BANGKOK — Pope Francis’ trip to Thailand is a meaningful moment for the small Catholic community and marks an important anniversary in the life of the Catholic Church in the Southeast Asian country, the secretary general of the Thailand bishops’ conference said.
“It is really meaningful, even though we have a short time,” Bishop Vira Arpondratana told CNA Nov. 20, the day Pope Francis landed in Bangkok for a three-day visit to Thailand.
The Catholic Church in Thailand is celebrating 350 years of Holy See recognition of the Church in Thailand. Nearly 200 years after two Portuguese Dominican missionaries first brought the Catholic faith to Thailand, Pope Alexander VII established the Mission of Siam in 1669.
This anniversary is significant, Bishop Arpondratana said, because it gives Thai Catholics an opportunity “to think about the past and thank God for the present and [to think about] what we should do, not only as the Thai Church,” but as the Church in all of Asia.
“We have to help others, not only receive [the faith] from Europe, but as a Catholic Thai Church, [to do] the small good that we can. We can do something,” he said.
The Mission of Siam was elevated to an apostolic vicariate four years later, in 1673, and given jurisdiction over Malaysia, southern Burma and Sumatra. By the end of the 19th century, Catholicism had spread throughout the country of Thailand and parts of the surrounding regions.
With this anniversary, “we try to help the Catholics, who are the minority — half a percent — to think about the past: Who were the missionaries? Why did they come here?” the bishop said.
“After thinking of the past, at present, we have to thank God, because of how God blesses us.”
Bishop Arpondratana told media in Bangkok Wednesday that Pope Francis’ visit is a joyous occasion for Catholics in the country.
He also invited Catholics to unite in prayer for the Pope. “The love of God will be among us, Catholics who gather in his name,” he said.
There are around 389,000 Catholics in Thailand, only 0.5% of the population of 65.5-plus million. Organizers expect there to be around 50,000 people in attendance at Pope Francis’ Mass in the national stadium Nov. 21 and another 20,000 to be present in and outside St. Peter’s parish for Francis’ meeting with priests, seminarians and religious Nov. 22.
There are around 51,000 Catholics in Bishop Arpondratana’s diocese, which he has led for 10 years. This means the Chiang Mai Diocese’s overall Catholic population of 1.7% is three times above the national average.
Bishop Arpondratana said there are more than 1,350 Catholics traveling overnight from his diocese, which is in northern Thailand, to Bangkok to be present at the papal events. He said in some cases, people needed diocesan help obtain IDs to be able to travel to see Pope Francis.
Thousands are also traveling from nearby countries; the largest group represented after Thailand is Vietnam, with 4,500 people traveling to Bangkok.
After arriving in Bangkok just before noon Nov. 20, Pope Francis had an afternoon and evening of rest before a busy two days of meetings with Thai authorities, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, religious leaders and Catholic faithful Nov. 21-22.
At the airport, the Pope greeted his second cousin, Salesian Sister Ana Rosa Sivori, who he asked to be his personal interpreter throughout the trip. Originally from Argentina, Sister Ana has been a missionary in Thailand for more than 50 years.