The first Catholic missionaries who traveled to the Far East during the 16th century were under Portuguese patronage.
Dominican missionaries were the first to arrive in the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, one of several kingdoms that had at one stage made up today’s Thailand. That was in 1567 when the kingdom was ruled by King Mahathammaraj.
The Dominicans were later followed by Franciscan missionaries and the Jesuits. However, their religious congregations were still under the Portuguese patronage system known as the Padroado that restricted the pope’s authority over them.
In 1622 the Vatican established Propaganda Fide (also known as The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples) in order to manage mission areas independently of Portuguese Padroado and to reclaim papal authority over missions.
Almost four decades later, after depending on existing religious congregations for work in these missions, in 1659 Propaganda Fide ordered the establishment of new missionary group to work independently of Padroado and directly under the Vatican. The Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP) was formed in 1663 as an answer to this order of the Propaganda Fide.
Since the foundation of Mission de Siam in 1669, MEP missionaries, with the support of other religious congregations, led evangelization efforts in Thailand and other parts of Asia.
On the occasion of the 350th anniversary of Mission de Siam, we can witness their success through the development of the Catholic Church in Thailand.
As of 2018, there are 379,975 Catholics in Thailand, a figure that represents 0.46 percent of the total population of 69 million.
There are 12 dioceses with 436 parishes and 662 priests in Thailand.
IN THE BEGINNING
In 1658, Pope Alexander VII appointed missionaries to the Far East including Bishop François Pallu as nuncio to China and Laos as well as Bishop Pierre Lambert de la Motte to Cochin China.
As he made his way east, Bishop de la Motte visited the Kingdom of Ayutthaya in 1662 during the reign of King Narai. The Frenchman was the first bishop to enter what would one day became part of the nation known as Siam.
Bishop François Pallu arrived in Siam in 1664 and held the first Synod assembly for clergy in the country where it was agreed:
- The MEP would build the first seminary in Siam with the aim of forming a local missionaries for evangelization. The construction of the seminary was completed in 1665.
- Guidelines and regulations were formed for missionaries who would evangelize in the Far East.
- The founding of a local congregation: The Congregation of the Lovers of the Cross to aid evangelization efforts and pastoral care for the local Catholic community.
Three years after the first Synod, Bishop Pallu returned to the Vatican, the center of Roman Catholic Church, to ask for permission for the Missions Étrangères de Paris to oversee missionary work in Siam.
On July 4, 1669, Pope Clement IX announced the establishment of the Mission de Siam with Bishop Louis Laneau appointed as the first vicar apostolic to oversee missions in Siam and Nankin.
On March 25, 1676, Bishop Laneau became the first bishop of Siam with a ceremony held in Ayutthaya.
The Journey of the Mission to Siam
1658 Arriving in the Far East
Pope Alexander VII appointed Bishop François Pallu as apostolic nuncio to China and Laos, Bishop Pierre Lambert de La Motte as apostolic nuncio to Cochin China.
1662 Arriving in Siam
Bishop Pierre Lambert de La Motte arrived in Siam; known as Kingdom of Ayutthaya, during the reign of King Narai the Great. He was the first bishop to enter Siam.
Missions Étrangères de Paris (Paris Foreign Missions Society) was found with Bishop Pierre Lambert de La Motte, Bishop François Pallu, and Bishop Ignace Cotolendi as the first group of apostolic nuncio.
1664 First Synod
Bishop François Pallu arrived in Siam and the first Synod was held in Ayutthaya.
1669 The establishment
July 4, 1669 – Pope Clement IX announced the establishment of Mission de Siam.
1673 Vicar Apostolic of Siam
Bishop Louis Laneau was appointed Vicar Apostolic of Siam and Nankin.
1674 The first Bishop of Siam
March 25, 1674 – Bishop Louis Laneau became the first Bishop of Siam with the ceremony held in Ayutthaya.
YOU HAVE PLANTED THEM, AND THEY HAVE TAKEN ROOT
Since 1669 the MEP mission in Thailand steadily grew and underwent several major changes during the 1930s.
The major concern during this period was the division of the Mission de Siam as its activities and responsibilities had become increasingly numerous and a single mission covering the entire country was no longer feasible.
The mission then underwent several divisions; the most significant being the appointment of the first Thai bishop — Bishop James Louis Cheng, as the head of Chanthaburi mission in 1944. Being a local bishop helped him safeguard Catholics in Chanthaburi from increasingly violent persecution by nationalists during the 1940s.
But despite persecution and other obstacles, the Catholic Church in Thailand continued to grow and in 1965, Propaganda Fide established the church hierarchy in Thailand. This occurred when the Mission of Bangkok was elevated to the status of an archdiocese and came under the authority of Archbishop Joseph Khiamsun Nittayo.
Towards the end of the Cold War, the Thai Church was boosted by the visit of Pope St. John Paul II in 1984. That same year, the pope appointed Archbishop Michael Michai Kitbunchu of Bangkok as Thailand’s first cardinal.
In 2015, Pope Francis elevated Cardinal Michael Michai’s successor, Archbishop Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovitvanij as Thailand’s second cardinal. This move further reflected the importance of the relationship between the Vatican and the Thai Catholic Church despite the small number of Catholics in the country.