By Inés San Martín
BANGKOK, Thailand – Speaking to some 60,000 members of Thailand’s tiny Catholic community, Pope Francis on Thursday called them to be missionary disciples, explaining that being a “mercenary of the faith” does not compel others to convert.
“A missionary disciple is not a mercenary of the faith or a producer of proselytes, but rather a humble mendicant who feels the absence of brothers, sisters and mothers with whom to share the irrevocable gift of reconciliation that Jesus grants to all,” Francis said during the first public Mass of his Nov. 20-23 visit to Thailand, celebrated in Bangkok’s National Stadium.
The 60,000 Mass-goers make up more than ten percent of Thailand’s 400,000 Catholics, only 0.6 percent of Thailand’s 69 million people. The vast majority are Buddhists.
In his homily, Francis also denounced the exploitation of women and children who are forced into prostitution as well as those who fall prey to human trafficking networks, those exploited by the fishing industry, and those forced into begging on the streets, saying that all of them “are our mothers, brothers and sisters,” and they too deserve “the balm of God’s love that heals all wounds.”
Speaking in a country world-famous for its sex tourism, the pope said the women and children who are victims of prostitution and human trafficking are “humiliated in their essential human dignity.”
The sex tourism industry represents an estimated 3 percent of the country’s GDP.
In recent years, the Thai government has tried to curb this industry and has promised better cooperation with international bodies fighting human trafficking.
Prostitution is illegal in the country, but the law has not been enforced. Most of the girls and women exploited by this industry are – according to the United Nations anti-trafficking agency – migrants coming from Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam.
According to USAID, in 2014 there were 120,000 sex workers in Thailand, though some agencies estimate there are as many as 300,000 prostitutes. The go-go bars and massage parlors that serve as fronts for prostitution are easy to find in Bangkok and other Thai cities.
During his homily, Francis also spoke of “young people enslaved by drug addiction and a lack of meaning that makes them depressed and destroys their dreams.”
“I think of migrants, deprived of their homes and families, and so many others, who like them can feel orphaned, abandoned, without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life,” the pope continued.
All those who suffer, Francis said, “are part of our family. They are our mothers, our brothers and sisters. Let us not deprive our communities of seeing their faces, their wounds, their smiles and their lives. Let us not prevent them from experiencing the merciful balm of God’s love that heals their wounds and pains.”
Remembering the arrival of the first Portuguese missionaries 350 years ago, Francis said that it’s not supposed to be a “celebration of nostalgia for the past,” but a “fire of hope,” that helps respond to the challenges of being missionaries today with a similar determination and confidence:
“A festive and grateful commemoration that helps us to go forth joyfully to share the new life born of the Gospel with all the members of our family whom we do not yet know.”
During his homily, Francis said that a missionary disciple knows that “evangelization is not about gaining more members or about appearing powerful. 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.”
Christ, the pope said, ate with sinners, making it clear that they too had a place “at the Father’s table,” and he touched those “considered to be unclean,” while allowing himself to be touched by them, helping them realize that God is close to everyone.
“The missionaries came to understand more fully the Father’s loving plan, which is not limited to a select few or a specific culture, but is greater than all our human calculations and predictions,” Francis said.”
Before Thursday’s Mass, Francis met with the King of Thailand, Rama X.
On Friday, Francis is scheduled to speak with the local bishops, and later will meet with priests and religious men and women, followed by a Mass for Thai youth. On Saturday, after visiting the local Jesuit university, he will head to Japan, where he will visit Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.