Catholics in Thailand celebrate the official announcement of the first papal visit in 35 years

Catholic churchgoers attend a Mass in Bangkok on Sept 8, 2019.
Catholic churchgoers attend a Mass in Bangkok on Sept 8, 2019.PHOTO: AP

UDON THANI (AP) - Catholics in Thailand are celebrating the official announcement of the first papal visit in 35 years, but one 77-year-old nun in a far-flung corner of the country has a connection that makes the occasion particularly special.

Pope Francis is due to arrive in Thailand on Nov 20 for a four-day visit, the first leg of an Asia trip that will also take him to Japan, Catholic officials announced on Friday (Sept 13).

The pontiff's arrival will lead to a reinvigoration of belief among the nearly 400,000 faithful here. But for Sister Ana Rosa Sivori, it also means the pleasure of a family reunion.

At St Mary's girls' school in Udon Thani, about 570km north-east of Bangkok, the students have only recently realised their unassuming vice-principal's connection to the Pope.

Sister Ana Rosa, originally from Buenos Aires in Argentina, came to Thailand in 1966 and has worked as a missionary in several parts of the country. She shares a great-grandfather with Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who, six years ago, became Pope Francis. So, she and the pontiff are second cousins.

As word of a planned papal visit spread ahead of the official announcement, Sister Ana Rosa went from being an almost invisible presence to being at the centre of increasingly excited attention in her community.

"Many people who are not Catholics, they are asking me every time. Is he coming? When is he coming? He, will he be coming? Because it means that they are interested. They want to see him. They want to meet him," she said.

"Then, of course, for the Catholics, it would be a push to be a good Catholics, to be good Christians."

Two years ago, Pope Francis paid a historic visit to Myanmar. It came at the height of the Rohingya Muslim crisis. Myanmar's army carried out human rights abuses against the ethnic minority, and the call to hold officials responsible led to intense scrutiny of who the Pope met and what he said.

Hundreds of thousands flocked to see the Pope on that visit, including many who travelled from neighbouring Thailand - but not Sister Ana Rosa. She said she didn't want to take up his time.

She insists, however, that the two are close, and stay in touch. He is "old school", she says, never sending e-mails and instead writing letters by hand and dispatching them through the Vatican's embassy in Bangkok.

The last time the cousins met face to face was two years ago at the Vatican.

"I will be glad to see him, and he will be glad to see me also," she said, smiling broadly. "We will have the chance to see each other and have the chance to talk a little bit."

In 1984, John Paul II became the first pope to visit Thailand when he spent two days in country, partly to thank the kingdom for sheltering refugees who fled wars in neighbouring countries. He visited a refugee camp to spread a message of hope.

The Catholic mission to Thailand began 350 years ago, but the country remains overwhelmingly Buddhist, with Catholics accounting for less than 1 per cent of the population.

Sister Ana Rosa said she is in Thailand to stay - on papal orders.

"He spoke to our mother-general, the superior-general of the congregation, saying that my work is in Thailand, to do the work in Thailand, so you don't move her anywhere."