Pope Francis to return to Asia: Thailand and Japan in November
After John Paul II, the second pontiff to visit the two Asian countries. The program of the first stage yet to be defined. The Pope will visit Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where he will pray for the victims of the atomic bomb. Fr. Marco Ribolini, PIME missionary, reflects on the meaning of the visit for Thai Catholics.
Vatican City (AsiaNews) - Next November, Pope Francis will return to Asia for an apostolic journey to Thailand (20-23) and Japan (23-26). The Vatican press office announced it this morning, adding that the complete program of the visit will be made public at a later date. After John Paul II, Francis will be the second pontiff to visit the two countries.
For Thai Catholics, 2019 is a memorable year. Last May, they took part in the celebrations for the 350th anniversary of the Apostolic Vicariate of Siam - erected in 1669. For the occasion, Card. Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, went to the country for a six-day pastoral visit (May 16-21).
During the festivities, the faithful enthusiastically welcomed the Cardinal's call to a "missionary, free from self-celebration" Church. Mission will also be a central theme in the apostolic visit of the pontiff: the motto of the first stage of the journey is in fact "Disciples of Christ, missionary disciples".
In the second, Pope Francis will visit Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Citing sources close to the organization of the trip, in recent months the Japanese media had announced that the pontiff will offer prayers for the victims of the atomic attacks on the two cities, which occurred in 1945 at the hands of US aviation during the Second World War. Last January 23, it was Francis himself who announced the journey, during the flight that was taking him to Panama for the celebration of the 34th World Youth Day (WYD). A few days after the announcement of the apostolic journey, Japanese Catholics invited the pope to launch a message against nuclear weapons from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As the motto "Protect every life", the protection of life and of Creation will be the theme of the last three days of the Pope in Asia.
Pope Francis' visit to Thailand takes on three main meanings: it will reaffirm that Catholics are ready to make their own contribution to society; will give new vigor to the missionary thrust of the local Church; will clarify to the country what the universal Church is and why it is different from other Christian communities. This is the reaction entrusted to AsiaNews by Fr. Marco Ribolini, priest of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) and parish priest of Mae Suay, mission located in the young diocese of Chiang Rai. "The Catholics of Thailand - says the missionary - welcomed the news of Pope Francis' journey with great joy. Rumors had been circulating for months about a possible arrival, but the Thai Church preferred to maintain discretion in this regard. The country is going through a delicate phase of political transition; only a few weeks ago the new government was formed. For this reason, there were no conditions for an official announcement. Now we can finally begin to take the first steps to understand how to organize ourselves. Just yesterday I took part in a meeting with the bishop. The travel schedule has not yet been defined. We unofficially know that there will be two major celebrations: the first on the 21st and the second, dedicated to young people, on the 22nd.
"The Pope’s visit will undoubtedly be a historic event for Catholics - continues Fr. Ribolini - In my opinion, the expectations of the faithful are very high. 35 years after the visit of John Paul II, we find ourselves facing a Thai Church that must find a new path of evangelization: the community is tired and a little old, risks losing its identity. The dominant Buddhist cultural tradition, mixed marriages and nationalism threaten the relevance of being Catholic in Thai society. The Church is no longer expanding, on the contrary, in general we notice a contraction. The northern communities are different. This is a tribal church that progresses and grows in numbers. However, as an expression of minorities, it fails to have a great impact at the national level”.
"The moment in Thailand is very particular, marked by strong political and social changes. New government, as well as a new monarch: The Thais find themselves building the future of the country with very different points of reference to those they were used to. This scenario also brings with it some dangers, linked to democratic processes that have not yet fully matured. The Pope's visit can put the contribution that we Catholics can give to the nation a little more at the centre".
"The trip can finally help the authorities understand what the Catholic Church is - the priest concludes - Here in the North for example, we are encountering many difficulties. Procedures for foreigners residing in the country are tightening and bureaucracy is becoming increasingly suffocating. There are no official reasons, but in recent years Islamic separatism in the South has contributed to the government's desire to exercise greater control over foreigners. At the same time, the infiltration of Protestant groups into the social fabric of tribal regions also raises suspicions. The hope is that the Pope's visit will succeed in making government officials understand that the Catholic Church is not like those sects who practice aggressive proselytism. Unlike the latter, our method of evangelization is based on a free proposal".
Today in Thailand there are about 300 thousand Catholics. They represent 0.46% of the population; there are almost 95% Buddhists of Theravada tradition. The faithful are served by 11 dioceses, with 436 parishes and 662 priests.