In preparation for the upcoming synod on the family, more than 50 Thai faithful came together last month for a weekend of community building and reflection on the Gospel. The families gathered July 26-27 at the center of the Catechist Sisters of Mary the Immaculate Conception — also known as the Mae Pon Sisters — in Chiang Mai, a city in far northern Thailand. The weekend, sponsored by the local chapter of the Focolare movement and by the Diocese of Chiang Mai, reflected on the complex issues and challenges facing families in the country. “It was one big family,” Santa Agustilo and Darwin de Guzman, members of the Chiang Mai Focolare group, told CNA. The event was meant to be an experience of living the Gospel and in the spirit of preparation for the synod on the family which will be held in Rome in October. “Pope Francis has expressed his growing concern for the family,” Bishop Francis Xavier Vira Arpondratana of Chiang Mai told CNA Aug. 18. “With Pope Francis' call for the special synod on the family’ slated this October, looking into the empirical pastoral challenges facing families around the world, we would like to join in, sharing our humble contribution to this effort with the universal Church.” The weekend featured the insights of  Khun Tavorn and Khun Varaphorn Wongvirathepphiban, who attended the recent Family Congress in Rome. During the residential program the couples did exercises such as “how to wait, to listen, to forgive, to talk and share and to appreciate each other,” and were reminded of Pope Francis' three phrases for couples: “thank you, I'm sorry, and may I?” “The program was very dynamic,” Guzman said, “and rich in content, as it focused on the relationship between husband and wife; the differences between a man and a woman; raising children; and family difficulties, as well as delicate matters in conjugal relationships.” Fr. Matthew Sasin of Chiang Mai said that “the importance of prayer and having Jesus at the center of family life was emphasized — that presence of Jesus in the midst, which guides and leads spouses on how to lead the family.” Agustilo told CNA, “the couples went home, taking with them the conviction that it is neither the husband nor the wife who is greater in the family: rather it is God who is the greatest inside the home.” More than 50 people participated in the event, ranging from an infant to grandparents, and including 11 married couples. As the Chiang Mai diocese is dominated by hill tribes, many of the participants were from diverse tribes in the area, as well as Filipino migrants. Fr. Sasin said Mass for the participants, in his homily voicing psalms and prayers in various native languages for the participants from diverse backgrounds. Families from such remote tribes as the Pgakenyaw, Akha and Kachin participated; each has its own language, customs, and traditions. The two-day family experience witnessed evenings of inter-cultural recreation, where children and adults manifested their joy in singing and dancing, and consecrating each day with prayers of thanksgiving before the Blessed Sacrament. The postulant students of Baan Marie Niramol displayed a medley of traditional Pgakenyaw dances integrating culture and faith. “I have known the Focolare movement since I was young in the Mission Center … now I am married with two children, and coming here is like renewing my life,” a participant from Mae Suai told CNA. “I have been so far away from God for some time now, and I want to go back to him … this is like a way of recharging my life,” she said. Another participant from the Kachin tribe recalled, “I am very happy for this occasion of sharing with us about how to live family life,” adding, “I am not an educated person I am able to learn from your examples and from your life.” “I have only my family, and I want to live better. It is a hard life with my wife and two daughters, but I will try to put into practice what I have learned here,” said the participant. Another participant from the Akha tribe told CNA that “what I have always liked in the Focolare movement is the family atmosphere, where everybody is welcome: all the tribes can be together as a family without any discrimination.”