By Inés San Martín
BANGKOK, Thailand – Pope Francis arrived in Thailand Wednesday to open a Nov. 20-26 Asia tour that will also take him to Japan. It marks the first time a pope has visited the former kingdom of Siam since St. John Paul II in 1984.
Francis’s visit to Thailand, a nation that has a Catholic population of fewer than 400,000, has been described as a “morale booster” for this small community that represents 0.58 of the total population of 69 million.
In a video he sent ahead of the trip, the pope said that Thais are called to “work for their homeland,” and that he hoped his trip would “encourage them in their faith and in the contribution they make to the whole of society.”
Upon arriving at Bangkok’s military airport, he was welcomed by a member of the Council of the Crown who offered him a Phuang malai, meaning a traditional garland made of flowers that are traditionally given in this country as an offering.
Also ready to welcome him were 11 children dressed in traditional costume, several Thai authorities and the local bishops.
Francis is scheduled to rest Wednesday afternoon, a rarity for a pope who often hits the ground running when he arrives in a new country. As usual, he’ll stay in the apostolic nunciature, meaning the residence of the papal ambassador in Thailand. According to the official schedule, he’ll say Mass and then have dinner, both privately.
The pope is expected to touch upon several subjects during the eight speeches he’ll deliver in Thailand, which will be translated by his second cousin, Sister Ana Rosa Sivori, 77, who’s been a missionary in Thailand for more than 50 years.
Among the pope’s likely areas of focus is poverty, with one percent of the population holding 60 percent of Thailand’s wealth, according to a 2018 Credit Suisse report.
In addition, it’s possible that while he engages Buddhist leaders he’ll address climate change and pollution. With a wide coastal line, Thailand, according to the United Nations, is the world’s 6th largest ocean polluter.
Never one to mince words, it’s also expected that Francis will address the scourge of sex tourism – which affects girls and boys as young as 10 in Thailand – and human trafficking. Both have been a key social concern for Francis since he was still the archbishop of Buenos Aires.
The Thai government is trying to curb human trafficking, defined by the pontiff as “modern day slavery” and a “crime against humanity.” Thailand is set to hit a record number of human trafficking victims rescued. Scholarly articles estimate that the sexual tourism industry is one of the country’s largest foreign currency generators.
Though the Church first arrived in Thailand in the hands of Portuguese-sponsored Dominican missionaries in 1567, Catholicism wasn’t always allowed to flourish, particularly during WWII, when a nationalistic movement tried to convert every citizen to Buddhism.
On Thursday, Francis is scheduled to visit the Governmental House, where he will address civil authorities and diplomats, including Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. He’ll also visit the Wat Ratchabophit Sathit Maha Siaram Buddhist Temple, meeting the head of Thailand’s Buddhist community, Supreme Patriarch Somdet Phra Maha Muniwong Ariyavongsagatayana.
On the same day, the pope will have an audience with 40 sick and disabled people at Bangkok’s St. Louis Hospital. He’ll also meet king Rama X and say Mass for 50,000 people at the national stadium.
On Friday, Francis will meet local bishops and, later, priests and religious men and women.