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Pope brings his ‘show, don’t tell’ evangelization to Thai Catholics

Pope Francis praised Thai Catholics as 'missionary disciples' for their work in health care and serving others during his visit to the mostly Buddhist nation this week.

BANGKOK (RNS) — An earthquake shook Thailand on Thursday morning (Nov. 21), alarming the residents of Bangkok’s numerous skyscrapers, which swayed for about a minute.

It was a memorable start to the second day of Pope Francis’ visit to Thailand, a visit local Catholics hope will make a lasting impression on their small Catholic community.

“Thai Catholics are hoping that the pope will help them to be happy as Christians and be better missionaries,” said the Rev. Brice Testu, a French missionary, in an interview Wednesday with a small group of reporters, including Religion News Service.

Pope Francis is visiting Thailand for an apostolic visit through Saturday, before embarking to Japan for the second leg of his fourth apostolic visit to Asia.

Thai Catholics represent slightly over 0.5 percent of the population of this mostly Buddhist nation, a number that has not much changed in the 350 years Catholicism has been present in the country.

Francis’ idea of evangelization is largely based on a “show, don’t tell” approach where the Catholic faith is compelling because of its charitable work and presence.

“Catholics in Thailand know that they are not going to convert the whole country in the next couple of years. It really (prompts) us to ask how we can be missionaries when you know that the majority will not convert and will not baptize tomorrow or next year,” Testu said.

The Rev. Brice Testu in Bangkok. RNS photo by Claire Giangrave

To bring his message home on his first full day in Thailand on Thursday, Pope Francis chose to visit the St. Louis Hospital in Bangkok, the country’s largest Catholic health care facility and an example of the Catholic community’s positive impact on the society and people in need.

“Buddhist people like the Catholic Church, but they know very, very few things about it,” said Testu, who administers Communion in the hospital.

“Even if the Catholic Church makes up such a small percentage, thanks to their good schools, and hospitals, and the fact that they take care of the ill, and of children in ensuring they are educated, it has a very good reputation among all the Thai people.”

The day before Pope Francis’ visit to the hospital, its workers barely held back their excitement, with some praying, others crying and many more singing to celebrate the arrival of their “Father.”

They expressed their hope that Francis would offer words of encouragement not only for the toil and hardship of everyday hospital work, but also to inspire a sense of mission for the small Catholic community.

“My job is a bit hard. I want for him to support us, to give us something to move forth in life, an embrace,” one nurse said.

This year, St. Louis Hospital celebrates the 120th anniversary of its founding. For Francis’ visit, the hospital workers went all out, covering the building with ribbons and filling the halls with orchids – all in yellow, the papal color.

The sound of people singing “We love the pope” and “Let us show love for the Holy Father” was played over loudspeakers as  Francis arrived. 

Pope Francis touches the head of a baby at the St. Louis Hospital in Bangkok on Nov. 21, 2019. Francis called for migrants to be welcomed and for women and children to be protected from exploitation, abuse and enslavement as he began a busy two days of activities in Thailand on Thursday. (AP Photo/Rapeephat Sitichailapa)

Francis told the hall filled with 700 hospital employees that they are “missionary disciples” in their efforts to treat every patient with tenderness and dignity.

“I know that at times your service can prove burdensome and tiring; you work under extreme circumstances, and for this reason you need to be accompanied and supported in your work,” the pope said.

“I ask you to ensure that this and similar apostolates may increasingly become a sign and emblem of a church on the move, which, in carrying out her mission, finds the courage to bring Christ’s healing love to those who suffer.” 

On many occasions, Francis has condemned proselytism as a means to increase the Catholic ranks. Before visiting the hospital, he had an audience with the Supreme Buddhist Patriarch, Ariyavongsagatanana IX, where Francis made clear that Catholics come “not to conquer, but to help.” He said that he hoped the two religions continue being “good neighbors.”

One Buddhist hospital worker wore a black T-shirt with an image of the pope on it in honor of his visit.

“He’s like Superman,” she said, “because he helps the people, and he teaches us to help the people.”

A life-size replica of Pope Francis waving at the Bangkok skyline stands on  a large terrace on the fourth floor of the hospital. In the days leading up to the visit, Thais, both Catholic and non-Catholic, took turns posing for pictures with the replica, sometimes with hands joined in prayer.

A Pope Francis mascot has been a sought-after attraction in the days leading up to the papal visit, its oversized head populating the Instagram feeds of Bangkok’s city-dwellers.

But beyond Francis’ star quality, which continues to attract a lot of global attention, the good work of the many Catholic missionaries, nurses, teachers and doctors has earned the respect of people from other faiths.

Speaking to Thai government authorities, Francis promised the “full commitment” of the local Catholic community to promote a just and inclusive society. He said that Catholics are also “fully resolved” to stand up against poverty, violence and injustice.

The pope also made compelling speeches on the “tragic exodus” of immigrants and refugees and the “scourge” of sex trafficking. During his hospital visit, he met with 40 patients, some of them living with serious disabilities.

During his final Mass at Bangkok’s National Stadium on Thursday, Francis again linked evangelization with caring for others.

“A missionary disciple knows that evangelization is not about gaining more members or about appearing powerful,” he told the crowd of 13,000 Thai people. “Rather, it is about opening doors in order to experience and share the merciful and healing embrace of God the Father, which makes of us one family.”