A Mustard Seed Church

Interview With Redemptorist Bishop on Charity and Mission in Thailand

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ROME, DEC. 13, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Christians make up less than 1% of Thailand’s 67 million people. And yet, the Church is instrumental in the nation’s education — even the king and queen spent time in Catholic schools — and in caring for sick and suffering Thai: children with AIDS, victims of human trafficking, the poor.

Bishop George Yod Phimphisan is a Redemptorist and the retired bishop of Udon Thani.

The 77-year-old prelate spoke with the television program «Where God Weeps» of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, about the Church’s work in Thailand — as well as his hopes for Asians becoming the missionaries of the third Christian millennium.

Q: In Thailand it is said that a true Thai is a Buddhist. How was it for you? You were born in Thailand, how is it that you are a Christian and Thai at the same time?

Bishop Phimphisan: I’m of a mixed background — Scottish, German, Portuguese, Japanese and Thai. I was born into a Catholic family. My father was of Portuguese and Thai background and my mother’s father, my maternal grandfather, was from Scotland. My parents met in Thailand and this is how I was born Catholic.

Q: You yourself are a missionary. Is this because you were touched by the missionary work?

Bishop Phimphisan: I’m a Redemptorist priest and the Redemptorists came to Thailand over 60 years ago. At that time there was a French missionary priest of the Foreign Mission Society who taught us catechism and at one time I mentioned to him that I was thinking about becoming a priest in the future. He told me that I was the kind of person that likes the company of others and so I should join a religious order so that I could live in a community.

He suggested the Salesian Order; they had been in Thailand for a while. I said I did not want to join them because I did not want to teach. He said that there was another religious order that had just come in, the Redemptorists, which had been there for about two or three years. So he took me to see them and I was attracted to them, especially when they told me about the spirit of the founder, St. Alphonsus. So I was sent to the Philippines for two years in the minor seminary and a year in the novitiate. After I made my vows, I was sent to America because the Redemptorists who first came were from the U.S.. You must have noticed my American accent. I was ordained a priest in the U.S. on the 10th anniversary of the arrival of the Redemptorists in Thailand. So I’m a missionary by choice.

Q: Do you feel like a missionary in your own country?

Bishop Phimphisan: Yes and the Holy See has given the Diocese of Udon Thani to the Redemptorists. My predecessor, Bishop Duhart, was the first bishop of the diocese.

During the Vietnam War, President Eisenhower of the U.S. warned of the “domino theory” the communists have incurred on the countries around the Mekong River. Thailand was the next target but it never happened. It caused all the bishops at that time, most of whom were foreigners, to resign and give their positions to local priests — Thai priests.

The reason — I think — why communism never took root in Thailand was a very effective tactic by the government. They labeled the communist as a “colonizer” and rallied the Thai people saying that Thailand has never been colonized by anyone and the communists want to “colonize” Thailand. This was all the government had to say and the people took arms and fought against the communists who were labeled as “colonizers.» I think we are the only country in Southeast Asia that has never been colonized.

Secondly the gap between the rich and the poor in Thailand is being “breached” by his majesty the king and the royal family. He is always with the poor people. So the communist influence is negligible and at a distance, even though we have had infiltration. But a takeover never happened and we thank God for that. So the Thai side of the Mekong River is where communism stopped and never gained a foothold in Thailand.

Q: The Redemptorists also have a very clear option for the poor. What do you do for the poor in your diocese?

Bishop Phimphisan: One of the things we try to do is to help with the social development programs. We have various social projects for the poor and before we help them, we try to establish an avenue for them to help one another. In the past, people in the village, for example — growing rice is very common in Thailand and people grow their own rice — would come together during the rice harvest to help one another and the host rice farmer who’s requiring the help would provide lunch. This is a very common practice in the villages. There was no necessity to hire labor. There was this spirit of helping one another. We try to keep this spirit alive.

Another project is our work with the handicapped; in the past, families with a handicapped child would chain this child inside the house while they worked in the field because they did not want the others to find out that they had a handicapped child. Having a handicapped child is perceived as that you’ve lived and done something wrong in your previous life and having a handicapped child is a form of punishment according to their belief. We established a support group for these families with handicapped children and we encourage and allow these families to come together and assist each other during harvest time.

Now, one of our big programs is dealing with children whose parents have AIDS. We have two centers and one centre has about 160 children.

Q: Why is AIDS is very prevalent in Thailand?

Bishop Phimphisan: It is very much spread. The people avail themselves of the services of the prostitutes in the bars and they are ignorant of just how AIDS is contracted and transmitted.

Q: Is this a problem of Thai society in general or is it the tourists coming in?

Bishop Phimphisan: It’s both and the problem is with the Thais; they do not take the threat of AIDS seriously. It was quite high for a while but it has been receding because they have seen the results. The people are so afraid of AIDS that when a child is born from parents with AIDS it is a social stigma. In my diocese most of the people are from the villages and many of them have plenty of free time due to seasonal employment in the farms, or there is just not enough work. They go to the big cities to work. The men, especially after work, avail themselves with the services of the prostitutes and contract AIDS. These same men then go home to their villages and have sexual relations with their wives; a child is born with AIDS.

Once they find out that their child has AIDS they fear that this child will infect others. They reject these children and they send these children to us.

Q: Are you the only ones doing this? Are the Buddhists doing anything similar?

Bishop Phimphisan: There is a very big monastery and a monk in Thailand who has taken in people with AIDS. They are not in our area. We are in the Northeast of Thailand and we have one American Redemptorist priest, Father Michael Shea, who cares for 160 children with AIDS. He has built three separate houses for the grown-up boys, girls and the young ones. He has been doing this now for more than 15 years. [Some of] the children have survived. They didn’t die. With the survivors after the third year, you know whether they have AIDS or not. [Redemptorist Father Michael Shea runs the Sarnelli House for children with AIDS. The Sarnelli House, a hospice and orphanage in Donwai village, near Nong Khai town. Sarnelli House provides a safe, healthy and loving environment for children age 8 months to 15 years for as long as they live.]

Q: There is another problem related to AIDS and that is the trafficking of women and children. The Pope himself mentioned this concern.

Bishop Phimphisan: The trafficking is not from within but people from the outside, for exa
mple from Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. They come in and get into prostitution. It is the main problem that we have.

Q: Do you as the Catholic Church in Thailand have a special project for that?

Bishop Phimphisan: Yes we do. We try to give them the proper treatment and assistance because a lot of these are refugees and most often they are are illegal. Many of these people are victims and are taken advantage of, and many of the traffickers are from Thailand. Lately many of these Thai traffickers have been caught, so there has been a decrease. The thing now is to get the authorities to make sure that this does not continue. We encourage them and we do what we can, but the authorities have to be involved.

Q: The Catholic Church in Thailand is a minority yet the projects like education, help for women and children and AIDS assistance seems to be borne by the Catholic Church on behalf of the Thai society?

Bishop Phimphisan: That’s right. When the communists took over Laos, many Laotians crossed into Thailand across the Mekong River as refugees. They came in thousands and tens of thousands. Many of our religious sisters came forward to help. The sisters were constantly preparing food to provide one meal to these refugees per day. After a while some refugees approach the sisters and asked: “Why are you doing this? Do you want us to become Catholics like you?” The sisters said: “That is not the reason why we are doing this. The reason we are helping you is that our religion teaches us to love all our neighbors, and you are our neighbors so we help you. Whether you want to become Catholic is up to you, we do no push that.” Eventually some of these refugees where admitted by other countries. Some of them settled in Thailand. This is a very good example of the help the Catholics provide.


Q: What can the Thai Catholic Church contribute to the universal Church?

Bishop Phimphisan: We have good vocations still in Thailand. To give you an idea; we have 65 million people and out of that we have 350,000 Catholics, which is less than 1%. We have 150 seminarians in our national major seminary for diocesan priests. We also have male and female religious orders all over the country. When I became a bishop 34 years ago, I proposed, because of the number of vocations, that we should start a mission society in Thailand. Three or four years afterward the idea was brought up and now we have our own mission society.

Q: So now you can send priests to us?

Bishop Phimphisan: Yes, right, and eventually, but at the moment we are sending them to our neighboring countries — Laos, Cambodia etc., where, more or less there is a similarity in culture. This is how we are starting. When I initially proposed this, my thinking was: When the missionaries came from Europe to spread the faith, they did not come because they had a surplus of missionaries, no, they needed those priests but they made the sacrifice to bring the faith to us. So we should also make that sacrifice to give back, to pay back. Recently we celebrated 350 years of the Parish Mission Society and Thailand, I think, was, the first country in Asia that these missionaries went to, so our faith in Thailand is about 350 years old. They were the first ones who started it.

Q: If you can put it in one sentence; what hope can you give us?

Bishop Phimphisan: With the ways things are going now, I hope as a missionary, especially our own mission society, we can help to send missionaries to other countries. I attended the synod of Asian bishops and I helped in the Thai translation of the document “Ecclesia in Asia.» I still belong to the postsynodal council for Asia and I come to Rome every year for that.

I recall one sentence in that document: The first millennium, the Church spread in Europe. The second thousand years was Europe, America and part of Africa. The third millennium: Asia is the future.

And as far as I’m concerned that was more or less a challenge for us and at the same time a prophesy that we now in Asia can send missionaries to Europe, America and Africa maybe. This is our hope and we thank God for that.

* * *

This interview was conducted by Marie Pauline Meyer for «Where God Weeps,» a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

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On the Net:

For more information: www.WhereGodWeeps.org

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