BANGKOK -- Pope Francis ministered to Thailand’s tiny Catholic community Friday, urging Thais young and old to practice their faith with joy and with “a Thai face and flesh” in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country.
Thousands of Thais welcomed Francis as he traveled to St. Peter’s Parish, a Catholic community outside Bangkok, to pray at the sanctuary of Thailand’s first martyred priest.
There, he told a few hundred priests and nuns that he read “with some pain” that for many Thais, Christianity is “a religion for foreigners.”
“This should spur us to find ways to talk about the faith in dialect, like a mother who sings lullabies to her child,” he said. “With that same intimacy, let us give faith a Thai face and flesh, which involves much more than making translations.”
Children dressed as monks and nuns, as well as real clergy and ordinary Catholics, cheered him as he passed through the crowd outside the church in his popemobile and later on foot. “Viva il papa,” or “Long live the pope,” they shouted in Italian.
Later, Francis celebrated a Mass dedicated to young people in Bangkok’s Cathedral of the Assumption. He urged them to look to the future, firmly rooted in their faith.
“Dear young people, you are a new generation, with new hopes, dreams and questions, and surely some doubts as well,” he said. “I urge you to maintain your joy and to look to the future with confidence.”
It was the first time in a generation that Thais have seen a pope up close, after St. John Paul II became the first pope to visit Thailand in 1984. And despite the relatively small number of Catholics in Thailand — some 400,000 in a country of 65 million — his reception has been remarkably enthusiastic and warm.
"It's been 35 years so everyone is so very happy,” said Tuangsin Pureepaswong, a 60-year-old research engineer from Rayong province. “May the Holy Father pray to God for us all.”
Pornnutcha Kruprasert, a 14-year-old training to be a nun from southern Prachuap Khiri Khan province, said she was “excited and delighted” to see the pope.
"The pope always has good thoughts for all youths,” she said cheerfully. “We can bring his teachings into real life."
Even King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida seemed taken by the 82-year-old Argentine.
Bidding farewell at their palace on Thursday evening, the royals paid their utmost respect to the pope, bringing their hands together and nodding their heads. The “wai” is a gesture of respect, usually initiated by young to old, and is shown by the king to the Buddhist patriarch, but not to other heads of state.
In addition, the gifts presented to Francis were of the highest level of royal gifts that the Thai king gives to a foreign monarch: a nielloware desk set, similar to what Vajiralongkorn’s late father, King Bhumibol, gave to Queen Elizabeth II.
And finally, after Queen Suthida curtsied to Francis, the royal couple walked down the stairs at the palace entrance to see Francis off in his car, a rare and personal touch.
More ordinary non-Catholics seemed to catch some of the excitement about Francis’ visit as well.
“He seems like a very kind, and nice, and merciful man and I wish him all the best,” said Benny Gulati, a member of the Sikh religion who attended Francis’ interfaith meeting Friday afternoon.
Ven. Napan Santibhaddo, a Buddhist monk, said Francis’ name says it all — a reference to his namesake St. Francis of Assisi, known for his ministry to the poor and outcasts.
“It means a lot: compassion for poor people, and women and everything and we appreciate that. I think it is a good sign that he can send a message for peace,” he said.
At the meeting, Francis highlighted care for the poor and the environment as areas where Catholics can cooperate with Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs and members of other Christian denominations.
“All of us are called not only to heed the voice of the poor in our midst: the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, the indigenous peoples and religious minorities, but also to be unafraid to create opportunities ... to work hand in hand,” he said. “For our part, we are asked to embrace the moral imperative of upholding human dignity and respecting the rights of conscience and religious freedom.”
The encounter featured a youth choir of Muslim, Buddhist and Christian students — a nod to Francis’ efforts to highlight Thailand’s tradition of religious tolerance.
Francis leaves Saturday for Japan for the second and final leg of his trip.
Associated Press producer Maria Grazia Murru contributed to this report.