In one of his meetings in Bangkok the Pope met the Bishops of Thailand and placed their meeting under the “watchful gaze” of Blessed Nicholas Bunkerd, “so that his example may inspire us with a great zeal for evangelization in all the local Churches of Asia.”
Blessed Nicholas Bunkerd Kitbamrung
Blessed Nicholas was sent as a missionary priest to northern Thailand in 1930 where he trained seminarians and worked to bring lapsed Catholics back to the faith. At a time of anti-Christian sentiment during World War II, he was arrested for “antipatriotic” acts and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He continued his missionary work there, baptizing 68 of his fellow prisoners. He died of tuberculosis in the prison hospital in 1944 at the age of 49.
Pope Francis noted that 2020 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. “This is a fitting occasion to revisit those ‘shrines’ where the missionary roots that left their mark on these lands are preserved”, he said, and “to welcome a future that you yourselves must help develop and create.” In this way, the Pope continued, “both the Church and society in Asia will benefit from a renewed and shared evangelical outreach.”
A multicultural and multi-religious continent
Pope Francis described Asia as a “multicultural and multi-religious continent” where rapid technological advancements can open up immense possibilities, “but can also result in the growth of consumerism and materialism”. He listed specific areas of concern: “the scourge of drugs and human trafficking”, caring for migrants and refugees, the exploitation experienced by many workers, “as well as economic and social inequality between rich and poor.”
He recalled the first missionaries: their “courage, joy and extraordinary stamina can help us take stock of our present situation and mission from a much broader and more transformative perspective”, he said. That memory frees us from the belief that “times past were better for the proclamation of the Gospel.” It also helps us “to avoid taking refuge in fruitless discussions that end up making us turn in on ourselves, paralyzing any kind of action”, he said.
The power of the Holy Spirit
The Pope continued his discourse to the Bishops, reminding them it is the Holy Spirit “who arrives in advance of missionaries and remains with them.” The power of the Holy Spirit sustained countless missionaries “not to discount any land, people, culture or situation”, continued Pope Francis. “They were bold and courageous because they knew the Gospel is a gift to be shared with and for everyone.” Mission, he said, means cultivating a sense of smell: “Mission calls for a paternal and maternal concern, because the sheep is only lost when the shepherd gives it up for lost, and not before.”
Pope Francis said we need to let ourselves be “transformed” by the Gospel: purified by the Lord, the Church becomes a “witness by vocation… unafraid to take to the streets and come face to face with the lives of the people entrusted to her care.” The Pope told the Bishops, who are a minority in many of their countries, that we can learn from them: they have not allowed themselves to be “corrupted by an inferiority complex”, he said, “or the complaint that you are not given due recognition.”
We are not the ones in charge of the mission, insisted Pope Francis. The Holy Spirit is the true protagonist. “We have been transformed by the Spirit in order to transform wherever we are placed.” Mission is “a passion for Jesus Christ and a passion for His people”, he said.
Servants not managers
“We too are part of this people”, continued the Pope, “we were chosen to be servants, not masters or managers.” This means “we are to accompany those whom we serve with patience and kindness, listening to them, respecting their dignity, always promoting and valuing their apostolic initiatives.” The Pope reminded the Bishops many of their lands were evangelized by lay faithful who spoke “the dialect of their people, a simple and direct exercise of inculturation, neither theoretical nor ideological, but the fruit of their zeal to share Christ.”
The Pope encouraged the Bishops always to keep the door open for their priests. “The closest neighbor of the bishop is the priest”, he said. “Be close to your priests, listen to them and seek to accompany them in every situation, especially when you see that they are discouraged or apathetic, which is the worst of the devil’s temptations. Do so not as judges but as fathers, not as managers who deploy them, but as true elder brothers”, he added.
Pope Francis concluded his address to the Bishops acknowledging the many issues they have to confront within their communities. “Let us look to the future in the certainty that we do not journey alone”, he said: “the Lord is there, waiting for us, and inviting us to recognize Him above all in the breaking of the bread.”