Pope's compassion, humility wins over many Thais

Pope's compassion, humility wins over many Thais

Pope Francis on Thursday arrives in his 'popemobile' to cheering crowds at the National Stadium. (Photo by Patipat Janthong)
Pope Francis on Thursday arrives in his 'popemobile' to cheering crowds at the National Stadium. (Photo by Patipat Janthong)

Pope Francis's modesty, opened-mindedness and passion for social issues won thousands of hearts during his three-day visit.

Apart from spreading the word of the Gospel, calling on the needy and holding two memorable Holy Masses, the Pope, who is also affectionately known as "Il Papa", spent his time in Bangkok advocating for peace, interfaith harmony and urging people to tackle social injustice, inequality, environmental crisis and rights violations.

Surapong Kongchantuk, a human-rights lawyer and a Buddhist, confessed that he had lost his heart to Il Papa.

"Pope Francis is the the most influential person in the world, truly a world-class, number one VIP. But what Thais saw over the past three days was a man who is very down-to-earth.

"He sits in an inconspicuous Toyota sedan instead of an extravagant limousine," said Mr Surapong, who listened to the Pope's speech on "Building Bridges on Peace and Understanding" at Chulalongkorn University on Friday. The Pope met leaders of other faiths at the event.

"Small people, poor people and the marginalised clearly have a place in his heart and thoughts," he recounted.

Parit Wacharasindhu, a young up-and-coming politician and non-Christian, who attended Holy Mass at National Stadium on Thursday wrote a Facebook post commending the Pope for focusing on modern social problems.

"Pope Francis is praised across the world for supporting interfaith dialogue, his advocacy for the eradication of poverty, social inequality and tackling the environmental crisis," he wrote.

As a member of the younger generation, Mr Parit praised His Holiness for being receptive to new ideas even though some, such as the LGBTQ issue, go against his religious tenets.

The Advocate, the United State's oldest LGBTQ magazine, named Pope Francis its person of the year in 2013.

A man for one and all

The Pope's visit did not appeal to just devout Catholics.

Waiting to catch a glimpse of Il Papa outside St Louis Hospital on Thursday were 100 Christian missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Thailand.

Abraham Matthew Robinson, 20, said he had come to welcome Pope Francis even though he belonged to another sect. "Our teachings vary, but Jesus Christ told us that love transcends all boundaries. I admire Pope Francis's openness to other religions, be it Buddhism or Islam," he said.

Sirilux Sriyapong, 45, a Buddhist from Samut Prakan province, said that even though she's not Catholic, she was still overwhelmed by the Pope's visit.

"I wanted to be part of this historic event," Ms Sirilux said, who went to a Catholic school and later worked at a Catholic hospital. "When I learned that he was visiting Thailand, I decided to go see him with my own eyes at St Louis Hospital," she told the Bangkok Post.

Devout Catholic Buasri Bunchua, 83, said there was no way she would have missed this event. She had seen Pope Francis's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, at the National Stadium 35 years ago.

"I'm so blessed to have caught sight of two popes in my lifetime. When I saw Pope Francis, his face was lit with a beatific smile. He is an ideal example to all of us," she told the Bangkok Post.

Despite her weak knees and frail health, Ms Buasri mustered all her strength to jump on the bandwagon of the devout.

"Initially, I was hesitant about coming because my health is not so good. One of my eyes doesn't work too well. But I changed my mind because my niece managed to find a wheelchair and a good spot for me. To my surprise, the jubilant crowds made me feel alive, and strangers looked after me by giving me water and escorting me to the toilet. So many good things happened," she said.

Sujin Phornroekngam, 87, a patient at St Louis Hospital, said there were no words to describe the euphoria she felt when the Pope placed his hand on her head.

"I touched his hand and kissed his papal ring. I just remember saying 'Papa' many times,"she said.

Ms Sujin said she and other selected patients had been rehearsing to sit still for a few months ahead of the papal visit.

The 40 patients chosen to see Pope Francis had to undergo medical check-ups to ensure they did not have contagious diseases and did not need oxygen tanks, she said.

Ms Sujin was accompanied by her 50-year-old son Suwit, and like his mother he was on cloud nine when the Pontiff hugged him and said "I pray for you".

"I don't know why he did that, but I feel blessed. This is the first time I have seen the Pope in person," said Mr Sujin, who works as a programmer in the US, but had flown back to Thailand for this occasion.

A milestone for the church

Meanwhile, Chiang Mai's Bishop Francis Xavier Vira Arpondratana, who is also secretary-general of the Thailand Bishops' Conference and worked closely with His Holiness during the visit, said the Pope's visit was a meaningful event for the small Catholic community and is an important milestone for the Catholic Church in Thailand.

The Catholic church here is celebrating 350 years of recognition by the Holy See.

"The Pope's visit is a blessing for the country, even though he was here for a very short time. For the Catholics here, his visit will definitely be remembered for life," Bishop Vira said.

Thailand's 388,000-strong Catholic community accounts for less than 1% of the population.

Father Joseph Anucha Chaiyadej, director of the Catholic Social Communications of Thailand, said Pope Francis's down-to-earth personality and his sermons on peace, love and mercy caught everybody's attention, even those who are not Christian.

"He is the kind of down-to-earth person who is very approachable. He even obliged when passers-by asked for his blessings or to take a selfie," he said.

Father Anucha said people should learn from His Holiness's life of simplicity, his love of mankind and his way of patiently making people understand the value of faith.

"During his limited time in Thailand, Pope Francis did a lot of work and visited as many places as he could. It's amazing that an 83-year-old man could have such strength in bolstering people's faith in God," he said.

Father Surachai Chumsriphran, director of St Louis Hospital, said Pope Francis's visit to the hospital meant a lot, and helped them realise and strengthened their mission, vision and core values of being a Catholic hospital.

Father Surachai said the Pope's visit will remain not only in their memory, but will also convey something special to the next generation and help them maintain the hospital's main mission of charity.

Phaithoon Manchai, 77, a devout Christian who saw the Pope at St Louis Hospital on Nov 21, said that though Il Papa has left Thailand, his kindness will always reside in his heart.

"I've never thought that I would ever get to see the Pope up this close. His visit is beyond my dreams. When I saw him, I could really feel his compassion and prayed for many things, especially for my family. I feel blessed and delighted that I got this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said.

Pope Francis continued his 32nd Apostolic Journey when he arrived in Tokyo yesterday. He is scheduled to visit Nagasaki and Hiroshima before departing on Nov 26.

Since being elected six years ago, Pope Francis has come to Asia on two occasions earlier, visiting the Philippines and Sri Lanka in 2014 followed by Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2017.

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