsewhere; now this is no longer possible. Like so many other aspects related to subsistence agriculture. Even into isolated villages today electricity has arrived and therefore the internet, mobile phones and TV. Until recently when the night fell in contact with the forest one found oneself in an ancestral world inhabited by fears, evil spirits, dreams. All this in some way today has been swept away or at least downsized. But the values of those cultures risk disappearing.”
Fr. Phongphan Wongarsa, PIME (third from the right), is one of the first PIME Missionaries from Thailand, whom we were blessed to have stay with us for a year while studying English. He is now destined for his mission assignment in Hong Kong.
For those who are young, the call of the cities is strong: Chang Rai, but also Lampang or Bangkok. “But if you do not have a certain degree of education,” says the PIME Missionary, “it means going to work at the factory at least two shifts, 16 hours a day, to pay the rent and other expenses. It is a very hard life. But young people are attracted by the city, by the lights, not understanding that they would probably earn more by staying in their village, because they would have at least their piece of land, they would cultivate it, they would manage it. Not to mention,” he adds, “young people who leave to go abroad to South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia or Israel, with many other problems. Sometimes they leave without any guarantee and they happen to come back poorer and more indebted than before. Of course, those who know how to plan their own lives can even get back on their feet: they work there three or four years, then come back and with what they have earned. But there is also the problem of families: the departure of the husband or wife splits the couple, the children grow up alone.”
In the midst of these transformations, Christianity is seen as an answer capable of projecting them into modernity, but without asking them to deny their roots. “They want to remain themselves while undergoing changes,” explains Fr. Maurizio, “and there is trust in the fact that the Church respects their identity and nurtures it. Then, of course, next to this there are also other motivations, as happened at the time of Jesus: there were those who sought bread, those who sought healing, who needed assistance. They are starting points: it is up to the missionary to bring them to fruition. Our risk is to give, to do basic assistance without letting the deep question emerge. When this happens, and sometimes it does happen, it is a defeat for us.” In the end, the real challenge is faced here. “It is not dignified to exploit their needs in order to get a larger number of baptisms or not to give enough time to those who have not fully clarified their motivations. We are called to make their quest clearer and to form their faith. At all the PIME missions in the North, we have a catechumenate program that lasts from a year up to three years. And it is not just theoretical formation, but also a beginning of prayer life, a comparison on how to let faith enter everyday life. And it’s nice to see how people grow in the faith when we offer them content and motivations to reflect. As a missionary, I think I am called to do this.”
It is a journey that never ends. “Sometimes,” says Fr. Maurizio again, “in the villages we are invited to go to some houses, to bless a certain family that perhaps has the impression of being the victim of strange things. We go, we bless, but it is not enough: we must also listen, and motivate them from the point of view of sound faith. Because in their culture that’s their way of telling us that they have a problem. So we have to go deeper: what really happened to you? It is a moment to get into the detailed aspects of evangelization. Then and there we take care of those people, but always avoiding prepared, general answers, while truly sharing our faith.”
It is work that the missionary cannot carry out alone: in these Thai-Christian communities the task played by community leaders and lay members of the village, who live there and act as points of reference, is fundamental. “Without them nothing happens,” he underlines, “because we can go there to meet them only once or twice a month, at most. While the community leader breaks God’s Word to his people on Sundays; he is a mediator between the village and the initiatives that the center offers for young people and families. There is also a linguistic problem: for us missionaries, already learning Thai fluently is a challenge; they instead speak the language of the tribe.”
Fr. Maurizio works closely with Catechists who are native of the Hill tribes of the area,
in order to spread the Word in ways that are familiar to the local people.
“I always say that their presence is Jesus in the village. And sometimes the Gospel says things that go against local culture or habits, sometimes they are also ridiculed. For example, think of the drug dealing issue, which is a very serious problem in our diocese. We are talking about the production and sale of amphetamines for drug couriers. As priests and catechists, we insist very much on denouncing this scourge: if in the village there are those who do these things we tell them personally that they kill people, they sell death, that we cannot be followers of Jesus and do this. And if they do not listen to us or even threaten us, a sudden chasm opens up between the two sides. We tell them not to present themselves to receive the sacraments because it would be a public scandal. The Thai Episcopal Conference even says to deny them a religious funeral. We do it, but to have to enforce this type of stance, it is ultimately left to the community leaders who live there. And it’s not always easy for them. This is why it is important to acknowledge them before the whole community, to encourage them and to praise them publicly.”
Last year, the PIME community in Thailand, experienced the joy of the priestly ordination of its first missionary from the country, Fr. Phongphan Wongarsa, now destined for Hong Kong after a long educational stay in the US. “Fr. Phong’s vocation was a big surprise for us,” says Fr. Maurizio. “He comes from the Northeast, from an area where we are neither known nor present. He met the first members of PIME in the diocese of Nonthaburi: he came from a seminary experience and decided to take a break, collaborating as an educator in our projects in the slum area. Besides him, now there is also Nathi, who is in the PIME seminary in Monza (Italy) and is an Akha: he comes from the area of Mae Suay. For us, their stories are also an opportunity to boast that here, too, the mission ad gentes, to the nations is working. At Fr. Phong’s ordination they asked us, ‘but now where do you send him within Thailand?’ Instead we are made to bear witness here, too, that the fundamental vocation of each Christian is to proclaim the Gospel to those who do not yet know it. And to do that, you can even leave from the tribes of the mountains of Thailand and go to even more distant lands.”