The patronal feasts of parishes in a northeastern Thai diocese unite communities for Mass, prayer, processions – and friendly soccer matches.

At the conclusion of the solemn Mass of parish patron, each community in the Diocese of Nakhon Ratchasima partakes of a festive agape-lunch that ends in the  joyous whistles of groups playing a game of futsal -- a variant of soccer played on a relatively small indoor court with five players on each team.

The parish matches involves separate teams of clergy and seminarians playing lay faithful as well as locals from other religious communities.

Cheerful supporters await their favorite clergy team, with Bishop Joseph Sirisut of Nakhon Ratchasima as its key player.

"Sport, or any exercise, is important for our health for having a sound and active mind, body, and soul," Bishop Sirisut told CNA at a recent futsal match.

Fr. Alessandro Klahan, rector of St. Paul Minor Seminary in Nakhon Ratchasima, told CNA Feb. 20 that "sport has no religion, but can be a simple evangelizing tool for promoting Gospel values and morals."

The rector emphasized sports' role in constructing "bridges of friendship" between the ecclesiastical community and the laity, while fostering interreligious dialogue with other communities.

"How can this game can be an evangelizing tool?" Fr. Klahan asked.

"In general, such a festive occasion will be linked with a sumptuous lunch, drinking and enjoying yourself together with your family."

In these parish gatherings, a large community participates in the Mass, and the choirs often attract hundreds of people from other religions to witness our sense of community, fraternal sharing, and at the end a game with fairness and teamwork, he said.

"Many spectators and school children are watching these matches, and the pitch echoes gestures of love, understanding, and clean encouraging words, with no place for the aggressiveness of hatred and anger."

"We also have to be heralds of Gospel values, so that our non-verbal communication can be an non-verbal homily," reflected Fr. Klahan.

The rector explained that seminary formation is "holistic and all-around," and lamented that some of the younger generation are uninterested in physical activity, being attached solely to their studies and computers.

Playing games such as futsal serves as evangelization, he said, when "youth draw other youth, thus becoming young evangelizers."

Sharing a love for sport fosters an encounter in which youth meet a good company of friends and they remain committed to social concerns in the pastoral apostolate of the Church, Fr. Klahan said.

"We have to reach out to our parishes: people love to see their priests and bishop, despite our age, trying our best to win, to shoot goals, and to entertain our people."

A seminarian of the diocese told CNA that Bishop Sirisut "is a fantastic, keen, and smart player."

"In the beginning we underestimated him."

The "futsal apostolate" is an effective way for Catholics in Thailand to engage with their countrymen.

The Catholic population of Thailand is less than 1 percent – and in the Nakhon Ratchasima diocese, they constitute 0.1 percent of the population. Some 95 percent of Thais are Buddhist, and many of the remainder are Muslim, making interreligious relations an important facet of life for Catholics in the south-east Asian nation.