One of Pope Francis’ favourite words is ‘periphery.’ His words are but a reflection of his thoughts and sentiments which he does not fail to translate into action. This is reflected in his Apostolic visits and his appointments. The man who shepherds the worldwide Catholic Church has a deep concern for the periphery. He has his gaze again set towards Asia. Pope Francis will visit Thailand and Japan in November 2019. Thailand would be the sixth and Japan the seventh Asian country he would be visiting. In this piece we take a quick look at the five Asian visits he has made.
South Korea was the first Asian country Pope Francis chose to visit. He came in August, 2014 on a five-day visit on the occasion of the Sixth Asian Youth Day. On his arrival in Seoul, the South Korean capital, Francis was greeted by President Park Geun-hye of South Korea . Speaking at the Presidential Office in Seoul he said "I came here thinking of peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula." Later Francis held a private meeting with the families of victims of the MV Sewol ferry disaster
Francis held the first public Mass of his trip on 15 August in front of a 50,000 strong crowd at Daejeon World Cup Stadium where he asked the Koreans to "reject inhumane economic models which create new forms of poverty and marginalize workers."
He later made a speech in English, his first as Pope. He beatified the first generation of 124 Korean Martyrs in Gwangwhamun Square before an estimated 800,000 people on 16 August. Francis concluded his five-day visit with a Mass for peace and reconciliation of the divided Korean peninsula in Seoul's Myeongdong Cathedral .
Pope Francis visited Colombo, Sri Lanka on 13–15, 2015. At the sea-front Mass by the beach in Colombo, Pope Francis canonized the nation's first saint, the 17th Century missionary Joseph Vaz. The Pope urged people to follow the example of the saint who showed the importance of transcending religious divisions, emphasizing that genuine worship of God bore fruit not in violence or hatred, but in respect for the sacredness of all life. It was a message that struck a chord with many, after 26 years of fighting and tensions between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil minority until the conflict ended in 2009.
After the Colombo Mass, Pope Francis travelled to Madhu in the north, a region which saw some of the fiercest fighting in the war. In a prayer at a local shrine, he said: "We ask also for the grace to make reparation for our sins and for all the evil which this land has known."
More than one million Sri Lankans (about 7%) are said to be Christian, most of them Catholic. They include both Sinhalese and Tamils. About 70% of Sri Lankans are Buddhist, with 13% Hindus and 10% Muslims.
The last papal visit was 20 years ago, when Pope John Paul II was boycotted by Buddhist leaders. But Pope Francis met a group of Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim leaders, urging reconciliation. In keeping with his message of unity for Sri Lanka, Pope Francis urged its citizens to follow the example of Joseph Vaz and learn to overcome religious differences.
Pope Francis made a state visit to the Philippines from January 15 to 19, 2015. The next day, Pope Francis drove to the Malacanang Palace. President Benigno Aquino III met with the Pope. He was the third pontiff to visit the Philippines, after Paul VI and John Paul II. The theme of Francis' 2015 visit was " Mercy and Compassion" .
Besides Manila, Francis visited Tacloban and Palo, Leyte, to encourage the victims of Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda). The Filipinos nicknamed Francis Lolo Kiko ("Grandpa Francis") as a term of endearment, which he commended.
The Pope travelled to Tacloban where he celebrated a Mass and had lunch with the survivors of the typhoon Haiyan. He also blessed the Pope Francis Center for the Poor that was completed in December 2014. The Pope held a brief meeting with the religious leaders. His visitation was cut short due to the brewing Tropical Storm Mekkhala.
Pope Francis also celebrated a Mass at the Manila Cathedral consisting of just Bishops, Nuns, Priests, Seminarians, and 500 lay persons. Before the Mass, the Pope and Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle had met with some street children fed by the Tulay ng Kabataan Foundation.
Pope Francis met with representatives of other religions on Sunday after which he also met with about 24,000 youth representatives at Santo Tomas Field. The concluding Mass for the Pope’s visit was held at Quirino Grandstand in Luneta Park, the same venue of Pope John Paul II’s World Youth Day Mass twenty years ago. This Mass was open to the general public and it witnessed a massive turn out of over six million people, making it the largest Mass during a papal visit. The people sang the World Youth Day Anthem ‘Tell the World of His Love’ and the theme song for the Pope’s visit ‘We Are All God’s Children’. The Pope’s visit definitely touched the Philippines in a true spirit of mercy and compassion.
The Pope’s Apostolic visit was aimed to console the victims of super typhoon ‘Yolanda’ which had devastated the nation. Pope Francis had also wanted to visit the Philippines as his predecessor was unable to do so. In the spirit of mercy and compassion, the Pope’s visit touched the hearts of many especially the victims of ‘Yolanda’, the typhoon Haiyan that the Pope despite all odds went to see.
Pope Francis visited Myanmar between 27 and 30 November, 2017. He was also the first Pope to visit Myanmar. His visit included a trip to the capital city of Naypyidaw where he met with the government officials including Htin Kyaw and Aung San Suu Kyi. On 29th the Pope celebrated a public Mass at the sprawling Kyaikkasan Ground in Yangon. He also met the bishops of Myanmar and the clergy. The Pope held a meeting with the Sangha, the Supreme Council of Buddhist monks. Before his departure for Bangladesh, the Pope celebrated a Mass for the youth at the St Mary’s Cathedral in Yangon. During his homily he exhorted the young people to be courageous witnesses and bearers of the Good News. “Indeed, the young people of Myanmar are the “good news” for they are the concrete sign of the church’s faith in Jesus Christ who bring us joy and hope that will never die,” he said.
Francis’ visit to Myanmar was followed by a trip themed “Harmony and Peace” to neighbouring Bangladesh between 30 November and 2 December. He held a public Mass in the capital Dhaka and visited various sites such as the Bangabandhu Memorial Museum and the local Mother Teresa House, and met with President of Bangladesh, Abdul Hamid and other government officials.
Pope Francis held an interfaith meeting, where he met with members of the Rohingya community. Pope Francis’s visit to Bangladesh “was a celebration of our cultural identity, of harmony, of diversity, and peace,” said Patrick D’Rozario, Archbishop of Dhaka and Bangladesh’s first Cardinal. The country has about 350,000 Catholics. 84% of the population are Muslims.
“The pope brought an active presence of Jesus Christ, through his presence, through his love, compassion and openness to everyone, his encompassing attitude to culture and religions. It touched a deep cord in everyone in Bangladesh,” the cardinal said.
“The Christians in particular were very, very happy,” the cardinal said.
“They got to see the pope close up at all of the four big events, and so many could - unexpectedly - touch the pope, and this for them was a blessing and grace-filled moment.”
Now it is the turn of the people of Thailand and Japan who wait eagerly to meet Pope Francis and to hear of the Mercy and Compassion of the Father and be enthused by the Joy of the Gospel.
Pope Francis will visit Bangkok, Thailand from November 19 to 23. The Pope’s visit marks the 350th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in Thailand, formerly known as Siam. Pope Francis’ schedule includes meetings with the King, Prime Minister and various civil and religious authorities, the Supreme Buddhist Patriarch, a Public Mass and visit to the sick in the Saint Louis Hospital.
Pope Francis will be in Japan from November 23 to 26. Besides Tokyo he will visit Nagasaki and Hiroshima. In Nagasaki he will deliver a message against nuclear weapons and in Hiroshima he will participate in a peace meeting. He will meet the Emperor, Prime Minister and other authorities. He will celebrate a Public Mass, meet with the youth and visit the Jesuit-run Sophia University in Tokyo.
A papal visit to India remains a question mark. Though Pope Francis will visit seven countries of Asia in addition to Abu Dhabi, by November 2019, India has failed to open its doors to welcome Pope Francis. Why is the government of India afraid to extend a welcome to the Pope? How willing is the government of India to prove its commitment to religious and cultural pluralism and tolerance? How sincere are the words of the Prime Minister hailing the canonization of Indian saint Sister Mariam Thresia Chiramel Mankidiyan, known for her extraordinary charity, with a preferential love for the poorest of the poor? Can the Prime Minister and his ruling party go beyond mere rhetoric and demonstrate to the people of India their commitment to s afeguard well-being and interests of all communities, particularly the minorities and the Dalits?
(Fr George Plathottam is the Executive Secretary of FABC Office of Social Communication.)(Published on 14th October 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 42)