Beginning a journey
The Italian “fidei donum” missionaries who are engaged in pastoral service in Mary Queen of Peace Parish in Chae Hom, in northern Thailand, have started a project to grow and market coffee. This product is characterized not only by its quality but also, and above all, by the use of the proceeds: scholarships for young people, training of villagers in the management of sustainable crops and the general improvement of the standard of living. The parish’s pastoral action, which was officially inaugurated over ten years ago, adopted the fundamental values described in Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si’, even before its publication.
The origins of the mission
The mission in Chae Hom, which belongs to the Diocese of Chiang Mai, arose from the wish to start missionary cooperation between the dioceses in the ecclesiastical region of Triveneto, Italy, which was voiced for the first time at the ecclesial Conference of Aquileia (Udine), in April 1990. The suggestion was confirmed a few months later, in December of the same year, with the publication of Saint John Paul II’s Encyclical Redemptoris Missio, which indicated the Asian continent as one of the territories to be given preference.
Seven years later Fr Pietro Melotto and Fr Gabriele Gastaldello, of the diocesan clergy of Vicenza, began their pastoral service in Chae Hom, accompanied by Bishop Antonio Mattiazzo, at that time Bishop of Padua. In 1999, they were joined by Fr Bruno Rossi and Fr Lorenzo Biasion, from the Diocese of Padua, and four years later by Fr Giuseppe Berti, from the Clergy of Verona. To complete the group from Triveneto, came the Xaverian Sisters, the Community of Sisters of Charity of Saint Jeanne Antide Thouret and, between 2008 and 2010, Fr Attilio De Battisti and Fr Raffaele Sandonà of the Clergy of Padua and then Fr Bruno Soppelsa from the Diocese of Belluno.
On 1 May 2000, the Mary Queen of Peace Parish was officially established in Chae Hom. It comprises an area of over 3,000 sq. km. and is entrusted with the pastoral care of 40 villages, mostly scattered over a mountainous area, populated by a great variety of ethnic groups: Akha, Lahu, Karen, Yao, Isaan, Lisu, Hmong, each of which maintains its respective culture, language and traditions.
The parish stands on a pre-existing structure, both from the point of view of the buildings and the pastoral work, initially administered by the pime missionaries who worked especially with small communities from China, Burma and Laos, offering them material and spiritual assistance. The percentage of Christians, out of a population of about 120,000, is about 1%.
Activities in the centres
Among the first necessities that the missionaries at the Mary Queen of Peace Centre had to face, was that of providing access to schooling to the children and young people living in the villages. The uneven, disconnected path between the mountains and the plains, the rainy season and the lack of qualified staff had deprived the youngest, for a long time, of the opportunity to attend any form of schooling. Thus, four centres were opened in which hundreds of young people from more than 40 villages and seven different tribes, found a point of reference and hospitality.
“To date, only two of them are open”, the parish priest, Fr Bruno Rossi, explained, “a sign that the travelling conditions to reach the schools independently have improved”. Much of the parish’s work, which also consists in giving spiritual assistance in the villages and the formation of local catechists, has enabled the missionaries to contact people from different tribes, cultures, languages and traditions.
In Thailand, only 0.5% of the population is Catholic. Most of the population is Buddhist and in the local tribes there is further division into various memberships. “Our parish”, Fr Bruno continued, “is closely linked to the service the educational centre offers to minors and vice versa. The first thing we take into consideration when a person approaches us is his/her state of need, apart from any membership. We are all children of God, therefore in our daily work we try to help and love everyone, without reserve. The itineraries of evangelization, then, constitute a clear, open proposal to all. Those who wish to approach us may do so freely, perhaps by asking some questions arising from having met our community”.
A response to pollution
A Report by the Air Quality Life Index of Chicago, published in 2019, stated that life expectancy may be shortened by a couple of years due to air pollution: for days, during the monitoring period, Chiang Mai was the most polluted city in the world, far exceeding the maximum levels of pollution foreseen by international standards.
One of the main causes of these excessive levels is the custom of burning off, mostly used in the cultivation of maize, namely the burning of agricultural residue to increase fertility and prepare the soil for the next harvest. The pesticides and chemical fertilizers used to spray the various crops, which then drain into the waterways in the rainy season, contribute to the environmental pollution.
Some practices also had serious consequences on those who came to the Parish of Mary Queen of Peace in Chae Hom. “When the faithful approached the altar to receive the Eucharist”, Fr Bruno Rossi explained, “we noticed that their hands had red dust on them, the residue of pesticides. That was a turning point for us: we realized that we were distributing the Body of Christ, a gesture of full and true Life, to sick hands that showed signs of death”.
The missionaries then suggested that the coffee plantations in the mountainous parts of the country be extended to the hilly areas in the valley. Fr Bruno told us how the idea to start organic farming began from tasting some beans grown by the families of students who lived in the parish. The quality of the product was good but the local population’s method of roasting it did not produce the aroma to which the missionaries were accustomed in their homeland. Thus, in 2012 with the arrival of the first roasting machine and, thanks to subsequent improvements, we were able to begin a process of organic production and sale capable of respecting a high quality resource and of safeguarding nature and people’s health. The competitive sale price has made it possible to restore dignity and relaxation to the farmers who live in the villages in Chae Hom and to finance scholarships for students. Moreover, the work is regulated by the non-profit institute called Laudato Si’ Social Enterprise created with the aim of contributing to the common good in full compliance with the law and State regulations and inspired by the values contained in Pope Francis’ Encyclical of 2015.
Forerunners of Laudato Si’
The production of “Caffè Bruno” began more than ten years ago, even before the publication of Laudato Si’, but the principles that inspired the action of the missionaries and their co-workers can be found fully in the words Pope Francis delivered in the document to guide the care of the ‘common home’. “We have tried to protect work and rest”, Fr Bruno Rossi said, “as well as the communities’ wish to live in a healthy, safe environment. We have also tried to take care of our ‘common home’, by respecting nature and harmonizing man’s work with it. It is a need that springs from the depths of the spirit, an attention whose values are also fully in accord with Asian culture. A spontaneous orientation, that we then found described and systematized in Pope Francis’ Encyclical, which expressed and strengthened our action. Nature, for us Christians, can also be an important vehicle for getting closer to God, as Saint Francis taught and as Laudato Si’ reaffirms: it offers us support and we should learn to respect it in order to trigger a virtuous cycle”.
Fr Bruno jokingly compared his parishioners to coffee beans: one different from the other, each with its own unique and unrepeatable story. What makes the difference then, is the roasting, or the ability to extract the best from each one, just like a good teacher does with his or her pupils. “We are able to produce around 800 kilos of roasted coffee per month, packaged and shipped throughout Thailand. The biggest orders generally come from hotels”, the parish priest said, “and from tourists who are curious to taste coffee roasted, Italian-style. The pandemic has created many difficulties linked to the lack of tourists, but this does not mean that the project has stopped. Indeed, our aim is to encourage the cultivation of indigenous tea plants and we are continuing to work on a recently-started project that involves the cultivation and processing of cocoa. It can grow equally well in the plains, and provide support to the parishioners who live there and cannot grow coffee”.
Agata Rita Borracci
Cube Radio — Salesian University Institute of Venice and Verona