Interview with Cardinal Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovithavanij
Cardinal Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovithavanij, Archbishop of Bangkok Kriengsak, Second Thai Cardinal
On 4 January 2015 Archbishop of Bangkok Kriengsak Kovitvanit was appointed by Pope Francis as the second Thai Cardinal after Michael Michai Kitbunchu. As the relationship between constitutional politics and religion is a long standing interest of CPG’s work (see our forthcoming publication “Political and Religious Communities – Partner, Competitors, or Aliens”) we are happy to have received the opportunity to conduct Cardinal Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovithavanij, CPG Office Manager Siraprapa Chalermphao an interview with Archbishop Kriengsak Kovitvanit shortly before his departure to Rome where he was officially installed at the consistory.
Cardinal Kriengsak, after the appointment as Cardinal, how did your role change?
My role has not changed, as I am still the Archbishop of Bangkok. The Catholic Church in Thailand comprises 10 dioceses, distributed in 10 regions throughout the country. Each diocese is headed by a bishop. The diocese Bangkok covers 11 provinces including Bangkok, Nakornpathom, part of Chacheongsao, Nakornnayok only Banna District, Nonthaburi, Pathumthani, Suphanburi, Samutprakan, Samutsakorn, Phranakornsriayutthya and Angthong). 7 years ago I was the Archbishop of Nakhon Sawan responsible for 13 provinces: Nakornsawan, Kampangpetch, Chainat, Tak, Pichit, Petchaboon, Lopburi, Singburi, Saraburi, Sukhothai, Uthaithani, Uttaradit. Wherever I worked as bishop, my responsibilities remained the same. Those are caring for Catholics, proclaiming Christ’s message and disseminating the doctrine of Christianity.
As Cardinal I, however, have some additional duties. Those are duties in the framework of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) which is the assembly of the bishops in Asia working for community, justice and peace. Within this institution I am now advisor for regional support. Additionally, the Pope may appoint me as an advisor for other subjects.
You have been appointed as Cardinal of a country in which people are mainly Buddhists. How do you face the challenges that arise under these special circumstances?
I agree with Pope Francis’ concept of decentralization. That means to share responsibility with peripheral churches and to strengthen the communion between the center and the periphery.
Specifically with regards to Thailand, we have to put efforts into realizing a rise of Catholics in Thailand. Thai Catholics have to play a greater role in Thai society. Christianity came to Thailand about 350 years ago. Currently followers of Christianity in Thailand number about 700000, with approximately 350000 Catholics among them. Yet, considering its total population, Christianity is still not very widespread in Thailand.
The most important and greatest upholder of religion in Thailand is H.M. King Bhumibol. The King upholds all religions as stated in the constitution. The state acknowledges every religion, which is a quite distinct phenomenon of Thai constitutionalism. In spite of low numbers of Catholics in Thailand an inter- religious dialogue could be meaningful if it leads to joining hands with people of different religions. This would be in accordance with the idea of an interfaith dialogue, an idea which was one of the main issues and outcomes of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). In this sense, people from all denominations of Christianity shall engage in a dialogue with people of other religions and those who hold their own religious or philosophical beliefs instead of a religion. Christianity must open itself to those people. We firmly believe that this interreligious dialogue will be advantageous also for Thai society in many respects. I want to highlight only two examples.
A first advantage would be to concretely contribute to society, for example through dedication and help for people suffering from floods. A second advantage could be to live up to the idea of “unity in diversity” resulting from sharing religious experiences. Europeans, for example, are interested in Buddhist meditation. Although we have different beliefs, from a Christian perspective we can be united in difference because the core of Christianity is the belief in God called love.
In your own view, do Buddhist society and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church have anything in common?
Core ideas of all religions, not only Christianity and Buddhism, are love and good wishes to others. They have been formulated as the Golden Rule, to be generally found in all religions. We find these core ideas throughout the history of mankind. Based on them human rights and the national law of states have been created. If we love ourselves more than others, we can steal others’ belongings, blame other religions. Christians abjure selfishness not only to prevent those deeds from happening, but also due to the command of our conscience. We are always with God, it is meaningless to escape from this.
There is a great number of religious practices and ceremonies of Buddhism in Thailand. Do Christians in Thailand have any similar ceremonies?
Buddhist ceremonies are not similar to religious rites of Christians. The belief in Christianity is marked by the belief in the world of humans and in God. God loves us humans and humans love God. We follow God’s commands whereas the real Theravada Buddhist believes in the Lord Buddha who discovered himself the way to Nirvana without God. While we find brahmans and gods in oriental religious contexts, Buddhism states that the Lord Buddha points out resolutions from sorrow. In this sense, Buddhist ceremonies reflect a warning for Buddhists to return to Dharma and to follow the Lord Buddha’s exemplary way of life.
In Christianity, we believe that Jesus brings love to those who follow his path. In addition to this, we believe in God who gives us faith in life and through prayers we can communicate with God. At the Last Supper before Jesus Christ died, he said that sharing his life is a sign and tool for dedication to relations, helping neighbors, forgiveness to wrong doers and love to others. Christian rites consequently have a social dimension which culminates in the practice of love for each other. These ceremonies shall be seen in the context of the community: If we join together to conduct a ceremony, the power of love will be shared with everybody, not only to followers of Christianity, but everyone else.
How are you going to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus in the present world of materialism?
On a global level, we should each start at our own way of life. Mother Teresa is a role model who did little things with great love. Her mission was building relationships of love with people who were about to die. People experienced her love and love was spread in general. A civilization of love would change our society. We just have to show real love and truly behave in this way.
But also concerning a help for others on a greater organizational scale such as the establishment of orphan homes, under-privileged children homes, and disabled people, Thailand experiences this sort of humanity. For example 20 years ago, numerous Indonesian refugees escaped to Thailand. Cardinal Michai (the first Thai Cardinal) asked for help from around the world and received it immediately. The message behind this particular incident is, that we are all part of a global family and that we have to look out for one another to endure the extreme challenges life sometimes throws at us.
But even to this day people come illegally to Thailand. They are treated like refugees. If they are lucky they are brought to special camps financed by the United Nations where trained people are looking out for them and provide basic healthcare and supplies like water and food. When they are not placed in those camps, however, they have no rights whatsoever and struggle to get through the day. As Arcbishop, I used to discuss with the Governor of Tak Province to permit refugees work in Thailand. Our goal was to build centers for education with the help of the government. We would take care of children to enable parents to work for their living. Unfortunately it occurred that parents did not pick up their children in the evening, so that the school had to open as a nursery. Another problem was that parents of 250-300 children have been forced to return to their origin country. We consequently had to build a house for them at Mae Sod and asked Catholic nuns from the Dominican Republic to take care of them. In the case that parents who were forced to leave and who would search for their children, they can find them there.
Great are the things we trying to do and we believe that the believers of other religions also do. If we join together, volunteers of Thailand will spread wider (this service of love) and make the Thai society a little better.
When foreign tourists come to Thailand, they experience an open society, expressed for example by the issue of the 3rd gender. Could you please express your attitude towards the 3rd gender?
The Doctrine of the Catholic Church states that an accepted marriage results only from the covenant between a man and a woman because God determined that as given form of marriage. However we still respect people who are classified as 3rd gender, or alternative gender, as they are also called. Christianity is open for everybody and therefore we welcome everyone in our middle, although as I already said, it is impossible for same sex couples to marry and become a family. Our believe states that the institution of marriage is only open to a man and a woman who freely want to dedicate their life to each other. As a conclusion we try to meet people of the 3rd gender with sympathy for they can still dedicate their life to God and engage in relationships to others with kindness, respect and love.
In your own opinion, how do you think about the Pope?
During my life I experienced many great popes, among them Pope Pius XII, Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI, and Pope John Paul I. Pope John Paul II held the position long and travelled around the world. I had the chance to assist Pope John Paul II at his ceremony in the National Stadium during his visit to Thailand back in 1984. In my opinion Pope Benedict XVI was a very strong person who achieved a lot for the Catholic Church and had worked hard for his whole life. I think that Pope Francis has particularly deserved his position and I am sure that with God’s help he will have the strength to continue to spread the word of the church and to guide and reassure us through our life as a role model.
What is the difference of Catholics in Europe and Southeast Asia?
Catholics around the globe have their unique approach to their religion. But still we need to understand and accept cultural differences. Therefore we keep holding conferences in which we discuss to define a way which is valid for every Christian on earth. Different cultures will adapt the set doctrine slightly differently but the vocal points will remain. We cherish those differences or what we like to call the “unity in diversity”.
Thank you very much for the interview, Cardinal.
The interview was conducted by Siriprapa Chalermphao, CPG Officer Manager. Pictures by Siravich Teevakul