Thailand, The Catholic Church in
THAILAND, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
Located in Southeast Asia, bordered by Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Malaysia, Thailand was known as Siam until 1939. Modern-day Thailand, the "Land of the Free" has the distinction of being one of the few Asian countries that was never colonized by a European power. From the beginning, the region came under Mon (Burmese) and Khmer control. The emergence of the Sukhothai kingdom in 1238 marked the beginnings of a Thai kingdom independent of the Mon and Khmer empires. During this period, Theravada buddhism took root and flowered among the Thai people. At the height of the Ayutthaya empire (1351–1767), Thai armies devastated the Khmer empire and sacked its famed capital, Angkor. Portuguese ships making their way northward after the conquest of Malacca in 1511 brought the first Europeans traders and missionaries to Ayutthaya, followed by the Dutch, English, Spanish and French, all of whom entered into diplomatic and trade relations with the Ayutthayan kings. In the years leading up to and ensuing from the collapse of the Ayutthaya empire, nationalistic sentiments resulted in the wholesale expulsions of Europeans.
Modern Thai history began with the ascent of General Chakri into power as King Rama I (1782–1809). Early in his reign, he transferred the royal capital to Bangkok. King Nang Klao, Rama III (1824–1851) initiated new trade relations with European powers, culminating in diplomatic treaties that were concluded between King Mongkut, Rama IV (1851–1868) and European governments. Setting out to refashion Siam into a modern nation on par with European nations, and wishing to fend off European attempts to colonize the land, King Mongkut initiated a series of social and economic reforms that were continued by his son, Chulalongkorn, King Rama V (1869–1910). Known as the Father of Modern Thailand, King Chulalongkorn is best remembered for his farreaching reforms, including the abolition of slavery and the reform of administrative, educational, public welfare, legislative and judicial structures.
Siam's first encounter with Christianity took place in the 16th century with the arrival of Portuguese trading ships with Catholic chaplains on board. Missionary activity proper began with the arrival of two Portuguese Dominicans, Jeromino da Cruz and Sebastiao da Canto in Ayutthaya, the capital city in 1567. The Franciscans arrived in 1582, followed by the Jesuits in 1607. Until 1662, all missionaries in Siam were under the aegis of the Portuguese Padroado. On Aug. 22, 1662, three missionaries from the Paris Foreign Mission Society (Société Mission Étrangères de Paris, MEP), Msgr. Pierre Lambert de la Motte, Jean De Bourges, and M. Dedier arrived in Ayutthaya. They were welcomed by ten Portuguese priests and one Spanish priest serving a Christian community of about 2,000. Unlike the Dominicans, Franciscans and Jesuits, these three new arrivals were sent by the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Propaganda Fide ). Two years later, on Jan. 27, 1664, Msgr. François Pallu together with three MEP missionaries, M. Laneau, M. Haingues, M. Brindeau and a lay assistant De Chamesone-Folssy arrived in Siam. Their arrival corresponded with the long and prosperous period of King Narai the Great (1657-1688) who opened the country to foreigners and allowed missionaries to preach the Gospel. The decision of King Narai to ally with the French as a counterweight against the Dutch paved the way for the French MEP missionaries to operate in relative freedom.
In 1664, the MEP missionaries organized an assembly, the so-called the Synod of Ayutthaya. The 1664 synod approved the formation of a new apostolic congregation to be called Amateurs de la Croix de Jesus Christ, the erection of a seminary to train indigenous clergy, as well as the publication of Propaganda Fide's Instructions to Vicar Apostolics and Instructions to Missionaries. Implementing the decisions of the synod, Lambert de la
Motte opened a seminary for indigenous clergy, College General in Ayutthaya in 1665. Four years later, in 1669, he founded the first mission hospital in Ayutthaya. Besides Ayutthaya, missionaries preached the Gospel in Phitsanulok, Lopburi, Samkhok and Bangkok. In 1674, the church of the Immaculate Conception in Samsen district of Bangkok was built. While the Christian community was growing, it comprised mainly European traders, as well as Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese nationals fleeing persecution in their homeland. After more than a century of missionary activity, there were only about 600 indigenous Siamese Catholics in 1674.
The 1688 revolution brought the anti-French Phra Phetraja in power. Phra Phetraja expelled many French missionaries, closed College General, and persecuted the local Christians. The persecution continued during the reign of King Taisra (1709–1733), who forbade missionaries to leave the capital or to use the Thai and Pali language in their teaching of religion. Sporadic persecutions continued through the fall of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya in 1767, into the reign of King Taksin (1768–1782), who ordered the expulsion of foreign missionaries.
With the advent of the Chakri dynasty in 1782, conditions for missionary activity improved gradually. Wishing to initiate new alliances and trading relations with European powers, King Rama I (1782–1809) welcomed missionaries to his capital. A. Launay recorded that there were about 2,500 Catholics in Siam in 1802, and about 3,000 in 1811. In 1827, Pope Leo XII granted ecclesiastical jurisdiction over Singapore to the Vicar Apostolic of Siam. In 1841, an outstanding missionary, Msgr. Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix was appointed Vicar Apostolic of Siam. Pallegoix, who was vicar apostolic from 1841 to 1862, had a brilliant mind and deep knowledge of the sciences, mathematics and languages. He acquired a profound knowledge of Siamese and Pali languages and was the author of the first ever Thai-Latin-French-English dictionary, the first such fundamental work for the Thai language While he was in residence at the Immaculate Conception church in the Samsen district of Bangkok, he learned Pali from Prince Mongkut (the future King Rama IV who ruled Thailand from 1851–68) who had entered the monkhood at the nearby Wat Rajathivas. In turn, Prince Mongkut took lessons in Latin, astronomy and mathematics from him.
The period from the 1860s to the beginning of the 20th century witnessed much growth, fueled by the arrival of Catholic refugees fleeing turmoil and persecution in China and Vietnam. In 1872, the Catholic community numbered some 10,000, with 20 foreign missionaries and 8 indigenous priests. By 1909, the number had grown to about 23,600 Catholics, with 59 seminarians, 44 foreign missionaries, 21 indigenous priests 17 religious men, 123 religious women, and 21 catechists. Much of the growth came about through the efforts of the indefatigable vicar apostolic, Msgr. Jean-Louis Vey (1875–1909). Thus far, missionary activities centered in central, eastern and western regions of Siam, with little activity in the northern region. Recognizing this deficiency, Msgr. Vey sent P. Prodhomme and P. Xavier Guego to begin a new northern mission on Jan. 2, 1881. Subsequent waves of missionaries worked their way northward into Laos. Recognizing the success of this mission, Pope Leo XIII erected the vicariate apostolic of Laos on May 4, 1899. His successor, Msgr. Perros (1909–1947) focused on the northwestern region, sending missionaries to Chiengmai, Chiengrai, and Lampang. Missionaries also advanced to Nakornratchasima. In addition to missionary activities, Msgr. Vey also established modern schools and hospitals. In 1885, with his encouragement, P. Colombet had founded Assumption College, the first Catholic college in Bangkok. In 1901, he invited the Brothers of St. Gabriel to Bangkok to take over the running of Assumption College. Similarly, Msgr. Vey founded the St. Louis Hospital and in 1898, he invited the Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres to take charge of it.
The period of the Second World War was a difficult time for Christians in Thailand. Anti-European ultra-nationalistic movements reacted strongly against the Catholic Church, viewing it as a French bastion in the country. The ultra-nationalists exerted extreme pressure on Thai Christians to renounce Christianity and embrace Buddhism, on the premise that to be a loyal Thai, one had to be Buddhist. Churches were burnt down or looted in many places. In Ban Songkhon, on the Mekong river (in the northeastern region of Thailand), seven Catholics who refused to renounce their faith were shot dead during December 1941. On Oct. 22, 1989, Pope John Paul II beatified these seven martyrs (see thailand, seven mar tyrs of, bb). A priest, Fr. Nicolas Bunkerd Kitbamrung died in prison on Jan. 12, 1944. Pope John Paul II beatified him on Mar. 5, 2000.
In the years following the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, the Thai Church enthusiastically embraced the use of vernacular languages at Mass and explored opportunities to inculturate the Christian Gospel and the Church on Thai soil. The first step toward this end was made when Pope Paul VI, by the bull Qui in fastigio, formally established the local hierarchy on Dec. 18, 1965, creating the two ecclesiastical provinces of Bangkok and Thare Nongseng and appointing the first Thai archbishops. Another first occurred when Pope John Paul II made the second Archbishop of Bangkok, Michael Michai Kitbunchu a cardinal on Feb. 2, 1983. Subsequently, Pope John Paul II made the first ever papal visit to Thailand on May 10, 1984.
From its inception, the Thai Catholic Church has remained small in size. Nevertheless, it has played an important role in the Thai society. Its impact is felt especially in the field of education, social and public welfare. It has set up facilities to care for the huge number of AIDS victims from the 1980s onward. In 1975, the Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees (COERR) was created to minister to the social, pastoral and spiritual needs of refugees fleeing from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and later from Burma. In remote mountain regions, missionaries continue to work with communities ravaged by poverty, lack of education and public health facilities, in a concerted effort to stem the problem of families selling their daughters into prostitution.
Bibliography: j. guennou, Les Missions Étrangères (Paris 1963–86). e. w. hutchinson, 1688 Revolution in Siam: The Memoir of Father de Beze, S.J. (Hong Kong 1968). a. launay, Histoire de la mission de Siam, 2 v. (Paris 1920–23). a. da silva, Documentacao para a Historia das Missoes do Padroado Portuges do Oriente (Lisbon 1952).