BANGKOK — Pope Francis’ visit to Thailand is going ahead from Nov. 20 to 23, the Apolistic Nuncio of the Holy See announced Friday afternoon.
In two months’ time, Pope Francis will visit Thailand, Catholic officials announced Friday afternoon at the 11th floor conference room of the St. Louis Hospital in central Bangkok, part of a simultaneous international announcement in both the Vatican City and Tokyo.
Archbishop and Apolistic Nuncio Paul Tschang In-Nam announced the visit in English at 2pm sharp, while Cardinal Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovitvanit did so in Thai.
“It is my great honor and pleasure to make the following announcement. At the invitation of the Royal Thai Government and the Bishops of Thailand, His Holiness Pope Francis will make the Apolistic Visit to Thailand on November 20 to 23, 2019,” they said.
The official announcement came after months of anticipation.
“Before, I had to just smile when people asked me,” Chainarong Monthienvichienchai, a spokesman for the Holy See, said.
A press release said that the Pope will preside over two public masses during his visit, one for Thai Catholics and another for Thai Catholic youth. His specific schedule will be announced at a later time.
The masses may be held at the National Stadium, depending on crowd size and traffic conditions, according to Monsignor Vissanu Thanya-anan, deputy secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Thailand.
“We want to reach Gen X, Gen Y, and other young people,” Vissanu said. “That’s why we’ll have a dedicated mass for youth.”
Also gathered were various nuns and priests from around Thailand.
“There are very few Catholics in Thailand, only about 300,000, but he still sees us as important. I’m so excited, and I’ll be waiting for him,” Sister Bangon Mathurotsuwan, 51, from the Congregation of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Bangkok, said.
Sister Bangon said this visit is also significant since it is the 350th anniversary of the founding of “Mission de Siam,” the assembly that oversees Roman Catholic missions in the Kingdom, which was established during the Ayutthaya period.
The last pontiff visit to Thailand was in 1984 by Pope John Paul II. After his Thailand visit, Pope Francis is set to go to Tokyo on Nov. 23 to 27.
Thailand is home to a minority population of Catholics numbering 0.58 percent of the population, or 388,468 people with 524 churches, the Catholic Social Communications of Thailand announced in a video at the press conference on Friday.
“It’s true that there is a small number of Catholics in Thailand, but there have been papal visits to countries with an even smaller population, such as Bosnia and Herzogovina or to Muslim countries,” Vissanu said.
Vissanu said that in February, Pope Francis visited the United Arab Emirates, where there are only about 4,000 to 5,000 Catholics.
“The numbers aren’t important when a father is visiting his children,” Chainarong said.
In a live interview with Chainarong, he said the visit would be a “big joy” to Thai Catholics and he believed they would come out in “great numbers.”
“We prayed he would visit our country when he came to visit a nearby country, Myanmar. We are next door to each other, but he has a very tight schedule, so he couldn’t make a stopover,” Chainarong said, referring to Francis’ Nov. 2017 visit.
Pope Francis’s visit will be twice the length of Pope John Paul II’s visit, four days.
“I’m sure not just Catholics, but many Thai people will come,” Sister Margarita Perez said. “The Holy Father loves everyone…I met many people, not just Catholics, who are always asking me when the Holy Father is coming.”
“Catholics in Thailand are a small minority. He would like to make sure that we are happy here, we live peacefully with other religious believers, and help the poor and disadvantaged, and help those who are helpless,” Chainarong said.
When asked about the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse allegations in recent years and whether the visit would improve the image of the Church, Chainarong said that Pope Francis would punish those responsible.
“I think people all over the world understand that this Pope is quite serious with this issue,” Chainarong said. “For those who commit the crime, they must be punished. They must be no longer on duty. …He is the one who really requests us to work hard to protect the minors and protect the victims the best we can.”
Additional reporting Tappanai Boonbandit