50,000 throng Thai stadium for Pope's Holy Mass

Papal calls on Thailand to protect women and children, and tackle migration issues

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Pope Francis arriving in his special, open-air Popemobile to lead the Holy Mass at the National Stadium in Bangkok yesterday, on his first trip to Thailand. The last papal visit was by Pope John Paul II in 1984.
Pope Francis arriving in his special, open-air Popemobile to lead the Holy Mass at the National Stadium in Bangkok yesterday, on his first trip to Thailand. The last papal visit was by Pope John Paul II in 1984. PHOTO: REUTERS

Giggling children in traditional Thai costume and excited crowds waving the white and yellow flags of the Vatican City made for an unusual sight as Thailand awaited its first papal visit in 35 years.

Thunderous cheers and chants of "Viva il Papa," and "Papa Francesco", as Pope Francis is known in Italian, greeted the 82-year-old Argentinean in his special open-air Popemobile yesterday as he made his first visit to the South-east Asian nation.

Thai Catholics, who make up a tiny fraction of a population which is 95 per cent Buddhist, have not welcomed the Holy Father since Pope John Paul II in 1984.

What they lacked in numbers, they made up for in fervour, with thousands lining up at the Saint Louis Hospital in Bangkok, where the Pope visited patients and staff in the morning.

In the afternoon, about 50,000, sheltering from the strong sunlight under a sea of umbrellas, packed the National Stadium. They came early to be sure of a seat for the Holy Mass led by the Pope in the evening.

Coming prepared with a small mat to sit on, Ms Charinda Wisesratana, a 50-year-old university lecturer, said she got to see Pope John Paul II as a teenager but was more excited this time.

"Now that I have followed news about this Pope, I've become impressed with his kindness for the poor and people with disabilities, and his attention to the youth," she said.

Known for his advocacy for the poor, inclusion of minority groups, simple lifestyle and humility. Pope Francis, who was elected to the papacy in 2013, is on a three-day pilgrimage to Thailand at the invitation of the Thai government and the Bishops of Thailand, before heading to Japan tomorrow on his week-long Asia tour.

He met the Supreme Buddhist Patriarch of Thailand yesterday and is scheduled to meet Thai leaders of different Christian denominations today.

Dubbed the People's Pope, and proving himself more modern and less formal than his predecessors, Pope Francis has on numerous occasions urged governments to narrow the widening gap between rich and poor.

He chose to live in a penthouse suite in a building adjacent to St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City instead of the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace.

He made similar remarks at his meeting with Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha at Government House yesterday, calling on Thailand and other governments to protect women and children from exploitation and abuse, and tackle migration issues.

"The crisis of migration cannot be ignored. I express my hope that the international community will act with responsibility and foresight, will work to resolve the issues that have led to this tragic exodus, and will promote safe, orderly and regulated migration," he said.

Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, the Pope holds many "firsts" - the first Jesuit pope, the first pope in more than a millennium who is not European, the first from the Americas and the first from the southern hemisphere.

There are about 388,000 Catholics in Thailand, 0.58 per cent of the entire population of 69 million. In a land where the King is the patron of all religions, just over one per cent are Christians of all denominations.

"Thais are lucky, as all religions can co-exist peacefully without problems. It's truly a land of opportunities," said Mr Siripong Rongsirikul, a fourth-generation Thai Catholic whose family feels blessed to have welcomed both Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 22, 2019, with the headline 50,000 throng Thai stadium for Pope's Holy Mass. Subscribe