Sri Lankans fill a street awaiting Pope Francis' arrival in Colombo on Wednesday (Credit: Alan Holdren/CNA)
On Wednesday evening following his scheduled events, Pope Francis made a brief, unplanned visit to a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka in a gesture of interreligious dialogue, according to the Holy See press officer.
After the pope’s visit to the Marian shrine at Madhu, the pontiff met political leaders at the nunciature in Colombo, and then went to the archbishop's rectory hoping to meet the Sri Lankan bishops since he missed them due to scheduling delays the day prior, Fr Federico Lombardi explained.
The bishops, however, had not yet arrived, and so Pope Francis went to Mahabodhi Viharaya, a nearby Buddhist temple to which he had been invited, Fr Lombardi said.
There he saw a statue of the Buddha and two other Buddhist holy men, and he was invited by the monks to see the temple's stupa, a bell containing relics.
The stupa is opened only once a year, but a concession was made for the pope, and he was allowed to see inside the bell.
The monks sang a prayer as it was opened, and Pope Francis “was listening with great respect”, said Fr. Lombardi.
Francis was only able to stay at the temple for some 20 minutes “because the Pope had to go back to meet the bishops,” Fr Lombardi explained, adding that it was “a great occasion to continue and to foster dialogue with the Buddhists”.
Some 70 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhists, while Christians account for about seven percent of the population.
Fr Cyril Garmeni Fernando, a local priest, said Pope Francis' gesture is “a strong message for our people — not only for Catholics — which will show his good will toward other religions. Therefore we are grateful for this, also, this nice, and very strong gesture”.
Fr. Lombardi put the impromptu visit in the context of recent papacies: “I have seen that to visit a mosque or a synagogue was not normal for the popes until a certain time; now it's still not normal, but it happens.”
“It means that interreligious dialogue is going on … practices of this are developing, and also this visit is one of them.”
Prompted by Pope Francis' visit and in keeping with the ongoing theme of reconciliation, more than 600 men and women were released from prisons throughout the island nation of Sri Lanka on Wednesday.
The released prisoners “were minor offenders and those above the age of 75,” said prisons spokesman Thushara Upuldeniya.
Of the 612 prisoners released from 28 prisons, 575 were men and 37 were women.
Upuldeniya noted that they were released under a “special presidential pardon” to mark the Holy Father's visit.
Source: Catholic News Agency