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POPE IN BANGKOK FEATURE: ‘The Pope Is Here to Give a Testimony’ – Suggested at St. Louis Hospital by European Missionary in Thailand

From Papal Flight, ZENIT Takes Readers Inside St. Louis Hospital & #PopeinThailand Events

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A European missionary whose order founded the hospital Pope Francis visited today expresses gratitude for the peaceful, free way Catholics can live their faith in Thailand, and coexist with the majority-Buddhist population, but acknowledges that the idea of being a ‘missionary’ in such a place is challenging to define.

Father Brice Testu from the Society of the French Missionaries of Paris arrived in Thailand two years ago and is still learning Thai. He lives at St. Louis Hospital where Pope Francis visited today and gives patients Communion and offers other types of pastoral care.

ZENIT was at the hospital today for Pope Francis’ visit as the roads were packed with people enthusiastically waiting to see him, including little ones.

Prior to his arrival, ZENIT, RNS, and CRUX visited the hospital to see the preparations and speak to individuals. This is when they interviewed Father Testu, whose interview we bring you below.

A Catholic orthopedic surgeon expressed to us his hope that the Pope’s visit gives him greater spiritual strength to confront the difficulties he faces and comes across in his work, and reiterated how even all the Buddhist doctors and employees at the hospital were equally excited to meet the Pope, whose figure they may not understand exactly, but who, nonetheless, they esteem as a figure who promotes good and peace.

We also spoke to other nurses and hospital personnel who reiterated the same sentiments and expressed how they never feel prejudiced against being Catholics in Thailand. Some were married to Buddhists and noted how here in Thailand it is normal, as is their case, that they and their husbands decided to raise their children as Catholics. They acknowledged the peaceful relationships between religions.

Unlike other countries in Asia where persecution of Christians is on the rise, in Thailand, this is not the case. They attribute it when asked to their overall peaceful and ‘smiling’ attitude and way of being.

The hospital itself had a big Pope Francis sign high up, visible from the street, the Vatican flag and its colors everywhere, and even a Pope Francis replica on the fourth floor in the garden where there was a little chapel, where next to ‘Francis’ was a blow-up, but sweet, nun and religious sister, on his sides.

Before the hospital, ZENIT was part of the press pools at the Government House for the welcoming ceremony and Pope’s address with the authorities, before he went to meet the Supreme Patriarch of the Buddhists. Then, they returned to the hospital where he received an incredibly warm and touching welcome, with much laughter, many smiles, and much tenderness.

He reminded them that when looking at a patient, to call them by name, and applauded the work that they do, noting that suffering makes us relate to Christ’s suffering, and how we are to draw and cling always more closely to Him.

Then we followed the Holy Father’s Mass in the evening for some 67,000 faithful in Thailand’s national stadium.

Here is our conversation with Father Tetsu.

***

And your plan is to stay here?

The Society of the French Missionaries of Paris, when we come to a country, we stay in a country for life, normally… So, I am learning Thai because I am likely going to be spending the rest of my life in Thailand, as a missionary.

Did you choose Thailand or were you sent here?

I was sent here. In fact, when we ordain a deacon, they receive their country of mission at the same time. For me, it was Thailand. I arrived two years ago after being ordained a priest.

The Pope is here visiting where you deliver Communion tomorrow. What importance does this have?

The Pope is coming here to give a testimony that the Pope is very interested in the way that the Catholic Church deals with the sick people and the poor people in the Hospital of St. Louis. Then, among all the Thai people, even if the Catholic Church makes up such a small percentage, about 0.5%, that thanks to their good schools, and hospitals, and the fact that they take care of the ill, and of children in ensuring they are educated, it has a very good reputation. Even if it makes up less than one percent of the population.

Everyone here is very excited, they feel very close to Rome and the person of the Pope. They are all very proud, as you can see. Singers are here training and rehearsing for his arrival now. Wherever he will go, there will be numerous people here happy to see him and welcome him.

Why are they so happy?

They feel it is really a great honor to see and to have him in their land, in their Church. They are very proud of that and are very excited. They are hoping that the Pope will help them to be happy as Christians and be better missionaries because it is not something natural for Thai people to speak about their religion, especially if it’s Catholicism, given the religion of the Thai people is Buddhism. You don’t have to be a missionary at all if you are a Buddhist because everyone is a Buddhist. It is therefore very weird to speak about another religion since the Buddhist people like the Catholic Church if they know it. They know very, very few things about it. They know it because of the schools and hospitals. Changing their religion is absolutely not something they would think about because Buddhism is part of their culture, their nation, their identity.

And what about being ‘missionary’ as a Catholic here?

The Catholics in Thailand, while very small, are very happy and live perfectly fine, but being missionary is very difficult. While some people may be interested in sort of a cultural way, maybe trying to recall well ‘Jesus was this. Jesus was that. And there is the Virgin Mary, and you have saints.’ And they sort of can follow the idea of how religious live. Monks living in solitude. This they can relate to since the Buddhist monks are single and live in solitude. This is quite similar and welcomed.

Over the past 350 years, we have something like 0.5 % of the population who is Catholic. The Catholics in Thailand know that they are not going to convert the whole country in the next couple of years. It really interrogates us to ask how can we be missionary when you know that the majority will not convert and will not baptize tomorrow or next year. They are hoping that Pope Francis’ may be able to help them, maybe to give them advice on how they can be missionaries in their daily life.

How have Buddhists welcomed the trip of the Pope? What is your sense?

My sense is that most of the population doesn’t know really about it. The media are speaking about it. This morning, all the newspapers were speaking about the visit of the Pope. But for most of the people, they do not know exactly who the Pope is. ‘He is somebody important…’ ‘He is somebody from the Catholic Church.” They think, ‘Oh, the Catholic Church. They have schools and hospitals. Those who know about it are very happy. The Catholic Church, as far as I know, has really great relations with the Buddhists. With the Buddhists, you have nothing to fear…[smiling].

You give the sacrament of Communion to hospital patients. What had patients said about the fact the Pope is visiting?

Everyone has been really excited. Having the Pope is really having something huge. They have been preparing and preparing more and more for his arrival. Too much [laughing]. They just keep and would keep doing more. They ask themselves: maybe we can do more. Then: ‘Yes, yes, yes. We can do more. Let’s do more.’ and more and more…’ The Pope is coming tomorrow, so they can still do some more, but if he were coming next week, he would do more and more and more.

They are doing so much, praying the rosary, going to Church, praying that they see him. Europeans generally– I can say coming from France–can make a pilgrimage to Rome and see the Pope. For them, it is once in a lifetime. It is very important.

As this papal trip is occurring, we slowly get closer to the Advent Season? Can you tell us about experiencing the Christmas season in Thailand as a Catholic?

In the country, in the small cities, Christmas is not a very big thing. In the big cities, it is, but very commercial. One sees it all over the supermarkets, malls and shopping centers for example. They will have various Christmas events; they have nothing to do with Jesus Christ.

There are, therefore, I presume, no nativity sets?

No, absolutely not. Everybody knows Christmas is a very big party but they do not know why. In the malls, it is a commercial event but, in the parish, it is a very, very important feast. At one of the largest parishes in Bangkok, there are always celebrations before and after the Christmas Mass. Faithful sometimes confess more. There are many priests listening to confessions around the Christmas Mass’ activities.

Thank you, Father

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Deborah Castellano Lubov

Deborah Castellano Lubov is Senior Vatican & Rome Correspondent for ZENIT; author of 'The Other Francis' ('L'Altro Francesco') featuring interviews with those closest to the Pope and preface by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin (currently published in 5 languages); Deborah is also NBC & MSNBC Vatican Analyst. She often covers the Pope's travels abroad, at times from the papal flight (including for historic trips such as to Abu Dhabi and Japan & Thailand), and has done television and radio commentary, including for Vatican Radio, Sky, and BBC. She is a contributor to National Catholic Register, UK Catholic Herald, Our Sunday Visitor, Inside the Vatican, and other Catholic news outlets. She has also collaborated with the Vatican in various projects, including an internship at the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and is a collaborator with NBC Universal, NBC News, Euronews, and EWTN. For 'The Other Francis': http://www.gracewing.co.uk/page219.html or https://www.amazon.com/Other-Francis-Everything-They-about/dp/0852449348/

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