BANGKOK — Pope Francis’ first public appearance in Thailand was met by about 5,000 Catholics from Thailand and other nations held up flags and clutched rosary beads, shouting in unison, “Viva il Papa Francisco!”

The Pope smiled and waved at them as he made his way into St. Louis Hospital, where he blessed patients and applauded the medical staff for their commitment to saving lives. It was the first stop in Thailand’s visit that the Pope got to mingle and interact with members of the public – the human touch that came to define his papacy.

“You carry out one of the greatest works of mercy, for your commitment to healthcare goes far beyond the simple and praiseworthy practice of medicine,” The Pope said in a speech. “It is about welcoming and embracing human life as it arrives at the Hospital’s emergency room, needing to be treated with the merciful care born of love and respect for the dignity of each human person.”

Francis added that work in healthcare can be “burdensome and tiring” and people often “work in extreme circumstances,” so therefore it was important that medical staff stick together as a community, especially in ministry.

Outside the hospital, the crowd cheered and waved the Vatican and Thai flags as Pope Francis rolled past on his open-air vehicle. It’s a diverse assembly of the young and the old, Thais and foreigners, and even non-Christians, who said they’re touched by the visit nonetheless.

Gift, 20, a student from St. Louis College, was assigned to the front row waving the Holy See flag. Given a chance to be very close to the Pope, she said she was excited and impressed with the Catholic teachings on love and mercy.

Skip to 5.20 minute mark to see the Pope gliding past Khaosod English correspondents.

Another student from the same college, Tirattah Suklom, 18, said she was so overwhelmed by the proximity that she almost teared up.

“I could really feel his mercy,” Tirattah said. “To me, all religions teach us to be good people.”

A group of Indonesian faithfuls held up the image of Madonna and Child made from local batik. Blue-shirted Cambodians, who brought along their national flag, said they were 160 in number. Sister Blandine Mentre, a French nun from the order of the Sister of Maria Stella Matutina, came with a group of 14 from her church in Vietnam.

Sister Blandine Mentre, left, talks to a reporter at St. Louis Hospital

“I think he is very brave to come here,” Mentre said. She said Vietnam and the Vatican hadn’t finalized talks for the Pope to come there yet.

One Thai Catholic woman from the southern province of Trang, who told Khaosod English in a live interview that she came all the way up to Bangkok just to see His Holiness.

“I feel blessed and delighted for this once in a lifetime opportunity, she said. “I pray for many things, especially for my family.”

Ubon Suchin, 74, and Jinda Harintranon, 75.

One of the many Thai Catholics who came for their once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the pope was Ubon Suchin, 74, and her friend Jinda Harintranon, 75. The two parishioners of Paklad Church in Samut Prakan arrived at 6am, and at around 9am were sitting on the sidewalk to rest their feet.

“My own grandmother came from China to Samut Prakan, and the church really helped her out when she immigrated. She converted, and ever since our family has been Catholics,” Ubon said. “I want to see him so much, especially since I didn’t have the chance to see Pope John Paul II when he came.”

A group of Catholic Indonesians hold up a batik cloth with the Virgin Mary and Jesus on it.

Ubon said she regularly prayed for Pope Francis’ health.

Another Thai Catholic said she journeyed all the way from the southern province of Trang just to see His Holiness.

“I feel blessed and delighted for this once in a lifetime opportunity, she said. “I pray for many things, especially for my family.”

While her hometown has a small number of Catholics – in fact, figures show there are only 7,678 Catholics in the entire southern diocease – she said she did not encounter any problem alongside the Buddhists.

The woman said she even participated in Buddhist rites such as the Kathina robe offering ceremony (tod kathin).

A group of Cambodian Catholics.

“People come to ask me sometimes why I can’t do this or that, but I’m fine with joining Buddhist community activities and fundraising,” she said.

Thanya Ousswarugse, christened as Agnes, is a 62-year-old who regularly attends mass at Carmelite Monastery Bangkok. Today she was wearing a T-shirt with a cartoon of Pope Francis on a tuk tuk. Throughout her Catholic life, Thanya said, she’s had to explain some parts of her faith to Buddhists, but it wasn’t a big problem.

“Sometimes I have to explain why we fast for Lent and why it’s different from Muslims and their fasts, but people nowadays understand more than before,” she said. “I can participate in Buddhist holidays, I just have to tell the other people there that I won’t worship other idols.”

Thanya added, “But if my name is included in a tod kathin fundraising, then I think I’m just doing charity.”

Freebies handed out to the worshipers include small cloth bag with either a Vatican City or Thai flag, a sandwich, bottle of water, a booklet about Pope Francis’ visit to the hospital, and rosary beads that officials said were blessed by the Pope himself.

The Holy See delegates also presented an image of the Virgin Mary With the Child to the hospital as a gift. The artwork was styled after the famed painting by Italian artist Lorenzo d’Alessandro di San Severino.

In return, the Pope was given a 19th century trilingual dictionary compiled by the hospital founder Archbishop Louis Vey.

Additional reporting Tappanai Boonbandit