The Journey of the Catholic Church in Thailand


tHE DEvelopment of relationship between vatican and thailand

Padroado and the Paris Foreign Mission Society (1511 – 1669)

Initial evangelization efforts in Siam (now known as Thailand) were under Portuguese patronage through the Padroado system. This system had papal support until the 17th century when it became clear the Portuguese Crown was unable manage such responsibilities. The solution for Asia, as the Vatican saw it, was the foundation of the Missions étrangères de Paris or Paris Foreign Mission Society (MEP).

By forming the MEP, political allegiances were eliminated as the missionary organization’s allegiance was to the pope. However, the MEP also received support from France which allowed for the secular advantages of the Padroado system to continue while reinforcing papal authority.

Mission de Siam (1669 – 1965)

From the mid-17th century until the 20th century, evangelization in Thailand and other parts of Asia was spearheaded by the MEP with the support of other religious congregations.

Although MEP’s first apostolic vicars were mainly destined for China and Indochina, many found themselves in Siam. MEP missionaries found evangelization efforts in Siam were almost impossible to plan due to intensive corvée obligations on the local population. During their temporary exile during the reign of King Taksin, the missionaries were able to evangelize the south (Phuket and Penang) — this would become the seed of the missions in British Malaya and Singapore.

The situation radically changed in the 19th century when Western imperialism expanded. Siam was one of the few countries that successfully adapted to western demands and reformed itself during the reign of King Rama IV and King Rama V. For the missionaries, this meant there was an official guarantee for religious liberty and rights to property, and freedom of movement to evangelize throughout the kingdom. Aside from engaging in healthcare, the missionaries also renewed their commitment to education which, to this day, remains the standard-bearer for high quality education in Thailand and include institutions such as St. Gabriel College, Mater Dei College, and Assumption College.

Archdiocese of Bangkok (1965 – present)

The Catholic Church in Thailand grew through the dedication of bishops and missionaries. Propaganda Fide agreed to establish the Church hierarchy in Thailand in 1965 and that year Thailand was given its first archbishops for Bangkok and Tharae Nongsaeng. However, it was not until 1983 that Pope St. John Paul II appointed Archbishop Michael Michai Kitbunchu as Thailand’s first cardinal.

tHE First papal visit thailand

The relationship between the Vatican and Thailand was first established during the reign of King Narai the Great of the Ayutthaya Kingdom.

Diplomatic messages and representatives were exchanged between the two until the fall of the kingdom in 1767.

The relationship was reestablished in 1851 when King Rama IV sent a diplomatic message to Pope Pius IX. In 1897, King Rama V became the first Thai monarch to visit the Vatican and he had an audience with Pope Leo XIII. He was not the last.

In 1934, King Rama VII visited the Vatican and had an audience with Pope Pius XI. And in 1960, during their European trip, King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit had an audience with Pope John XXIII at the Vatican.

In 1969, Thailand and the Vatican officially established diplomatic relations and appointed ambassadors to oversee the liaison. But it was not until 1983 that Pope St. John Paul II appointed the first Thai cardinal, Cardinal Michael Michai Kitbunchu. In the year following, Thailand received its first papal visit.

During Pope St. John Paul II’s 34-hour stay in the country, he had an audience with King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit and he also visited a refugee camp.

At that time, Thailand had received large numbers of refugees from Cambodia who fled after Vietnam invaded Cambodia and those who earlier fled the genocide of Pol Pot. There were at least 380,000 Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laos refugees in the camps along Thai-Cambodia border.

Pope St. John Paul II’s visit to Thailand was seen at the time as being a way to bring attention to the refugee crisis while also being an opportunity to express his personal thanks to Thailand for welcoming the refugees.

Continuing to grow

Pope St. John Paul II’s visit to Thailand in 1984 was a great boost for the local Catholic community. Since then, the local church has grown with the most recent example being the 2018 creation of the Chiang Rai Diocese to meet the pastoral needs of ethnic minorities in remote areas of the country’s north.

As of 2018, there are 379,975 Catholics in Thailand, a figure that represents 0.46 percent of the total population of 69 million.

This year Thailand’s Catholic community is celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Vatican’s Mission to Siam.

The celebrations include remembering when the Holy See sent the first group of MEP missionaries to Asia which were meant to go to China but, due to unexpected circumstances, ended up in Thailand instead.

To mark the anniversary, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, the prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples visited Thailand.

Pope Francis sent the cardinal as bearer of his message.

“I send you my cordial best wishes an assurance of my closeness with gratitude to God for the many graces received over these 350 years,” Pope Francis said in his letter.

“I pray that you may grow in holiness and continue to work in the spread of Christ’s kingdom by fostering solidarity, fraternity and the desire for goodness, truth and justice in your beloved country,” the pope said.

A special exhibition ‘Legacy of Mission Étrangères de Paris’ has been held in Ayutthaya where the MEP missionaries first arrived during the 1600s.

Across Asia there are presently nearly 4,500 MEP priests continuing the same work as those who came before them by working with local communities such as in Thailand.

And it is just like what MEP founder, Bishop François Pallu, once wrote hundreds of years ago: “Thus has the bridge begun,” a good reminder for the local Catholic community to continue building bridges of faith.