The Malta Independent 17 October 2019, Thursday

Pope Francis to visit Thailand, Japan in November; will meet cousin

Associated Press Friday, 13 September 2019, 13:14 Last update: about 2 months ago

Pope Francis will visit Thailand and Japan in November in a visit expected to highlight his call for complete nuclear disarmament and honor the small Catholic communities in each country.

The Vatican confirmed the Nov. 19-26 trip, and its diplomatic representative in Thailand, Archbishop Paul Tschang In-Nam, announced the Thai stop on Friday. Francis will be in Thailand on Nov. 20-23 before heading to Japan, where government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said the pope would meet with the emperor and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

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It will be Francis' fourth trip to Asia, where he has already visited South Korea, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The last pope to visit Japan was the late Saint Pope John Paul II in 1981. He was also the last pope to visit Thailand, in 1984.

During his official visit to Thailand, Francis will preside at religious ceremonies and make pastoral visits to Catholic communities.

Francis's Japan visit includes Tokyo as well as Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were hit by U.S. atomic bombs at the end of World War II. A call for a world without nuclear weapons has been Francis' longtime message.

Nagasaki Archbishop Joseph Mitsuaki Takami, who heads the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Japan, expressed gratitude to Francis, noting he and others in the Japanese church have been asking for his visit for years.

He acknowledged that Japan does not have as many Christians as some other nations. But he said Francis had special feelings for Japan, referring to how last year the pope had the Vatican print up thousands of cards of a Nagasaki nuclear bombing child survivor carrying his dead brother on his back. The card had the words "The fruit of war" printed on it.

"I think the pope was laying the groundwork for this visit," the archbishop said in a statement.

Having the pope in Nagasaki will also highlight the legacy of Christian missionaries dating back to the samurai era, including 26 martyrs killed in 1597. It will help honor the so-called "Hidden Christians," who kept the faith alive during decades of persecution.

Japan, whose main religions are Buddhism and Shintoism, has about 441,000 Catholics, many in Nagasaki, comprising fewer than 1% of the overall population. Thailand, with an overall population of 69 million people, has some 388,000 Catholics.

In a 2017 speech at a disarmament conference at the Vatican, Francis signaled a shift in church teaching about nuclear deterrence, warning that the Cold War-era strategy of deterrence was no longer viable and urging instead complete nuclear disarmament.

"If we . . . take into account the risk of an accidental detonation as a result of error of any kind, the threat of (nuclear weapons') use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned," he said.

Previous popes including St. John Paul II had called for the abolition of nuclear weapons but said the stockpiling of them could be morally acceptable as a form of deterrence.

Catholics in Thailand are celebrating the official announcement of the first papal visit in 35 years, but one 77-year-old nun in a far-flung corner of the country has a connection that makes the occasion particularly special.

The pontiff's arrival will lead to a reinvigoration of belief among the nearly 400,000 faithful here. But for Sister Ana Rosa Sivori, it also means the pleasure of a family reunion.

At St. Mary's girls' school in Udon Thani, about 570 kilometers (355 miles) northeast of Bangkok, the pupils have only recently realized their unassuming vice principal's connection to the pope.

Sister Ana Rosa, originally from Buenos Aires in Argentina, came to Thailand in 1966 and has worked as a missionary in several parts of the country. She shares a great-grandfather with Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who, six years ago, became Pope Francis. So, she and the pontiff are second cousins.

As word of a planned papal visit spread ahead of the official announcement, Sister Ana Rosa went from being an almost invisible presence to being at the center of increasingly excited attention in her community.

"Many people who are not Catholics, they are asking me every time. Is he coming? When is he coming? He, will he be coming? Because, it means that they are interested. They want to see him. They want to meet him," she said.

"Then, of course, for the Catholics, it would be a push to be a good Catholics, to be good Christians."

Two years ago, Pope Francis paid a historic visit to Myanmar. It came at the height of the Rohingya Muslim crisis. Myanmar's army carried out human rights abuses against the ethnic minority, and the call to hold officials responsible led to intense scrutiny of whom the pope met and what he said.

Hundreds of thousands flocked to see the pope on that visit, including many who traveled from neighboring Thailand — but not Sister Ana Rosa. She said she didn't want to take up his time.

She insists, however, that the two are close, and stay in touch. He is "old school," she says, never sending emails and instead writing letters by hand and dispatching them through the Vatican's embassy in Bangkok.

The last time the cousins met face to face was two years ago at the Vatican.

"I will be glad to see him, and he will be glad to see me also," she said, smiling broadly. "We will have the chance to see each other and have the chance to talk a little bit."

In 1984, John Paul II became the first pope to visit Thailand when he spent two days in country, partly to thank the kingdom for sheltering refugees who fled wars in neighboring countries. He visited a refugee camp to spread a message of hope.

The Catholic mission to Thailand began 350 years ago, but the country remains overwhelmingly Buddhist, with Catholics accounting for less than 1% of the population.

Sister Ana Rosa said she is in Thailand to stay — on papal orders.

"He spoke to our mother-general, the superior-general of the congregation, saying that my work is in Thailand, to do the work in Thailand, so you don't move her anywhere."

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