Archbishop Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovithavanij (Credit: Stephen Steele/ucanews.com)
When Archbishop Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovithavanij of Bangkok learned he would be elevated to cardinal there was no formal announcement, no courier from Rome to tell him the news.
Instead a friend called to say he read a report on the Internet. “We better find out if this is true,” the cardinal-elect told reporters Friday during a press conference at the diocesan center in Nakhon Pathom.
Indeed it was true and on February 14, Archbishop Kriengsak and 19 other men will be inducted by Pope Francis into the College of Cardinals, raising the number of members to 228, including 125 who can vote in conclaves.
The archbishop is among three Southeast Asian bishops being elevated to cardinal. The other two are Archbishop Charles Maung Bo of Myanmar and Archbishop Pierre Nguyen Van Nhon of Hanoi.
The archbishop heads a Church in a country currently under martial law. Instability has been a common theme in Thai politics, forcing the country to overcome one crisis after another. Speaking mostly to Thai journalists, the archbishop said the Church had the same role as all religions in Thailand — to promote peace and unity.
In an earlier meeting with Buddhist and Muslim leaders, Archbishop Kriengsak made the suggestion that when the Thai national anthem is broadcast at 6pm, that Thai citizens pause an additional minute to pray for peace and unity. The religious leaders later brought that proposal to government leaders.
Archbishop Kriengsak acknowledged that it might seem unusual to outsiders for the pope to choose three men from the geographic region from countries with small-to-miniscule Catholic populations. He said it should be clear to Church-watchers that Pope Francis intends on making the Church “more universal”.
“He intends to reach out to the extreme peripheries,” he told ucanews.com.
He also believes that Asian Catholics and Asian people in general have a cultural sensibility that promotes values and respects the dignity of the human person.
“Asian people by nature are religious people. We are open to other religions, to other people. We see the possibilities of interreligious collaboration. We respect each other’s faith,” he said.
Archbishop Kriengsak, 66, was ordained a priest to the Bangkok Archdiocese in 1976. He was installed as bishop of Nakhon Sawan in 2007. Two years later, he was installed as archbishop of Bangkok, replacing Michai Kitbunchu, Thailand’s first cardinal.
The archbishop is young enough to likely vote in the next conclave to choose Pope Francis’ successor. The demographics of the College of Cardinals are rapidly changing leaving open the possibility of a pope of non-European descent. The archbishop said that where the next pope comes from doesn’t matter.
“Catholic means universal. We belong to one Church. We have already elected a pope from a communist country. We can elect a pope from Asia, from Africa, from Europe. It doesn’t matter,” he said.