By Fr. Maurizio Arioldi, PIME
The following is the testimony of Fr. Maurizio Arioldi, a PIME Missionary working in Ngao among the tribes of the mountains of northern Thailand during the Coronavirus pandemic. We publish it here not only for the story that he offers on what COVID-19 represents for Thailand today but also to illustrate how a missionary initially from the North of Italy, lives the drama of his homeland from thousands of miles away.
Since the end of February, we have been following the events of this pandemic in Italy and the countries of the world where friends are involved in the same missionary adventure with apprehension.
We have feared and prayed for you and with you. We cried together with you seeing the number of dead, the images of the coffins parading through the streets. We listened to the stories of the sick, relatives, nurses, and doctors.
For a long time, I wanted to write something; what held me back is not the lack of time. We, too, are in lockdown here at the Center in Ngao. There are about ten of us left; the volunteer Angela Lazzari, three Camillian nuns, the Director of the Center, two collaborators, and myself. We left everyone free to choose to weather this storm at home with family or to remain as the small community in Jerusalem did, praying with Mary and awaiting the visit of the Risen Lord. The tomb is empty, but we are still locked in here. Fortunately, closed doors and walls are no problem for the Master.
It seemed to us an obligatory choice for those who have family and children, though we forced them a little bit. Even if they would have liked to remain, concerned about the safety of the priest, the nuns, and Angela. Of course, this moves us; do we deserve all this affection? Through the Social Security Service, they can receive 65% of their salary from the government, and they can also work in the mountains helping to cultivate the fields.
How did we use our lockdown time? We stayed home, strictly speaking. The shop nearby delivers basic necessities. How did we use the time together? I would use two words that I would borrow from the Benedictine monastic tradition: Ora et labora!
We followed with apprehension, dismay, fear for the safety of relatives and friends; Angela and I are from Bergamo, the province in Italy most affected by this “invisible enemy,” as COVID-19 is called. I would have liked to send you some news before, but I couldn’t write to you, not with a group photo and a nice sign with the words: “Everything will be all right!” It seemed to me, and it still seems to me, it’s not good at all! How will it go? God only knows! It’s a “test of my faith, this pandemic!” What’s the meaning of this? I preferred to pray! Looking for answers in silence, listening to the Word of God via Line, WhatsApp, Skype, and Facebook.
We prayed like a small apostolic community. Being here at the Center of the Mission, only we had the great Grace of the daily Eucharistic celebration. We celebrated the rites of Holy Week, in everything, and for everything. What a spiritual luxury in this desert time for many communities around the world, even in Thailand!
We have suffered for the catechumens, who could not receive baptism and who are still waiting for that favorable moment. We have often live-streamed the Pope, praying along with him. We, too, walked through St. Peter’s in the rain until we immersed ourselves in Francis’ prayer at the Salus Populi Romani with the miraculous Crucifix of St. Marcellus.
Fridays in Lent were dedicated to Eucharistic Adoration. After the morning Eucharistic celebration, Jesus remained exposed for adoration in turns until 6 p.m., concluding with the Way of the Cross. After blessing the faithful, I would leave the Church and give the blessing from the four cardinal points. I imagined our villages and our people, at this blessing, I would ask Jesus to cross the mountains and oceans and to reach you, dear friends. It is a moment of Grace in this trying period of prayer and service done together. A constant prayer of intercession, made in the Name of Jesus, for all those who experience hardship, suffering, and loss as a result of this pandemic!
We tried to stream the first Friday service for our friends, only to discover that it could never work. The internet connection in the mountains is precarious. We communicated to the community leaders the time of appointments, and then we lived those important moments together in communion through prayer.
Francesco, Angela’s dear dad, died on March 16th, not of Coronavirus, but of a heart attack. Angela could not return home to console her relatives, especially her mother, as it has been for many of you, perhaps with your loved ones. So much suffering, and you can only pray in silence! Jesus did not respond to the provocation of those who said to him, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the Cross, save yourself and also us.” Jesus did not come down from the cross; He could not come down from the cross. He wanted to be close to us when we cannot come down from the cross, even if we want to!
On April 3rd, news spread that Ban Dong, a village only a mile from the Catholic Center of Ngao, had a family of five Catholics who were all infected. Athichat, one of our fifth-grade boys, and his grandmother are in the hospital; all the others are in quarantine with no severe symptoms. We are anxious about Athichat, who is fighting for his life. We continuously pray for him, and his mom keeps us informed by phone.
Fr. Joseph Briones, the PIME Deacon who works in our parish, was supposed to receive priestly ordination in his home in the Philippines on May 12th, 2020, an event that is now suspended. He does not know how or when he will be ordained. Joseph is calmer than I am and has more faith than I do.
Frankly, I don’t know if everything will go well, nobody really knows. While I’m writing to you, the symptomatic infected in Thailand are 28,654 deaths and 2,562 cured. Nothing compared to Italy! It seems that the Coronavirus doesn’t like our torrid heat, and therefore everything advances slower. Additionally, thanks to the timely measures of the Thai government, which emulated the Italian government. There is a fear of an escalation with the repatriation of Thai workers working abroad who have been exposed to the contagion, and with the advancing rainy season that will lower temperatures and perhaps facilitate the spread of the virus!
Following the news, testimonies, and images of the pandemic’s developments in Italy, we thought well to do our part to inform the 15 villages with which we are in contact even before the government did so. We felt that, with the lack of means in Thai hospitals, it would be a massacre. The sanitary conditions of the villages and their lifestyle would help the virus to spread without limits. This terrified us.
So we called all the catechists and leaders of the various Christian communities to the Ngao Center. We presented the effects of the virus through images, news, interviews of what was happening in Italy and Europe. We did everything we could to make them understand that this was serious, that they should do their part to protect others and themselves. In the second part of the morning, Sr. Jinda, our nurse, explained what they should do to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their friends in the village.
They’re scared, but maybe they should be; they’ll be careful. We’ve managed to make them understand that they have to do their part to protect their lives and those of their loved ones. After lunch, we held a Penitential celebration with community absolution and a plenary indulgence. Following the Eucharistic Celebration, Jesus heals our blindness with His Words of Light and gives Himself to us as food for the journey, nourishment for body and soul. We distribute bottles of disinfectant to wash our hands often, and masks. A hug and a blessing to each one to take to the people in the village. Who knows when we will meet again; I haven’t seen most of them since March 22nd. The village leaders don’t let anyone in or out of the village! We recommended that, too.
Even on Easter Day, we could not celebrate our faith together at the Center like we do every year. Many people called me on Easter morning, “Hello Father! How are you? We are all well! Don’t worry. We prayed for the whole triduum. You pray for us, too. We ask you to celebrate the Eucharist for us.” Closed villages, closed doors, and walls are no problem for the Risen One.
The rest of us locked in the Center of Ngao, besides praying, we work. We are much luckier than you. The Center is spacious and full of greenery. There are many things to do to prepare for the “rebirth” and the return of parishioners; repair the roof, the wall which was eaten by termites, prune the tall trees, clean the gutters from the leaves, sow and water plants, cut the grass, clean the pond, repair the artesian well that gives little water, wash blankets and sheets.
I don’t know if it’s going to be all right! But I know two things:
– We’re all in the same boat! We share the same suspension and the same uncertainty for the future of so many people.
– I know that God, in Jesus Christ, will always be there for me. I know that I am not alone. I know that “everything contributes to the good of those who love and seek God.” (Romans 8). I know that Jesus is with me, with us, on the boat, even asleep! I love this Gospel of the sedated storm, one that has accompanied me all my life as a priest. On Sunday, June 19th, 1988, the day of my first Mass, the Gospel of the Sedated Storm was proclaimed. “Why are you so afraid? Don’t you still have faith?” Jesus, we are afraid! Jesus, increase our faith! We know that you will not abandon us.
Dear friends, thank you for your prayer and your remembrance that we also heard! Be sure of our prayer and our memory! An embrace in the Risen Lord.
Fr. Maurizio Airoldi, PIME, (Ngao, Thailand)
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