Thursday, May 14, 2009

In Thai Capital, Changing of the Guard

Earlier today, the Pope accepted the retirement of the world's longest-serving cardinal-archbishop -- Bangkok's Michael Michai Kitbunchu -- and named one of his own recent appointees to the episcopacy to fill Thai Catholicism's top post.

Head of the Thai capital's 115,000-member church since 1973, Kitbunchu (above) -- who received the country's first-ever red hat in 1983 -- had the rare privilege of staying in office past age 80, at which point cardinals lose their eligibility to vote in a conclave and their seats on the various dicasteries of the Roman Curia.

Named archbishop of Bangkok 13 years after his ordination to the priesthood, the cardinal celebrated his milestone birthday in late January. To succeed him, B16 named Bishop Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovithavanij of Nakhon Sawan, a former rector of Thailand's national seminary, who the current pontiff himself gave the high hat in March 2007.

Now in line to join the 107 million-member Asian church's current crop of nine cardinal-electors, the archbishop-elect turns 60 next month. While the continent's contingent in a hypothetical conclave is two red-hats fewer than that of the roughly 64 million-member Stateside fold, it's worth noting that Asia's Catholic population has increased more than tenfold since 1900 -- a growth-rate exceeded in Thailand, which had some 23,000 Catholics at the turn of the last century.

Now home to almost 300,000 Catholics -- less than half of one percent of the overwhelmingly-Buddhist kingdom's population -- the Thai church's history stretches back to the 16th century; the country's first resident bishop, a Frenchman, arrived in 1675.

PHOTO: Getty