'Heart' of Catholicism in Thailand fired up for Pope Francis

by Montira RUNGJIRAJITTRANON with Joe FREEMAN in Bangkok
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Thai Catholic devotees pray during a Sunday mass in Ayutthaya

Setting foot in a powerful Buddhist kingdom more than three centuries ago, fearless European missionaries built a church on the banks of a river -- the birthplace of a Catholic community in Thailand which eagerly awaits the arrival of Pope Francis on Wednesday.

About an hour's drive from Bangkok, Ayutthaya is now a sleepy town of mostly Buddhist ruins and backpackers but in the past it was a vibrant, cosmopolitan city seen as a diplomatic meeting point between east and west.

That made it possible for Rome to establish the "Mission de Siam" 350 years ago at a time when missionary work in Asia was dangerous and viewed with deep suspicion.

"This church is considered the heart of Catholicism in Thailand," said Father Tweesak Kitcharoen after a recent mass at St. Joseph's.

A Catholic holdout in a sea of Buddhist temples, the mission survived hardship, occasional hostility and war.

The original church was built around 1666, according to Tweesak, but it was deemed too small.

A second model was burned down when armies from Burma sacked the city in 1767, and it was rebuilt two more times.

The Catholic community there held on even after the capital was moved to Bangkok in the late 18th century.

Singing hymns in Thai and kneeling in prayer, the 100 or so congregants who attend Sunday services at St. Joseph's are part of Thailand's 380,000-strong Catholic community, roughly 0.5 percent of the population.

They are fired up in anticipation of Francis's first visit, which aims to mark the anniversary while highlighting religious harmony.

"I've only seen him on TV and I can't believe that I will finally have the chance to meet him," said Prathuang Boonkong, 62, who plans on attending a stadium mass led by the pope.

- 'Role model' -

The church, which is painted yellow and rises up off land by the river, is proud of its historic role in spreading the faith.

In a surrounding garden it has even erected a model of the boat that brought missionaries from Europe.

A statue on the grounds represents Bishop Pierre Lambert de la Motte, who is thought to have requested the land from King Narai.

The early arrivals encountered some initial hostility from local residents, who would also later associate Catholicism with French colonial efforts in Southeast Asia.

But they did not face the same pushback as they did in Japan -- the next stop on Francis's itinerary after Thailand.

There, missionaries were expelled and local adherents forced to renounce the faith.

In a message home from Thailand, de la Motte wrote he had "never seen any land" with different religions living in such harmony, said local historian Puttipong Puttansri.

Before his trip Francis sent a video message to the Thai people in which he said he hoped to "strengthen ties of friendship" with Buddhists.

While here he will meet the country's king, prime minister and supreme patriarch of the majority Buddhist community.

The visit has stirred excitement among the faithful, who have not had a visit by a pontiff since the late Pope John Paul II in 1984.

Many will attend at least one of his two masses, while others will be able to watch livestreams of the events.

Francis is a "role model" for Kaiwut Patthamasuthian, a 25-year-old who attends St. Joseph's church.

"Not only does he teach us, but he also shows us how he lives his life in a humble way," he said.

Thai Catholic devotees pray during a Sunday mass in Ayutthaya

A Catholic holdout in a sea of Buddhist temples, the mission survived hardship, occasional hostility and war

Before his trip, Pope Francis sent a video message to the Thai people in which he said he hoped to 'strengthen ties of friendship' with Buddhists

Early missionaries encountered some initial hostility from locals, who would also later associate Catholicism with French colonial rule in Southeast Asia