The bishop of Thailand's northernmost diocese, which is largely rural and dominated by hill tribes, has begun himself working in the fields alongside his flock, noting the importance of agriculture there.
“I try to understand the farmers, and to promote Catholic social teaching so that they can contribute to a holistic human development, can work for the common good of their family and for the entire nation,” Bishop Francis Xavier Vira Arpondratana of Chiang Mai told CNA July 10.
The diocesan economy is largely agricultural, and the mountainous region lacks many amenities such as electricity and modern communications and highway infrastructure.
Relating how he began to work in the rice fields with his tribal flock, he said that “in fact, I did not want to work in the field, but I would like to support them; and one of the local nuns encouraged me, asking, 'bishop why don’t you work with us?'”
And so Bishop Arpondratana took to the rice paddies with gusto.
“When someone asks, I would like to open my heart and mind and be with them,” he explained.
His work with farmers has inspired both them and catechists in the Chiang Mai diocese. He has organized a Lenten rice campaign in the diocese centered on prayer, penance, and alms giving.
The bishop is concerned for the local people, and is helping develop a strong sense of solidarity among the local ethnic groups: “I am aware of the economic situation of Europe, so we cannot ask help from there. We have to make the local people understand they must help each other locally, and not only receive help from afar.”
Bishop Arpondratana,58, was ordained a priest of the Bangkok archdiocese, 430 miles south of Chiang Mai, in 1981, and served there until his appointment as bishop in 2009.
“I like to be with my people to understand them, even though it took time to learn the language; but understanding their current situations and just to be with them” is important, he emphasized. “I have committed to doing my best with the more than six tribal ethnicities.”
The six largest hill tribes, all of whom live within the Chiang Mai diocese, are the Akha, Lahu, Mien, Karen, Hmong, and Lisu; each have their own language, customs, and traditions.
“One of my prime challenges is that we have no priests to speak in Akha,” Bishop Arpondratana said, “and so on feast days during my homily, native lay catechists translate it into two or three local languages such as Akha and Lahu.”
“This is the biggest challenge to my pastoral role in the diocese.”
Nearly all – 95 percent, in fact – of the 61,000 Catholics in the diocese are from the hill tribes, the bishop explained. These form a little more than one percent of the total population of the Chiang Mai diocese.
The local Catholics are joined by more than 1,000 catechumens, most of whom also are from the hill tribes.
“The catechumens are waiting for religious education and catechesis, but we lack priests who can speak the local languages,” the bishop reiterated.
The largest groups among the Catholics are the Karen people, at 55 percent, and the Akha, at 20 percent.
Catechists in the diocese are charged with bridging gaps among the tribes, and connecting faith formation, liturgy, and education in life skills.
“I have to empower the catechists, and have also to encourage the local religious,” Bishop Arpondratana said, explaining that his catechists undergo theological preparation at the National Catechetical Center in Sam Phran and Bangkok.
During his 28 years as a priest in Bangkok, Bishop Arpondratana led the Thai catechetical commission; during that time he saw that most catechists in central and eastern Thailand work part time in schools, in addition to their duties as catechists.
On the contrary, he said, in the Chiang Mai diocese most catechists in the city are women, while most in the villages are men who are given full time to their apostolate.
“So the role of the lay people as catechists is indispensable, as they dedicate their apostolate in the mountain villages to the tribes.”
The 61,000 Catholics were served in 2006 by only 72 priests, most of whom were religious. The diocese had 32 parishes, though Bishop Arpondratana explained that there are more than 470 total chapels throughout the nearly 35,000 square miles of the Diocese of Chiang Mai.
“We are a missionary land, and we walk miles in long journeys, even though we have missionaries in Thailand, and especially in Chiang Mai.”
Bishop Arpondratana has made a priority of travelling his diocese to visit his flock.
“I have spoken with my predecessor, Bishop Joseph Sangval Surasarang, who said that in his 22 years as Bishop of Chiang Mai, some chapels he visited only once or twice.”
“I made up my mind, realizing that they would be glad their bishop visits them.”
He is committed to throwing himself into shepherding of the diocese, knowing that the harvest is plenty, but laborers few.
“I feel that we have to still achieve our mission, for we have not yet reached a level such that we can confidently stand on our own,” he reflected.