PHUKET, Thailand – Along the island’s southwestern coast is the bustling beach town of Patong, where the main roads are simply two lanes filled with scooters and tourist vans hurrying to their destinations.
On the first Sunday of Advent, the streets are more quiet than usual and the markets have not opened for the day. The tranquility of the early morning Dec. 2 was more so because foreigners were sleeping-in, as the Saturday aftermath of disco clubs and long, lazy afternoons at this famous beach resort town takes its toll.
But for the 20-plus faithful who gathered at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, the day’s itinerary would include the celebration of the Eucharist – an observance highly uncommon among the majority of the population in Thailand. Its identity as a Buddhist country co-exists as part of its historical identity.
Christianity was introduced by European missionaries and has been a religion in Thailand since the 1500s. Catholic missionaries, according to an article by Father Surachai Chumsriphan, the first two missionaries who came to what was referred to as Siam – before it became Thailand – were two Dominican Friars, namely Jeronimo da Cruz and Sebastian da Canto. They arrived in 1567, but were killed by the Burmese in 1569. Following the Dominican Friars were Franciscans who came in 1582 and stayed nearly 200 years.
The Christian faith has played an important role in the modernization of the country, yet it represents less than 1 percent of the national population. A variety of Christianity’s Protestant denominations have also been recognized in Thailand including Southern Baptists, the Church of Christ in Thailand, the Evangelical Fellowship of Thailand and the Seventh-Day Adventists.
Off the Beaten Path
Sacred Heart Catholic Church is a small church located off the beaten path and along the rainforest mountain’s paved road in Patong. Besides three signs on the side street that say Catholic Church in Thai, English and Italian, maybe the sign that would catch the most attention is the one that suggests pro-life advocacy with “No Abortion” in English and Thai.
But in the center of the outside church is a statue of a humble figure of the parish patron, not offering more than the way, the truth and the life himself. Maybe the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue might intrigue those who are more accustomed to statues of deities and views of golden, majestic temples.
Most nights, heavy traffic by the busloads heads across the street to the famous Las Vegas-style cabaret where performers are said to own luxurious cars.
Yet, for the humble two-story church only a stone’s throw away, it is one of three Catholic churches scattered across the island; to the north is St. Joseph’s Catholic Church and in the province’s capital to the east is Our Lady of the Assumption.
Italian Missionary Pastor
The Mass in Patong is offered in English on Saturday afternoons, and twice on Sunday – once in Thai and once in English. The pastor, Father Ferdinando Ronconi, C.S.S., is originally from Italy but has served the Thai faithful for years as a Stigmatine missionary.
He is one of five Italian missionaries in Thailand who were honored as Knights of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity by Italy’s former president Giorgio Napolitano for their service with the country’s neediest in the fields of education, social assistance and development.
“In Thailand, all together there are 60 million people. The Catholics are only 300,000 and that is very few,” said Father Ronconi. “Here in Patong, there are only 20 [Catholics], so we are very few people.”
Despite the small amount of Catholics who attend Mass compared to the majority, those sitting in the pews are a mixed array of Southeast Asian cultures and Europeans.
And Father Ronconi’s passion for spiritually nurturing his community is evident. The main Phuket Catholic website directs those who find themselves as a minority in Patong to the pastor’s Facebook page where he updates content with weekly Gospel meditations and photos of the Advent artwork displayed on the altar.
“We try to do our best to help the people to know Jesus Christ,” Father Ronconi said. “You can help the people to know the Church and they can come here to pray.”