Pope Francis leads a Mass at the National Stadium in Bangkok on Nov. 21. (Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP)
From across Thailand they came in droves, converging on an aging sport stadium in the heart of Bangkok.
Ethnic Chinese worshipers from the capital, Catholics from the provinces, colorfully attired faithful from remote hilltribe villages in the mountainous north — they were all flocking to an open-air public Mass held by Pope Francis on Nov. 21 for tens of thousands of Catholics during his high-profile apostolic visit to the predominantly Buddhist nation.
The Mass, a sumptuous affair that featured dazzling displays by Thai dance troupes, was a highlight of His Holiness’s spiritual sojourn in Bangkok. Participants gazed at the octogenarian pontiff, who is known for his low-key charisma, with deep reverence.
When people clasped their hands together in prayer, several pairs of eyes welled up with tears.
“It was an emotional moment to be so close to Khun Pa,” Boonsri Klayklang, a Bangkok office worker, attested after the Mass, referring to the pope with a Thai term of endearment that roughly translates as “respected father.” “It was really a blessing to be near him,” Boonsri added.
Yet some worshipers who had come to see Pope Francis were tearful for another reason.
Dressed in a yellow jersey with the pope’s image imprinted on it, Josephine Thepsena was standing helplessly outside a gate of the National Stadium. She was missing out on the Mass inside and she could do nothing about it.
The Catholic schoolteacher had traveled all the way from her home in Surin province in northeast Thailand on a six-hour bus journey.
Yet despite having booked a ticket for the event several weeks earlier, she arrived just a few minutes after the gates were closed for security reasons an hour before the start of the Mass. She wasn’t allowed in.
“I feel like crying,” Josephine said. “I came to Bangkok just for the Mass and I will be traveling back to Surin tonight because I don’t want to leave my daughter alone for too long.”
In the end, she did manage to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis, who arrived at the venue in a dark limousine with a police escort. “I saw him pass by in the car but it moved too fast,” she said. “He waved at us from an open window.”
Pope Francis arrives for the Mass at the National Stadium in Bangkok. (Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP)
'We have seen a miracle already'
Hundreds of other people were milling outside the stadium’s gates, with many of them watching a live feed of the proceedings on their mobile phones. Scores were Catholics from other Southeast Asian nations, especially the Philippines and Vietnam.
“We are lucky Pope Francis is visiting Thailand just when we are also here on a trip,” said Emiliano Hernandez Jr., a tourist from Manila who came to the stadium with several other Filipino tourists. Not having tickets, however, they could not get past the gates.
Undaunted, they set up camp roadside to await Pope Francis’ motorcade. When it arrived, they cheered and clapped as if they were greeting a movie star.
“We are feeling blessed to have seen the Holy Father,” said Hernandez.
“When we heard he was going to be here, we decided to come,” one of his companions, a middle-aged woman, added. “We are proud to be Catholics.”
Others followed suit in cheering the pope. “Father, I am from Mexico!” a young man shouted out in Spanish to the pontiff, who is from Argentina.
Others had come to the Mass hoping for a miracle. One of them was a Thai Catholic man in a wheelchair. “I believe the Holy Father has the power to heal, just like Jesus,” he said.
“Today we have seen a miracle already. There was an earthquake but no one was hurt,” he added, referring to the magnitude 6.1 earthquake that rattled buildings — and nerves — in a part of northern Thailand yesterday morning. There were no reported injuries.
Young Thai bank worker Nanttawan Premjai, too, had come to see Pope Francis. Holding a Vatican City flag, she was waiting for the pope to arrive for the Mass.
“I am a Buddhist, not a Christian, but I respect Papa because he spends his time helping others,” Nanttawan said. “He’s an inspiring person. He lives modestly and behaves humbly. It’s great for Thais that he’s come to visit us.”