BANGKOK — Pope Francis will have an audience with His Majesty the King, meet PM Prayuth Chan-ocha, and holds two masses in Bangkok when he visits the capital next month, Vatican representatives said Wednesday.
The Pope’s two-day itinerary was announced at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Thailand. According to officials, Pope Francis will meet King Vajiralongkorn, government officials, and the Buddhist Patriarch, on Nov. 21. He will also visit a hospital and hold a public mass at the National Stadium on the same day.
On the following day, Pope will hold discussions with Catholic priests and bishops in Thailand before meeting representatives from other Christian denominations. He will then hold another mass – this one for young people – at Assumption Cathedral.
“He has a heart for the youth and is forward-looking, so there is a dedicated mass for the young people,” Monsignor Wissanu Thanya-anan, deputy secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Thailand.
The pope is set to leave Bangkok for Tokyo in the morning of Nov. 23.
But despite the magnitude of the occasion, it appears that Pope Francis will not be entitled to the same level of diplomatic honor granted to the previous papal visit 35 years ago.
His Holiness’ scheduled audience with King Vajiralongkorn is marked as a “private visit” in the announcement rather than an official one as a state guest to His Majesty. Wissanu cited the Pope’s ecclesiastical status when asked why the visit is considered a private affair.
“He is the only one in the world with this special status. He is the head of both the Catholic Church and the head of the Vatican state. So there is an overlapping here,” Wissanu said. “His power is descended from St. Peter, Jesus’ representative. So we call it an apolistic visit.”
Yet when Pope John Paul II visited the kingdom in 1984, he did so as a state guest of Their Majesties King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit.
Chainarong Montheinvicheinchai, a spokesman for the Holy See, said that they could only describe the Pope as a state guest if the Thai government uses such wording first; it appears that the Thai authorities have yet to grant him the honor since the visit was announced nearly a month ago.
In terms of the funding of the current pope’s upcoming visit, Wissanu said it is a “cooperation” between the Thai state and the Vatican.
“A father is visiting his children as a country’s guest,” Wissanu said.
350 Years of Relations
The masses will be held in Spanish, with Thai translation. The National Stadium mass is expected to fit at least 25,000 people, the youth mass a smaller 1,500.
With the exception of the audiences with key officials and the King, the Pope’s visits will be open to the public.
“Understand that the Pope is 83, and has problems walking due to his hip. So he can’t walk very far or go to more far-out places,” Wissanu said.
On Sept. 13, the Apolistic Nuncio of the Holy See announced that Pope Francis will be visiting Thailand from Nov. 20 to 23.
Pope Francis’ visit will also be a chance for him to reunite with his second cousin, Sister Ana Rosa Sivori, a 77-year-old nun who has been working at schools and as a missionary in Thailand since 1966.
The visit coincides with the 350th anniversary of the founding of “Mission de Siam,” the assembly that oversees Roman Catholic missions in the Kingdom, which was established during the Ayutthaya period.
The last pontiff visit to Thailand was in 1984 by Pope John Paul II. After his Thailand visit, Pope Francis is set to go to Tokyo on Nov. 23 to 27.
Thailand is home to a minority population of Catholics numbering 0.58 percent of the population, or 388,468 people with 524 churches, the Catholic Social Communications of Thailand announced in a video at the press conference on Sept. 13.