Friday, September 18, 2009
In many villages in Thailand, when one walks into the village, one sees that there are mostly older people and children. People in their late teens and twenties are hard to find. The reason is most of them had moved out of the village either to study or to find work. Therefore, when one walks into a Sunday Mass at the church, one also sees mostly older people and children.
Amazingly, this is not the case at my small parish in Thailand’s northeastern province of Nong Bua Lamphu. Here, children and young people make up a significant portion of the attendants at Sunday Mass, more than half. Perhaps you can notice young people more easily because in the church, there are very few elderly people and not many regular church going adults, not counting the Charity Sisters and the SVD brothers.
Having been pastor of my small parish for a year now, I have come to realize that here, the youth is almost everything. They are what makes the parish run and what gives me hope for the future.
While many Thai adults (and their children), influenced by the local Buddhist culture, see going to church as a “past time” activity that could be done in accordance with their availability and mood, many youth in my parish could not do without Sunday Mass. One time, I was waken by Luket, a 16 year old youth, early in the morning on Sunday. She was calling from another province, wanting to know the phone number of the church there, so that she could attend Mass after finishing with an academic exam. In Thailand, Christmas is not a holiday. So last Christmas, Teng and another friend, who go to high school in Udon Thani province, skipped morning classes in order to attend Christmas Mass at the cathedral there. During Lent, the youth refused an invitation to go to a weekend camp because they were afraid no one would be available to lead the Stations of the Cross.
Recently, a group of teenagers had a school exam on Sunday morning, so in the afternoon, they decided to go to a church 50km away for Mass. This is remarkable when one considers that there are many adults who live only a few minutes drive from the parish, but don’t think once about coming to church on Sunday, much less every Sunday.
Indeed, amidst the seemingly blandness in the faith life of many people influenced by an increasingly secular and materialistic culture that has permeated even the village life of Thailand, the youth group here has shown that there is still hope. When there are church feasts celebrated at other parishes, no matter how far away, they are the first to want to go. When we go to pray every first Saturday at a parishioner’s home, the youth make up the majority of the people present. They are the first to come to church on Sunday and are the last to leave. When there is an activity such as visiting and praying for AIDS patients, or cleaning the yard of an elderly person, they never refuse.
While there is a parish council made up of 7 adults, it is the youth who make the parish run. In Mass, the youth share responsibilities in serving at the altar, doing the readings, leading the singing and the after Mass prayers, and playing the organ (after started learning how to play only two months). In addition, they are the leaders for the parish children programs organized throughout the year. The youth also clean the church and the rectory, set up the coffee and snacks table for after-Mass social, prepare for church celebrations such as Holy Week, Christmas, and Church Feast.
By any standard, the youth at my parish are extraordinary, and even more extraordinary when we look at their backgrounds. Some of the youth have only coverted to Catholicism about a year on their own while the rest of their family remain Buddhist. There are youth who are HIVpositive and living in the Mother Teresa Children’s home. There are youth who are not even Catholic because they only come to know the church through their friends. And there are youth who don’t even speak much Thai because they are Vietnamese migrant workers coming to Thailand to find work.
Yet, on a Saturday or Sunday, when one comes to the rectory, one can see this diverse group of youth playing together, cooking together, and eating together as friends and as brothers and sisters.
As a parish pastor, despite trying my best to instill faith and enthusiasm in all parishioners, sometimes, one cannot help but have a sinking feeling when looking down at the congregation from the presider’s chair and see empty seats. Sometimes, one gets discouraged when visiting a Catholic family and a visit from a priest is not much different for them than a visit from some sort of unwated salesman. But, no sadness goes without consolation. It is the youth who tell me, “Father, you’re doing God’s work. God will help us.” It is also them who say to me, “Father, don’t worry. If there’s no one else at the church, we will still be there.” And also, not just their words, but also their actions give me consolation and hope. They truly find joy in coming to Church, in participating in church activities, and in doing good work. And that gives me joy in walking with them and being a part of their spiritual and faith journey.