Pope Francis is going to Japan and Thailand: Here’s what you need to know

Catholics holding torches leave Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, Japan, Aug. 9, 2015, after praying for victims of the 1945 atomic bombing. Pope Francis will finally fulfill his desire to be a missionary to Japan when he visits the country, as well as Thailand, Nov. 20-26, 2019, the Vatican announced Sept. 13. (CNS photo/Toru Hanai, Reuters)Catholics holding torches leave Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, Japan, Aug. 9, 2015, after praying for victims of the 1945 atomic bombing. Pope Francis will finally fulfill his desire to be a missionary to Japan when he visits the country, as well as Thailand, Nov. 20-26, 2019, the Vatican announced Sept. 13. (CNS photo/Toru Hanai, Reuters)

Pope Francis returns to Asia on Nov. 19 for a visit to Thailand and Japan, two predominantly Buddhist countries where Christians remain a tiny minority. He goes to encourage the small Catholic community in each country, foster dialogue with the other religions of these lands and promote peace through a call for the elimination of nuclear arms.

It will be his 32nd foreign journey and his fourth to Asia since becoming pope. He went to South Korea in 2014; Sri Lanka and the Philippines in 2015; and Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2017.

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It will be his first visit to Thailand, a country of 69 million people. Just under 50 percent of the Thai people live in rural areas and 30 percent are under the age of 25. The nation’s Catholic community includes 389,000 faithful, served by 835 priests, 1,461 women religious and 1,901 catechists.

Francis is the second pope to visit Thailand; St. John Paul II journeyed to Thailand in 1984. He comes to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the establishment of the first Mission of Siam, as Thailand was then known, in 1669. The motto for the visit—“Christ’s disciples, missionary disciples”—conveys that evangelization is at the heart of his purpose in coming to Thailand.

The Catholic presence dates back to 1567 when Dominicans became the first missionaries to arrive, but they were killed two years later. Franciscan missionaries came next, and then Jesuits in 1606 who opened schools and churches. Paris Foreign Mission priests arrived in 1662 and seven years later established the Apostolic Vicariate whose anniversary the pope will celebrate.

Pope Francis will depart from Rome on the evening of Nov. 19 and will arrive after midday the next day at Bangkok military airport, where there will be a welcome ceremony. He will then drive into Bangkok and go to the nunciature (the Vatican’s embassy) where he will reside throughout his sojourn. He will rest for the remainder of the day.

In recognition of the fact that over 90 percent of the Thai people are Buddhists, Francis will then drive to the 150-year old Wat Ratchabophit Sathit Maha Simaram Temple to meet the supreme patriarch of the Buddhists.

On Nov. 21, he will embark on the diplomatic dimension of his visit by driving to the government house where he will be given a state welcome, meet the prime minister, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, and address the kingdom’s authorities and the diplomatic corps. Francis will speak in Spanish throughout his visit, and his cousin, Salesian sister Ana Rosa Sivori, who has been a missionary here for 50 years, will translate for him into Thai.

In recognition of the fact that over 90 percent of the Thai people are Buddhists, Francis will then drive to the 150-year old Wat Ratchabophit Sathit Maha Simaram Temple to meet the supreme patriarch of the Buddhists.

He will conclude his morning’s program by visiting St. Louis Children’s Hospital, which was established in 1898 by Archbishop Louis Vey, the apostolic vicar of the Roman Catholic Mission in Siam during the reign of King Chulalongkorn, and then assigned to the Sisters of Saint Paul de Chartres, who managed it under the motto: “Where there is Mercy, there is God.” There he will meet sick and disabled patients without the presence of the media.

That afternoon, Pope Francis will travel to the Amphorn Royal Palace to pay a private visit to King Maha Vajiralongkorn “Rama X.” The king, who was educated in England and Australia, is a constitutional monarch, the 10th in his dynasty (hence the X in his name), married four times and considered among the wealthiest of royals in the world. He avoids the spotlight.

From the palace, the pope will travel to the national stadium to celebrate Mass, the first of two in this country. His third day in Bangkok will be dedicated to religious events.

He will go to St. Peter’s parish in Samphran, Nakhon Pathom province, about 21 miles from Bangkok, to speak to a gathering of priests, women and men religious, seminarians and catechists. Afterward, he will go to the nearby shrine of Blessed Nicholas Bunkerd Kitbamrung, the country’s first priest-martyr, to address the bishops of Thailand and the executive of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences. Next, in a hall near the shrine, he will meet the Jesuits in Thailand.

That afternoon, Pope Francis will offer the keynote talk at the Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok at an encounter with the leaders of the other Christian churches and the nation’s other religions. From there he will drive to the Cathedral of the Assumption to celebrate Mass for young people.

In a keynote address on nuclear arms, Pope Francis is expected to strongly condemn not only the threat to use them but also the very possession of such arms, as he did in November 2017.

On the morning of Nov. 23, he will bid farewell to Thailand and take a six-hour plane ride to Tokyo’s international airport. After a brief welcome ceremony on arrival, he will drive to the nunciature where he will reside during his visit. He will address the Japanese bishops that evening.

It is his second visit to Japan, a country of 6,852 islands and 126 million people. It is the world’s third largest economy, after the United States and China.

“Protect all life” is the motto for his visit, and his first goal is to encourage the tiny Catholic community in Japan. St. Francis Xavier, one of the first Jesuits and companion of St. Ignatius Loyola, first brought the Christian faith to Japan on Aug. 15, 1549, and baptized some 700 people during his sojourn here of just over two years.

The Catholics of this land endured periods of great persecution and for 200 years were without a priest, but they continued to believe in Jesus Christ. Still today, the Catholic community remains a tiny flock of some 536,000 Japanese Catholics, plus a slightly higher number of foreign Catholics, mainly migrant workers from the Philippines, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, China and some other places.

For the young Jesuit, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Japan was the land of his dreams. After meeting Pedro Arrupe, S.J., the superior general of the Jesuits and a witness of the Hiroshima bombing, during Father Arrupe’s visit to Argentina in 1967, he requested that he be sent to Japan as a missionary. But young Bergoglio had undergone surgery to remove a cyst from his left lung before joining the Society. Father Arrupe turned down the request because of health concerns. Had Father Arrupe granted this wish, it is unlikely that Francis would now be pope!

Pope Francis first traveled to the Land of the Rising Sun in October 1987, after a gathering of Jesuit procurators in Rome, to visit the Argentinian Jesuits whom he had sent there during his years as provincial in his homeland. One of those Jesuits will translate his speeches from Spanish into Japanese during his visit.

On Sunday, Nov. 24, Pope Francis will travel first to Nagasaki and then to Hiroshima, the two Japanese cities that were destroyed in August 1945 when the United States dropped two atomic bombs that killed between 129,000 and 226,000 people, mostly civilians.

Nagasaki, a city in the island of  Kyushu where St. Francis Xavier arrived, was attacked on August 9,1945, when an American B-29 dropped the atomic bomb named “Fat Man” on the city. Pope Francis will drive to the Atomic Hypocenter Park, where survivors of that frightful event will give him flowers, which he will place on the monument to the city’s victims, then light a candle and pray in silence near the spot where the bomb dropped.

Next, he will deliver a keynote address on nuclear arms. He is expected to strongly condemn not only the threat to use them but also the very possession of such arms, as he did in November 2017. He is also likely to support the Japanese bishops who have been opposing an effort in Japan to amend Article 9 (“the peace clause”) of the constitution that states: “The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.”

Afterward, he will drive two miles to the city’s Nishizaka Hill to pray at the Monument to the 26 Japanese Martyrs, including the country’s first Jesuit, Father Paul Miki, who were crucified there for their faith on Feb. 5, 1597. Later he will celebrate Mass in the city’s baseball stadium for some 25,000 people.

That afternoon, he will fly from Nagasaki to Hiroshima, a city devastated by the first-ever atomic bomb, “Little Boy,” on Aug. 6, 1945. That atomic detonation killed 80,000 immediately and caused the deaths of another 60,000 in the following months.

Two survivors will offer him flowers, which he will place at the memorial. After a silent prayer with other religious leaders, he will give a speech on peace and then depart for a plane ride back to Tokyo.

On Monday morning, Nov. 25, he will travel to Bellesalle Hanzomon, one of the most important congress centers in Tokyo, to greet victims of the “triple disaster” that began with a magnitude 9 earthquake in March 2011 that generated a tsunami and subsequently caused the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. In his speech, he is likely to endorse the Japanese bishops call for the closing of the nation’s nuclear power plants.

Later he will drive to the Imperial Palace for a private visit with Emperor Naruhito, who was proclaimed the 126th Emperor of the Land of the Rising Sun on Oct. 22. As crown prince Emperor Naruhito visited Francis in the Vatican in May 2016. The two men have something in common: Just as Benedict XVI’s resignation opened the door to Francis’ election, so Emperor Akihito’s abdication paved the way for the ascent of his son, Naruhito, to the Chrysanthemum Throne.

After the royal visit, Pope Francis will go to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception for a meeting with young people. That afternoon, he will celebrate Mass in the Tokyo Dome, a stadium that can seat 53,000 people. Iwao Hakamada, an 83-year-old former boxer who spent 48 years on death row after being convicted in 1968 on multiple counts of murder but was released in 2014 thanks to new DNA evidence, has been invited by the Japanese bishops to attend the Mass.

Afterward, Pope Francis will drive to Kantei, the residence of the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who will become the longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s history on Nov. 19. It will be their second meeting since the Japanese leader visited Francis in the Vatican in June 2014. After their private conversation, Francis will address the country’s authorities and the diplomatic corps.

Francis will dedicate his last morning in Japan, Nov. 26, to his fellow Jesuits, at the prestigious Jesuit-run Sophia University, founded by the Society of Jesus in 1913 thereby realizing the centuries’ old dream of St. Francis Xavier. Francis knows this place; he came here in 1987.

He will celebrate Mass in private with his fellow Jesuits and have breakfast with them before visiting the community’s elderly and sick priests. Afterward, he will make an official visit to the university of 13,000 students. He will deliver his last speech there, before driving to the airport for a farewell ceremony and boarding the plane for the long flight back to Rome. En route, he will give an airborne press conference to the 70 members of the international media, including America’s Vatican correspondent, who are accompanying him.

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