By Ellen Boonstra, Asia correspondent >>
IN A GLOBALIZED world that is increasingly linked yet beset with all sorts of ethnic, economic and martial divides, Pope Francis arrived in Bangkok to preach a message of unity and compassion.
During his recent, four-day visit, the pontiff presided over Catholic mass at a historic church, had a private audience with His Majesty the King, visited a Catholic hospital and gave a speech at Government House.
Before an audience that included Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the Pope spoke of why he has made human trafficking a priority issue during his papacy.
While he lauded the Thai Government’s efforts to combat this social menace, he stressed the need for more countries to do their part in protecting women and children from exploitation. The most vulnerable members of society, he said, are routinely “violated and exposed to every form of exploitation, enslavement, violence and abuse".
In the midst of a global refugee crisis, he said, “May every nation devise effective means for protecting the dignity and rights of migrants and refugees, who face dangers, uncertainties and exploitation in their quest for freedom and a decent life for their families.''
Throughout his visit, Pope Francis, 83, balanced spiritual matters with secular concerns. At a holy mass in the Assumption Cathedral, founded more than a century ago, he urged the 7,000-strong audience to “maintain your joy and to look to the future with confidence. Rooted in Christ, view all things with the joy and confidence born of knowing that the Lord has sought us out, found us and loved us infinitely".
Pope Francis's visit, which coincided with the 350th anniversary of the establishment of the first Catholic mission in the country and the 50th anniversary of establishing formal diplomatic ties between Thailand and the Holy See, included a private meeting with His Majesty the King and a talk with the supreme patriarch of Thai Buddhism.
At Wat Benjamobophit, where revered monarchs like the late King Rama VIIII and King Rama IV ordained as monks, the Pope met with the spiritual leader of Thai Buddhism, to discuss how these faiths can work together to promote religious harmony and help the needy.
It was the first such papal visit to the residence of the supreme patriarch since Saint John Paul II visited in 1984. Their meeting came only eight months after Pope Francis invited the supreme Buddhist matriarch to attend a summit of religious leaders discussing sustainable development projects under the umbrella of the United Nations.
The biggest events of the papal visit took place when the pontiff said mass at the National Stadium and Tephasdin Stadium before some 70,000 Catholics. Dressed in the Vatican colours of white and yellow, some of these pilgrims had travelled from the furthest reaches of the kingdom to be blessed by the pontiff and hear him speak. As he drove around the stadiums in the pope-mobile, the crowd waved Vatican flags and shouted, “Viva Il Papa.”
Once again the Pope addressed the plight of the poor, who had fallen victim to human traffickers and been stripped of their “essential human dignity,” as well as “young people enslaved by drug addiction and a lack of meaning, which makes them depressed and destroys their dreams".
He also expressed concern about migrants, the homeless and labourers exploited by criminal networks, who remain invisible in many communities.
“Let us not deprive their communities of seeing their faces, their wounds, their smiles and their lies. Let us not prevent them from experiencing the merciful balm of God’s love that heals their wounds and pains,” Pope Francis said.