Students hold a rehearsal at a school in Bangkok on Nov. 13 in preparation for Pope Francis' visit to Thailand. Tribal minority people from remote mountain villages and Buddhist children will be among the tens of thousands of people who descend on the Thai capital to catch a glimpse of the pontiff this week. (Photo: Chalinee Thirasupa/AFP)
Pope Francis' visits to Thailand and Japan this month show his love for marginalized communities, says Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon, president of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences.
In his fourth visit to Asia, Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive in Bangkok on Nov. 20. Three days later, he leaves for Tokyo and nuclear-bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki before returning to Rome on Nov. 26.Pope Francis has "chosen countries where the Catholic community is a minority. His concern for communities on the margins has amplified their presence," Cardinal Bo said in a statement.Two years ago, "he chose to visit two countries where the Christian presence is so small. Christianity was in Myanmar for 500 years. His visit made this small flock to be known to the world," said the cardinal.In his 2017 Asia visit, Pope Francis covered Muslim-dominated Bangladesh and Buddhist-majority Myanmar, the base of 71-year-old Cardinal Bo.
Pope Francis became the first pope to visit Myanmar, where Christians form just 6 percent of a population of some 54 million people. Catholics make up about one percent or some 750,000.Cardinal Bo recalled that the visit was "challenging" but that did not deter Pope Francis. "He came with a clarion call for peace through love."The visit happened when the Rohingya crisis was its peak. The world's media have featured the plight of some one million Rohingya Muslims who fled to neighboring Bangladesh in August 2017 following Myanmar's bloody military crackdown.
During the visit, Pope Francis did not "hesitate to meet anyone in Myanmar: the leader of the country, monks and even military generals."
The papal visit "left a strong message of peace and hope. He also encouraged the Catholic Church and the youth to be an instrument of peace," Cardinal Bo said.
Thailand and Japan have faced enormous challenges in climate change, the cardinal noted.Increased flooding, sea erosion and unseasonal rains have hit Thailand, adversely affecting the livelihoods of the poor, especially farmers and fisherpeople. Japan has had its share of natural disasters. In mid-October, Typhoon Hagibis hit Japan devastating several areas and killing at least 68 people.Although a nation adorned with natural beauty such as mountains, forests, lakes, rivers and the sea, Japan is prone to volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, floods and landslides. Cardinal Bo said both these countries treasure "deep spiritual traditions," and Pope Francis' "interest in the Eastern religions is well known."
His love for nature and the planet has "brought him to release a path-breaking encyclical, Laudato si', and organize a special synod on the Amazon.""In all these, he has admired the spiritual tradition of the East which considered every living being and things like trees as part of God's presence," Cardinal Bo said.He said Pope Francis feels that "religious traditions can assert strongly to uphold the dignity of human beings and the integrity of creation. I am sure his voice will be heard on these issues."Cardinal Bo is scheduled to meet Pope Francis at the Blessed Nicholas Boonkerd Kitbamrung Shrine in Bangkok during a meeting with Thailand bishops and members of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences on Nov. 22.Pope Francis' first Asian visit was to South Korea in August 2014 for Asian Youth Day. In January 2015, he traveled to Sri Lanka and the Philippines before visiting Myanmar and Bangladesh two years later.