BANGKOK — Pope Francis arrives in Thailand on Wednesday for the first visit here by the head of the Roman Catholic Church since St. John Paul II in 1984. Some things to know about the visit and the history of the Church in Thailand:
1. It’s a morale booster. Francis is certain to address some of the major social concerns he often highlights, but his visit is largely a morale-boosting exercise for the Catholic community. His video message ahead of his trip says he will meet Thai Catholics “to encourage them in their faith and in the contribution they make to the whole of society. They are Thais and must work for their homeland.” He also said he wants to highlight the importance of interreligious dialogue and cooperation, especially in the service of the poor and peace.
2. Catholicism has history in Thailand. Portuguese-sponsored Dominican missionaries came to Thailand — then called Siam — in 1567, and the Church established a formal evangelizing mission in 1669 under the French-led Missions Étrangères de Paris, which would be the main Catholic presence in Southeast Asia for centuries. Catholicism was affected by Thailand’s internal power struggles and colonialism in the region, particularly in World War II, when a nationalistic government sought to convert all Thais to Buddhists. Harmonious relations have been the rule since late King Bhumibol Adulyadej took the throne in 1946.
3. Catholics today. The predominantly Buddhist country has about 388,000 Catholics, 0.58 percent of its 69 million people. Essentially there are two Catholic communities in Thailand: urbanized residents of the capital whose children attend prestigious private schools and colleges run by the Church, and less affluent members of ethnic minorities in the northeast and north. Many of the rural Catholic communities include descendants of refugees who fled persecution in Vietnam.
4. The pope’s focus. Francis often tailors his messages to the venues where he speaks. He will speak publicly at two Masses, one of them at a stadium before a projected crowd of 50,000 where he will talk about human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of women and children, both of which are longstanding issues in the region. Refugees are another relevant concern he may tackle.
Father Bernardo Cervellera, editor-in-chief of the Catholic news service Asia News, said the pope may also express concerns about materialism, one of his frequent topics, and discuss with his Buddhist counterparts the related issue of secularization.
5. His meetings. Francis will meet King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who was crown prince when he greeted St. John Paul II on the only previous papal visit to Thailand in 1984. He will also meet Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and the head of Thailand’s Buddhist community, Supreme Patriarch Somdet Phra Maha Muneewong Ariyavongsagatayana.
His private meetings include an audience with 40 sick and disabled people at Bangkok’s St. Louis Hospital, as well as a meeting with Jesuits working in Thailand. Francis is the first pope from the Jesuit order and makes a point of such meetings during his travels.
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