Bangkok (AsiaNews) – A statue of Pope John Paul II stands in front of Bangkok’s Assumption Cathedral, marking the pontiff’s historic visit to Thailand on 10-11 May 1984. Speaking to AsiaNews, many Thais can still remember the highlights and significance of that visit, as preparations continue for the beatification of the Polish-born pope at a solemn ceremony on 1 May, in Rome. Mgr Joseph Sangval Surasarang, retired bishop of Chiang Mai, accompanied the Pope during his two-day visit, keenly remembering the late pontiff’s “kindness and deep spirituality”.
Pope Woytiła is still remembered as the “Bishop of the mountain dwellers,” Mgr Surasarang said. At the time of the papal visit, he was vicar general and a pastor at the Assumption Cathedral and told the pontiff that 70 per cent of all Catholics in Chiang Mai lived in the mountains.
“Those two days were the most important in the history of the Thai Church,” he told AsiaNews. “I remember the pope’s address to more than 40,000 people attending mass at Supatchalasai National Stadium. On that occasion, the Holy Father said, “I’m happy to be here in Thailand. I see you are all very enthusiastic about meeting me and this makes me even more enthusiastic.”
“His Holiness struck me with his simple gestures, as when, before and after Mass, he would kneel for an intense prayer. Being so close to him, I was struck by his holiness, his trust in God and in the guidance of His Mother Mary, by his enthusiasm in meeting young people, teaching them to have courage against materialism and be better human beings. It kindled a desire to follows in his footsteps,” the bishop said. “The Blessed Pope John Paul II is an example of strong and true faith; to follow him means following closely Jesus Christ”.
At his arrival in Thailand, John Paul II knelt to kiss the ground, a traditional sign of respect. A very moving movement was his meeting with King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit, on 10 May, at the Chak-kri Maha Prasart Royal Palace.
“The Pope told the royal couple that ‘it is a great honour for me to meet you in a land known by all as the Land of smiles’. This official visit is for me a token of gratitude for your visit to my predecessor, Pope John XXIII on 1 October 1960 and the visit of Somdet Phra Ariyawongsagataya (Punnasiri), 17th Patriarch of Thailand, who met Pope Paul VI in the Vatican”.
On 1 October 1960, King Bhumibol told John XXIII that in Thailand, “Though the majority of Thai people are Buddhist, the rest have equal rights to practice their faith.” Pope John Paul II replied that he could now personally see that “in Thailand, Catholics can practice their faith with passion and happiness.”
In 2005, when the pope passed away, the king sent a letter of condolences to the Vatican, noting that he was a “man who was steadfast and firm on justice and forgiveness.”
Mgr Surasarang also remembers a meeting with Somdet Phra Yannasangworn, the 19th supreme patriarch, at Rajchaborpitsathitmahasrimaram Temple, when “the pope humbly expressed his respect for Thailand, an independent land, and the Thai people, and said that he wanted to greet and bless them in the name of the Lord.”
In 2009, on the 25th anniversary of the papal visit to Assumption Cathedral, a bronze statue of Saint Peter was unveiled across from that of the Polish-born pope.
Portuguese missionaries brought the Catholic faith along with Western technology, art and culture. Catholic run schools are well respected.
The papal visit left a lasting mark on many Buddhists as well. Patrawadee Ongsakul, a Buddhist professor from Songkhla Nakarin University, saw the pope at the stadium where he had gone with some Catholic friends. He was struck by the humble faith of thousands of people who walked up to the altar for the communion.
“For me,” he told AsiaNews, “I am grateful to the Catholic school where I got my primary and secondary education for it encouraged me to practice my Buddhist faith more zealously, the way foreign missionaries did at my school.” Indeed, “I always tell my students to practice their faith, whatever it is, with the zeal I saw in the Catholic missionaries at my school”.
When the pope visited Assumption Cathedral, Ms Lamoon Fuukfon was chosen to offer him a bouquet of flowers as a sign of welcome. For 40 years, she had been in charge of flower arrangements at the church’s altar.
She is still moved by the memory, and cannot hold tears back when she thinks about it. She would have never believed “that a poor woman, from a lower class background like me, would be given the honour of meeting the pope so close,” she said.
During the visit, John Paul II ordained 23 priests. One of them, Fr Peter Prasert Takavej, who heads the Pastoral Training Centre, still remembers with emotion “his kind gentle smile, his calm but powerful voice, which he used when he spoke or led prayers.”
“He was a man of great simplicity and naturalness. For him, there were no barriers between people, whatever their colour. He was a man who worked for the future, who created World Youth Day to educate young people, who are the future of the Church and the world. He touched everyone’s heart, young and old, black and white.”
Fr Anthony Vorayuth Itbamrung, director of Catholic Social Communication of Thailand, will take part in the beatification ceremony on Sunday in order to ask “His Holiness to bless my vocation and pastoral work”.
“I remember his visit to the refugee camp in Panat Nikhom district, Chonburi province, about 110 kilometres east from Bangkok. There were thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees waiting to go to a third country. The pope donated money for the camp, initially seen as a temporary structure. Ten years after the papal visit, it still held 11,614 people, mostly from Laos.”
Father Vorayuth Itbamrung’s Catholic centre has already published three books on the life and work of John Paul II, the latest one this year, titled The Blessed Pope John Paul II, A man of Forgiveness.
According to official figures for 2011, there are 346,375 Catholics in Thailand, a country of 64,852,627 people. There are also 781 priests, 131 men religious, 1,530 nuns and 481 churches.