Buddhist-majority Thailand welcomes Pope Francis on his first visit

Pope Francis arrives to lead the Holy Mass at the National Stadium in Bangkok on Nov 21, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS
Pope Francis leads a Holy Mass at the National Stadium in Bangkok on Nov 21, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Pope Francis leads a Holy Mass at the National Stadium in Bangkok on Nov 21, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
People wait for Pope Francis to conduct the Holy Mass at the National Stadium in Bangkok on Nov 21, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS
Pope Francis arrives at St Louis Hospital in Bangkok on Nov 21, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK - 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 Argentinian, in his special, open-air Popemobile on Thursday (Nov 21), 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. Early on Thursday morning, a long queue formed in front of Saint Louis Hospital in Bangkok, where the Pope was scheduled to visit patients and staff, and thousands lined the route hours ahead of time.

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.

Standing atop a Thai-produced white Nissan pickup, Pope Francis waved to rapturous cheers as he entered the stadium, while Mass participants waved flags featuring his photo, and an orchestra played in the background.

The choir sang in Latin and Thai during the nearly-two-hour ceremony as the Pope and clergy sat on the red-carpeted elevated stage in the shape of a cross in the middle of the field. The Holy See clergy and the Mass attendees were then treated to Thai traditional dances performed by hundreds of women in gold costumes.

Coming prepared with a small mat to sit on while awaiting the leader of the Catholic Church, 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.

"When I was young, I didn't know much about the pope and the church. But now that I have followed news about this pope, I've become impressed with his kindness for the poor, people with disabilities and his attention to the youth," Ms Charinda 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 on Saturday in his week-long Asia tour.

He met the Supreme Buddhist Patriarch of Thailand on Thursday and is scheduled to meet Thai leaders of different Christian denominations on Friday.

Pope Francis meets Thailand's Supreme Buddhist Patriarch Somdej Phra Maha Muneewong at the Wat Ratchabophit temple in Bangkok on Nov 21, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE/SUPREME PATRIARCH OFFICE

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 on Thursday, 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 approximately 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 1 per cent are Christians of all denominations.

The Pope's visit to Thailand also coincides with the 350th anniversary of the Vatican's first mission to Siam, as Thailand was formerly known. Catholicism first arrived in Siam, or the Ayutthaya Kingdom, in the 16th century via Portuguese missionaries and traders.

"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 count themselves blessed to have welcomed both Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis.

It was not only local Catholics who were ecstatic to see Pope Francis. Catholics from other South-east Asian nations also travelled to Bangkok for the "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Ms Dang Thi Kieu, 25, came 1,000 km from Vietnam's Ha Tinh province to see the Pope with her Vietnamese friends working in Thailand.

For Mr Vincent Real, a 39-year-old Philippine national working as a sales engineer in Thailand's eastern province of Rayong, catching a glimpse of the Pope in Bangkok was much easier than it would be back home as "there are too many Catholics there", he said. There are more than 80 million Catholics in the Philippines, in a population of 108 million.

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