‘Pope Francis shows us the love of God for us…’ This is the sentiment of Cardinal Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovithavanij, Archbishop of Bangkok.
In an exclusive interview with Zenit whose Senior Vatican Correspondent, Deborah Castellano Lubov, is on the Papal Flight for Pope Francis’ historic Apostolic Trip to Japan and Thailand, Nov. 19-26, marking the Pontiff’s 32nd travel abroad, the President of Thailand’s Bishops’ Conference expressed this. Moreover, while acknowledging that Catholics in his country make up a mere 389,000, less than 1% of the population, he applauded that they, along with other people of other faiths in majority-Buddhist Thailand, can live together in peace.
Cardinal Francis is following the trip and with Pope Francis at all his major events during the first leg of Francis’ seven-day, two-nation Asian tour, Nov. 20-23. Pope Francis, with his papal entourage, landed in Bangkok this afternoon after an eleven hour flight from Rome.
Expressing their gratitude for this love they receive, the Asian Cardinal says the Thai Catholic Church must be “collaborating with their hands and hearts to witness Christ’s love.” Also in the interview, Zenit had the opportunity to speak to the Cardinal about this trip, his ‘flock’ and about the everyday reality for Catholics in his multiethnic, multireligious nation.
Here is our exclusive interview:
ZENIT: Your Eminence, some might be surprised that Pope Francis is visiting Thailand. How did it come to fruition?
Card. Francis X. Kriengsak Kovithavanij: Some mass media asked me why Pope Francis decided to visit Thailand. Only the Pope can respond to this question. I cannot answer on his behalf. When all members of the Thai Bishops Conference made the Ad limina visit to Pope Francis last year in Rome, in the name of Catholic Church in Thailand, I invited him. Since that moment, we had not heard anything further. Pope Francis is known often as a Pope of surprises, often leaving many surprised…
ZENIT: We have seen the Pope give support in the past to small Catholic flocks around the world, such as in the United Arab Emirates, Sweden, and other non-Christian or majority-Orthodox countries…
Card. Francis X. Kriengsak Kovithavanij: There is one element that Pope Francis always take into consideration and to which he gives the priority in a special way, namely those composing “the least of the least.” It reflects how much he cares about these often discarded individuals. This remains very important to him.
ZENIT: And he demonstrated this with various gestures, didn’t he?
Card. Francis X. Kriengsak Kovithavanij: Yes, since the start of his pontificate. The first place he visited was Lampedusa, where there are numerous immigrants. He has shown great attention to the islands in southern Italy, attentive to the treatment of immigrants. One of the Pope’s main objectives of this trip to Thailand is to show his closeness to the poor, and all those who encounter great daily difficulties.
ZENIT: How are the relationships among the different religions in your country? And how are the Catholics, being so few, normally welcomed?
Card. Francis X. Kriengsak Kovithavanij: In Thailand, we have peace and good relationships among people in Thai society. Most Catholics are Thai. We live in a multicultural society, with a variety of local cultures, and differences in faith. Though Buddhists are majority, what is important is we have freedom in choosing religion. Being only few of us Catholic, all of us can live together in peace. Looking at the numbers of us Catholics, we are around 350,000 in front of a population of 67 million. After the good news was proclaimed in this land, the Catholic Church was established in the land of Siam and it lasted for 350 years.
ZENIT: How do you personally welcome the Holy Father’s visit?
Card. Francis X. Kriengsak Kovithavanij: I can represent all Thai Catholics in expressing my happiness, my joy, and my gratitude towards the Holy Father for his Apostotic Visit. Even more than these sentiments, we appreciate the value and grace of his Apostolic visit.
ZENIT: And what for you is this value?
Card. Francis X. Kriengsak Kovithavanij: For us, we are grateful for the love and care Pope Francis shows us. This is the love of God for us, through Pope Francis. With this gratitude for his love, we wish to respond more to the love of Jesus Christ, as “disciples of Christ who will reach out to be disciple missionaries.”
ZENIT: What does the Catholic Church represent in Thailand? Who are the Thai Catholics? Are they foreigners or are they rooted in the country?
Cardinal Francis X. Kriengsak Kovithavanij: We Catholics in Thailand are mostly Thai, as we are descendants from Chinese and Vietnamese ancestors who migrated into Thailand. There are some who are children of Portuguese. However, we consider that we are all Thai, because we are born in Thailand.
Nowadays, since we are more united as the ASEAN community, there are more citizens from other ASEAN countries who are Catholic and come to Thailand to work, especially from Philippines, Myanmar and Laos. There are also others from Europe, America, the Middle East, Korea and some far Asian countries.
But most of the Catholics in Thailand are Thais. Priests, religious, and even all the bishops are Thais. The Catholic Church in Thailand has emphasized the inculturation, in a special way, after the Second Vatican Council held more than 55 years ago. The Catholic Church in Thailand needs to do more about inculturation, there is still a long way to walk. The main teaching of Christianity has universal value, it does not belong to a certain country or to a certain nationality. It belongs to the whole humanity.
ZENIT: What else needs to be done?
Cardinal Francis X. Kriengsak Kovithavanij: Christianity should belong to everyone. In order to make these values enter in many kinds of people, we need to enter into each country’s culture, and even enter or at least appreciate each country’s languages, traditions, customs, ways of life, mentality and expression. We perceived that there are still many things we have to learn. We need to open our hearts to listen and take those values to be a means of conveying the values of the Gospel to people.
ZENIT: Since Catholics are a small minority in almost all the major Asian countries, inter-religious dialogue is fundamental for the Catholic Church in Asia. What message do you expect from the Pope on this topic?
Cardinal Francis X. Kriengsak Kovithavanij: People in Thailand live together in a multicultural society. We are living also together with our neighboring countries, with the ASEAN community, also in a multicultural context. As a whole, we live in peace and have good collaboration. Dialogue is essential since it brings people together to meet each other, creating a collaboration with strength and heart.
ZENIT: Could you tell us more about how the Catholic Church in Thailand engages in dialogue?
Cardinal Francis X. Kriengsak Kovithavanij: The Catholic Church in Thailand has always responded to the direction of the 2nd Vatican Council. We have organized many formation programs for Thai Catholics in ecumenism and interreligious dialogue on a regular and continuous basis. The dialogue on these two dimensions, was organized both in an official platform by leaders of each religion and also at the grassroots level, for villagers who live together in the same community.
There are many occasions where groups of Buddhist monks, representatives from each religion, and government representatives were able to visit to Pope in Rome. On this occasion of the papal visit, Pope Francis will make an official visit to the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand. There will be a meeting where around 1500 leaders and representatives from all religions, various Christian denominations, together with representatives from many universities including both professors and students, will go to hear the Pope’s words too. Now, we try to foster collaborations between each Christian Church to bring about a legal action to support the status of Christianity in Thailand.
ZENIT: Do you expect Pope Francis’ visit in Thailand to help the Catholic faithful grow in their faith and love for the Church?
Cardinal Francis X. Kriengsak Kovithavanij: Its spiritual fruits and how it can help people grow in faith is what matters most. We would like to present the civilization of love, if you will’ all united in Christ as witnesses in Thai society. In every place where Pope Francis is visiting or will visit, we would like that the members of Thai Catholic Church be united, collaborating with their hands and hearts to witness the civilization of Christ’s love and make it appear to the public, in Thai.