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Commemoration Mass Celebrates 50 Years Of Mission Among Thai Karen

Updated: May 16, 2007 05:00 PM GMT
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At a Mass commemorating a half-century of evangelization among Karen tribal people, Bishop Joseph Sangval Surasarang of Chiang Mai reminded the people to remain true to their faith and culture.

"You Pwakin-nyaw (as Karen people call themselves), especially youngsters," Bishop Sangval said in his homily, "should be appreciated for your faith and cultural identity, and remain so forever."

The Mass was celebrated on May 6 at Holy Family Parish Church in Huay Bong village, a three-hour drive north of Chiang Mai, 756 kilometers north of Bangkok. This village close to the Myanmar border is considered the cradle of the Karen Catholic mission in the hills of northern and western Thailand.

Villagers dressed in their traditional clothes came for the Mass. Unmarried women wore white, and married ones donned black, purple and red, while all the men dressed in red. During the Mass, they presented their offering of crops, including bamboo shoots, bananas, cabbage, corn, lychee and pumpkins.

The Mass highlighted six days of festivities and games that began on May 3 and attracted 30 priests, many nuns and about 2,500 Catholics from Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son provinces. The organizer, Phaisarn Perm-arunroong, 30, from Mae Hong Son, told UCA News by telephone that the celebration marked the 50th anniversary of the arrival of priests of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Betharram. Saint Michael Garicoits founded that society in France in 1835.

In late 1956, two Betharram missioners, Fathers Joseph Seguinotte and Severino Fognini, set up a mission in the Pong Tam subdistrict of Chai Prakarn district and named it Huay Bong village. The first church was made with bamboo sticks in 1958. It was later rebuilt with wood, and eventually again with bricks and cement. Mass is now offered there every Sunday.

The 3 million Karen in Laos, Myanmar and Thailand form one of Southeast Asia´s largest hilltribe groups. The largest of Thailand´s six major tribes, they account for half the country´s estimated 1 million hilltribe people.

The people proudly boast that being Pwakin-nyaw is to be honest, respectful and close to nature. They also claim that Christian Pwakin-nyaw are very strong in their beliefs. Much of the Pwakin-nyaw population in Thailand and Myanmar has been Christian for generations. According to Church sources, the Karen in Thailand include 25 priests, 98 nuns and 200 seminarians.

A free lunch prepared by villagers at the church followed the commemoration Mass, but it was not enough to satisfy the huge crowd, Phaisarn pointed out.

After the lunch, Bishop Sangval presided at the opening of the 10th Pwakin-nyaw Games, a yearly three-day sports festival that includes volleyball for women, and football and sepak takraw (kick volleyball) for the young men. The games were hosted by Betharram priests.

At night, the young people shared with one another their views on living and maintaining Pwakin-nyaw culture. The session was led by Father Komkij Anamnat, a priest of the Idente Missionaries of Christ the Redeemer who directs Nuchanat Anusorn Diocesan School in Chiang Rai. Fernando Rielo founded Father Komkij´s missionary society in 1959 on Spain´s Tenerife Island.

Preparatory celebrations included evening Masses on May 3-4-5. On the evening of May 5, young villagers presented performances about their history and their life as Pwakin-nyaw for Bishop Sangval, priests, nuns and villagers.

Phaisarn reiterated his joy that the Catholic faith has become part of the culture of Huay Bong villagers during the past 50 years. Khanchai Rithu, 31, from Holy Family Church, told UCA News, "I am proud I was born a Huay Bong parishioner, and I thank the missioners and elderly who initiated our faith."


(Accompanying photos available at here)

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