Most of the people we live with, both Burmese and Thai, are Buddhist. There are also some Muslims here.There are very few Catholics here, either in Thailand or in Burma.
We are a Marist Religious community, a Catholic missionary community. Often we seem to locals like a non-government organisation (NGO) and much of our work does harmonize with theirs – health care, education, a “community centre”, and so on. But essentially we are different from the typical NGO in that our communal and individual motivation comes solely from the Gospel and the Tradition of the Catholic Church. We are a religious community rather than an NGO.
How do we live as missionaries among Buddhists who are generally wonderfully tolerant of Christians but often do not seem much interested in Jesus Christ or the Gospel? The belief in Thailand seems to be that all religions are good because they all help people to live good lives. To be Thai (or Burmese) is to be Buddhist. But if you are a Christian, that’s fine, too. Live and let live!
Catholic missionaries have been in Thailand for a many centuries but there are very few Catholics here. Catholic missionaries would be known mainly for the institutions that have been built to serve the needs of the people, especially schools and hospitals. All this generous work over the centuries has built up a lot of good will.
But I believe that what will finally win the hearts of the people is friendship borne of working together to build the “reign of God”…a reign of healing and justice and peace. This is the essence of “dialogue” between religions … Christian and Buddhist and Muslim working together to build the “reign of God”. The rest is in the work of the Spirit.
The key to mission in this Buddhist land seems to be “dialogue” – not so much by words but by actions.
I am reminded of a saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi which runs along the lines of: “preach always… if necessary, use words”.
We hope to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ by what we do for the people here even though we almost never have the opportunity to mention the name of Jesus. If our work is genuine and generous we hope that sooner or later some people may ask us why we are making these efforts. It may take many years or even generations before this question is asked. But if or when someone finally asks us why we do these good works then and only then can we respectfully share our motivation and our faith.
In the meantime, we ourselves just keep living the Gospel as fully as we can. The most important and first “conversion” is our own. We become as involved in the lives of the poor as much as can. And we share in their experience, responding as compassionately as we can. We hope to be an experience of the “Good News” for the people even though this is not the time to express the good news in explicit words. The Spirit will guide us and the people to whom we are sent.
It can be difficult to keep going sometimes. Most people have no idea what a “priest” or a “religious” or a “lay missionary” might be. Most have never met a Christian. We ourselves can lose our own way. That is why it is important that we have a strong community and personal prayer life. As a Marist community we try to start each day with one hour together in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. We also celebrate the Eucharist together every morning. This can be a challenge too as we seldom have people from “outside” to come and celebrate with us. It can be “heavy going”. But if we are faithful to the prayer life personally and communally we sustain our own motivation for mission, for dialogue with others.
Fr John Larsen